Abstracted anthropology

Gillian Cowlishaw, The University of Sydney

James Clifford Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2013 (376 pp). ISBN 9-78067472-492-1 (paperback) RRP $59.95.

James Clifford came to international fame for his role in the ‘reflexive turn’ in North American anthropology (Clifford & Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988), which drew attention to the writing and interpretive aspects of ethnography. The complex relationship between empirical observation and representations came under scrutiny. Criticism of naïve empiricism was nothing new of course—the necessity for ethnographic self-reflection had been powerfully laid out two decades earlier by George Devereux (Devereux 1967). But illuminating ideas get forgotten, and an enduring danger in the discipline of anthropology is the temptation to see ethnographic writing as a direct reflection of the experience of ‘being there’. Writing Cultures (1986), a collection Clifford co-edited with George Marcus, with its focus on ‘writing up’ field research, was innovative, but also controversial. Emphasis on the ethnographer’s personal involvement encouraged some self-indulgent and superficial writing, but the incorporation into the ethnographic purview of relationships between, for instance, self and other, colonised and coloniser, opened up valuable new comparative questions.

While attention to ethnographic writing has been largely integrated into anthropological research, a deeper enduring problem stems from the ethnographic method of using the self as ‘the instrument of knowing’ a social field (Ortner 1995). Because Clifford analyses representations of social worlds—that is, texts—he evades this problem. But without systematic, committed fieldwork, academic writing about ‘otherness’ risks remaining ethnocentric and narcissistic—dislodging the importance of the specificity, the experience, the challenges of other worlds and particular peoples. When Clifford (1983) wrote on ethnographic authority, he was alert to these difficulties but his focus appears to have changed.

In Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, Clifford commits his analytical energy to historical writings and epistemological constructions, that is, to the changing knowledge, meanings and significance of Indigeneity. The essays focus on the intellectual responses that scholars and Indigenous peoples have made to what I think of as the ‘recognition era’ of the second half of the 20th century as governments tried to become post-colonial. The previous way of life of small, scattered Indigenous minorities is long gone, as is the era of violent repression that saw many groups killed out. The rights of the remaining few to country and culture were gradually recognised by the states in which they survived—primarily the United States in this book. But as Barry Morris (2013) has recently shown for New South Wales, John Gledhill (2012) for Brazil and Mexico, and Nancy Postero (2007) for Bolivia, later neo-liberal government policies and priorities have been undermining or redirecting those earlier gains.

It is worth noting in passing—because many Australian anthropologists work in Melanesia—that where colonial powers retreated leaving some state-like structures and nascent institutions in place, and Indigenous majorities begin to govern themselves, we no longer speak of them as Indigenous and take no responsibility if they become ‘failed states’. Such is the way language deals with history.

Clifford is interested in symbolic struggles.

Clifford is interested in symbolic struggles, and the way past rights over present cultural symbols and expression are being repossessed, recreated and reinterpreted. North American Indians, and interested others, have for decades been adopting new ideas about ‘becoming Indigenous’, sometimes appealing to tribal identities (often as recorded by anthropologists) and sometimes creating new forms of expression based on a great variety of colonial experiences. He does not dwell on the way the law limits them, the state manipulates them and economic conditions shape them. Rather he is ‘listening for other ways of thinking’ (p. 32), defining ‘contingent struggles’ (p. 32), naming the ‘feeling of cultural loss’ (p. 34). But culture here is confined to these symbols; little reference is made to specific ways of being in the world, or to the immediacy of embodied social experience.

The focus is on a great variety of museum, artistic and textual representations, and one gets more sense of an anthropology that is ‘under pressure from the politics of Indian revival’ (p. 161) than of any communal passions at work or the urgency of political struggles. Instead, with enticing detail, Clifford traces very particular events and discussions, such as the shock of a local Alaskan group when an archaeological exhibition contradicted their own established identity. On examining the evidence one woman said in confusion and sadness: ‘I guess we really are Natives after all. I was always told we were Russians’ (p. 226, citing Pullar). Such conflicts as emerge between science and community interests are conceived by Clifford as insoluble moral dilemmas (p. 214).

