The (Dis)combobulated Ethnographer: thoughts on polygyny, sorcery, totemism… and stuff

Flying over camp with my yapa (2008)


Upon reflection I think most ethnographers can identify certain assumptions or ideas about the world that underwent some fundamental kind of ‘shift’ in the course of fieldwork. When I say ‘shift’ here I’m picturing Sahlins’ continuum of forms (of reciprocity) recast in between poles of ‘curious delighted surprise’ and ‘mummy I want to go home now’ with a midpoint somewhere in between ‘uncanny, reflexive recognition’ and ‘productively problematised presuppositions.’

For myself it was evaluative ideas about the nature and dynamics of interpersonal politics that shifted most notably in the course of fieldwork and from this unfurled certain other ways of looking at things. Here I sit, for example, a contrarian feminist who is happy to espouse the value (and speak of the joys, comforts and benefits) of polygyny and social relations radically marked by the gendered division of labour (as it creates the basis for mutual interdependence and reciprocity). One of the more surprising of these small said-self revolutions actually (esp for an atheist), was coming to understand and have a very real sense of how and why sorcery and the social cause of illness make complete and utter sense (in context).

On the flip side there were certain moments when I was kind of reverse-confounded – when I’d pause in wonderment at how anthropologists sometimes manage to make such convoluted, mystified non-actual-sense out of ideas and ‘ways of seeing things’ that are actually quite clear and common sense. I had this sense of befuddlement about the whole anthropological fixation with ‘totemism’, for example.

According to Nichols and Earl (1995) the word ‘totem’ is irregularly derived from the term ototeman (odoodeman) of the Chippewa and cognate Algonquian dialects. The stem of this word is ote (-oode), signifying a consanguine kinship, and the suffix ‘–m’ indicates a possessive relationship. Groups of persons having a blood relationship were or are designated by the name of an animal, which in common usage, came to be called their “dodem.” I note that ‘(n)indoodem’ refers to ‘my clan’ constructed using the prefix ‘in’, which is a possessive marker and the optional ‘(n)’, which is the vocative form of the kin term used when directly addressing someone. To quote Warren:


‘The Algics, as a body, are divided into several grand families or clans, each of which is known and perpetuated by a symbol of some bird, animal, fish, or reptile which they denominate the