Clifford’s book is surprisingly free of the kind of public anxiety about Indigeneity that saturates public discourses and lurks at the edges of much academic writing in Australia, sometimes becoming central (Altman & Hinkson 2010; Austin-Broos 2009). The phony ‘policy’ discourses that loom large here are absent from Clifford’s work and he offers little information concerning the material and political conditions of Indigenous peoples that are, anyway, not matters of much public attention in the United States. There, long established Federal recognition of tribal sovereignty in specific areas, while not fixed or uncontentious, produces a different political dynamic from Australia’s equivocal treatment of Indigenous rights. In the Australian literature even rival topics—culture, tradition, self-representation—are coloured by the sense that Aborigines constitute a social problem needing a solution. When Clifford speaks of a ‘solution’ (p. 210) it is to the problem of deciding whether a museum exhibition is ‘interpellation’ or ‘articulation’, but he finds the answer ‘both’ unsatisfactory (p. 210). To me, ‘both’ is the only possible answer. Clifford’s constant attempt to nail down political meanings makes no sense because there is no single ‘we’, for instance, to recognise ‘indigenous becoming’ or to pursue ‘real and alternative paths forward’ (pp. 7–8). To trace these contradictory meanings to their sources in the complex, unstable conditions of particular Indigenous lives would entail difficult ethnographic work, which is not Clifford’s practice. He seldom mentions community life, or how the politics of identity plays out in any particular locality for any particular people.

In the first book of his trilogy on Indigeneity, The Predicament of Culture (1988), Clifford problematised the idea of ‘a culture’ as a stable entity, and showed the painful dilemma of ‘Modern Indians, who spoke in New England-accented English about the Great Spirit, [and] had to convince a white Boston jury of their authenticity’ (1988, p. 8). He explored in sensitive depth the immediacy and insolubility of this specifically Indigenous condition, as have Povinelli (Povinelli 2002) and others in Australian Native Title contexts. The book under review ostensibly takes up the same dilemmas, but we hear of the thoughts of a few, not the feelings of the many. Absent is any account of the legal and bureaucratic predicament Indians are caught in (Nadasdy 2005), or of the way that recognition of hunting rights and preservation of environments can backfire and lead to people being ‘Against Culture’ (Dombrowski 2001). We hear of no explicit political agendas and strategies as detailed in the work of Blaser and Feit (Blaser, Feit & McCrae 2004).

Clifford’s style is literary, and he exhibits a rather lordly lack of interest in actual changes.

Clifford’s style is literary, and he exhibits a rather lordly lack of interest in actual changes in forms of governance, such as the differences between colonial and neo-colonial regimes or changes from liberal to neo-liberal priorities. Indigenous people, he says ‘are accustomed to maneuvering in the cross-currents of colonial and neo-colonial power’ (p. 18). What this means in the immediacy of community life has been discussed by many anthropologists (Sider 1993; Sansom 2001; Austin-Broos 2009; Gibson 2013), but Clifford’s prefers to contemplate what Indigeneity means today, not just to people with Indigenous heritage but to scholars and artists, as well what it could or should mean in the future. Two of the essays suggest contrasts and continuities with Australian conditions.


Epeli Hau’ofa (1939–2009) was ‘an indigenous cosmopolitan visionary’ (p. 195) whose parents were Tongan missionaries in New Guinea. He studied in Canada, gained a doctorate in anthropology at the Australian National University (ANU), and worked at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He is one of those who have ‘a lot to say wherever small nations and societies are struggling for ways to dwell, to find breathing space in global fields of power, somehow on their own terms’ (p. 198). Hau’ofa rejected ‘dependency theory’ and ‘was reacting against quite specific forms of political-economic “realism”’ (p. 202) by imagining a future where a revived Indigenous way of life could at least modify and perhaps evade capitalist relations. Like Noel Pearson in Australia at a later date, Hau’ofa became the focus of considerable criticism, but for opposite reasons—he was accused of romantic nativism, whereas Pearson has been accused of having abandoned native interests and joined the political representatives of economic power. Faced with different conditions, Hau’ofa and Pearson adopted different roles as visionary public intellectuals. Hau’ofa remained an academic and social critic whereas Pearson became a political activist as well as a formidable critic in political debates. Fresh from his graduation in history and law, Pearson plunged into the intense 1990s Native Title negotiations with the Keating Labor government (Pearson 2009). Then, seeking to refashion the Aboriginal political agenda, Pearson turned to the Liberal (conservative) Government for support because it was less bound by a welfare orientation and by romantic awe of Aboriginal traditions (2009, pp. 139–216). Clifford shows no interest in equivalent activists who tend to transcend, or avoid, cultural questions and focus on economic and social conditions.


The major essay, Ishi’s Story (pp. 91–191) is moving, enjoyable and long. It is a detailed history of the changing public meanings of one native Californian, a ‘last of his tribe’ figure. Befriended and named by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1911, Ishi was made famous fifty years later when Kroeber’s second wife Theodora published Ishi in Two Worlds: The Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Kroeber 1961) which became an ‘instant classic’. Ishi’s life before and during his anthropological encounter, his death, his autopsy and his symbolic role in reviving native tribes, all illustrate tensions and disputes in the politics of Indigeneity. Each aspect of Ishi’s story is given its due, from the style of Theodora’s book to disputed claims of tribal affiliations, but while Clifford’s Ishi reflects changing cultural conceptions, these appear to have little significance in the USA’s national discourses, let alone its laws and politics.

Ishi is described as being re-invented during ‘widespread Indian resurgence’ as an Emissary , a Trickster, a Survivor, and a Healer, that is, he has been given varied representations and roles by contemporary artists, authors and organisations in their assertions of local Indian identities (p. 133). Clifford believes that ‘Healing may be Ishi’s most potent and continuing role’ and that ‘Californian Indians have been turning the theme in new directions’ (p. 140). Such sophisticated generalities summarise and pronounce the meaning of interactions, opinions, intentions, but do not delve into what determines the ontological conditions of Indigenous peoples. I believe that Clifford’s desire for intellectual innocence and a unified good leads him to be content with a pervasive moral and political ambiguity. There is something subtly patronising in the account of Ishi’s death (p. 103), while the autopsy that Kroeber tried to stop is said to be ‘a sour note’ (p. 122) in the reputation of anthropology and of Alfred Kroeber.

This is a book for
and about intellectuals—not necessarily scholars.

The account of the return of Ishi’s remains (pp. 123–124) documents bizarre contestations between museums and science on the one hand, and on the other, respect for the wishes of contemporary Indians to own the ashes and preserved brain of their ancestor, or more, to wrest Ishi and all he represents from the anthropologists, the scientists and the museums. But Clifford avoids confessing to his own priorities. He also avoids the discomforts caused by revivalism and popular romanticism as confronted, for instance, by Eric Michaels (1990) in Bad Aboriginal Art. The return of human remains and artefacts from museums to their alleged ‘owners’ is an unequivocal good for Clifford, and no attendant conflicts and difficulties are discussed (Lambert-Pennington 2007). The outright refusal of some Central Australians to accept the return of secret-sacred objects raises more interesting questions about cultural continuity and revivalism (Batty 2007).

Clifford says ‘Ishis’s story becomes an epitome of exile and return, loss and reconnection’, that ‘his story is unfinished’ and that it ‘makes new meanings now in diverse tribal ways’ (p. 141). He only hints that these ‘new meanings’ may also represent continuities with the deeper ontological meanings that Ishi carries in the communities themselves, enacting the fulfilment of social relations that continue after death (pp. 146–148, 152). It is such ontological differences that produce lasting political conflicts in settler colonial contexts (Maddock 1982; Morris 1989; Michaels 1990), but the Indigenous ontology that has been disturbed and displaced during colonisation is not Clifford’s focus (Muecke 2004).


This is a book for and about intellectuals—not necessarily scholars—and their relationships with, and representations of, Indigeneity. It could be compared with some Australian works that explore ‘textual spaces’ (Muecke 1992; Gelder & Jacobs 1998). It is nicely written, with moments of stylishness like, ‘the whole idea of the West, as a kind of historical headquarters, stopped making sense’. But here one must ask: where did this senselessness emerge? While this book refers to the decentring of the West it does not contribute to it. Rather it reassures Western scholars, unlike the recent cri de coeur of American anthropologist Gerald Sider (2014), whose account of the Inuit and Innu echoes John Pilger’s approach in the Australian film Utopia. Pilger and Sider both depict Indigenous history and conditions as unremittingly violent, with monstrous tribes of hungry foreigners killing, exploiting and outwitting the natives who are without any weapons for self-defence or capacity for redress. Such writing appears to revel in exposing the cruelty and destructiveness of ongoing colonial relations. An important truth about colonial violence is thereby turned into a lie about human violence. If monsters exist, so do heroes, and if we narrate the past in moral terms, both human characteristics must be included (Cowlishaw 1999).

Clifford avoids questions of violence and the stark moral and political binaries of more expository ‘political’ works by populating his book with ideas and intellectual puzzles rather than with people. The puzzles are conundrums about the meaning of history and its representations, not questions about who is fighting for their life, or their way of life, or what is to be done, let alone what is the case. Clifford’s questions emerge from cultural studies, history and anthropology, but he ignores the ethnographies of Indigenous resurgence in the United States that depict, for instance, the pincer-like grip of development projects (Blaser, Feit & McCrae 2004), the emergence of Casino Capitalism (Sallaz 2009) and the conflict caused by different Federal and State-based definitions of Tribal Indians (Biolsi 2001).

Clifford’s priorities compare interestingly with those of Australian anthropologist and Indigenous public intellectual Marcia Langton (1993). While Clifford largely relegates racism to a regrettable past (p. 158) Langton highlighted the ongoing power of visual imagery to perpetuate racism. Instead of censoring ‘negative’ images in film, she argued that Aboriginal self-representation, anti-colonial critique and Indigenous access to film production were required to overcome neo-colonial imagery, and it seems she has been proven right. More recently Langton (2012) has expressed enthusiasm for the prosperity offered by mining ventures in remote areas, whereas Clifford’s view is equivocal. He focuses on what development projects mean for collaborative research work (pp. 215–223).

One essay (Ch. 6) discusses Alaskan Indian’s negotiations with transnational corporations where complex disputes led to varied outcomes for different tribes, material that will interest Australian consultant anthropologists. But it also confirms a confusion I found elsewhere in the book when Clifford comments on a liberal policy and adds ‘we would now say neo-liberal’ (p. 217) as if this were a simple change of terminology rather than a major ideological shift towards economism, with significant consequences for Indigenous rights.

Clifford’s priorities compare interestingly with those of Marcia Langton.

Here a contrast can be made with Morris’ recent book documenting the reversal of the liberal, multi-cultural ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, and using specific dramatic events from New South Wales to illustrate and analyse the micro-processes of power that operate through imagery, discourse and informal aspects of legal and governmental practice. A candidly neo-liberal government of the 1980s reversed the political gains Aboriginal people had made in the 1970s, in particular by winding back the NSW Land Right legislation. In the face of rising Aboriginal expectations these reversals led to conflicts, protests and ‘riots’ in the far west, and indirectly to the harsher policing that was revealed in the deaths in custody enquiries and has not abated since.

Clifford touches on history in the South Pacific in some generalising comments that attempt to extend his book’s purview. In considering Maori and Aborigines’ conditions he shows little sense of the obstructions to Native Title in Australia, or the level of biculturalism in New Zealand where the Indigenous population is substantial—fourteen per cent as against 2.5 per cent in Australia. References to some Australian authors cannot disguise the lack of significance Clifford accords to such particulars.

What Clifford misses is a sense of Indigenous political passions in the face of a massive historical injustice that is again tightening its grip. He claims to adopt ‘an ironic, “meta” perspective that leaves space for plural, contradictory, and utopian outcomes’ (p. 9). To me the book demonstrates the dangers of celebrating the human imagination without gaining an understanding of the social context of its functioning. Nowhere in Returns does the reader get a sense of the argumentation and urgency that is so much a part of Indigenous identity politics.

At the heart of Clifford’s extensive array of representations I found a complacent treatise about the history of consciousness of Indigenous Americans and scattered others. The loyalty of this text to Western intellectual hegemony is concealed behind a familiar celebration of the rise of Indigenous cultural consciousness. But in countries when Indigenous demands grew into a sense of entitlement, many states now appear to have lost patience. The increasing market orientation of political forces known as neo-liberalism has shown the unimportance of Indigenous identity politics to a world dominated by commerce.


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Professor Gillian Cowlishaw is Anthropology Research Fellow at The University of Sydney. Her research interprets ethnographic accounts of the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australians in contemporary Australia and in the past. Her books include Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race (2004, Blackwell) and The City’s Outback (2009, UNSW Press).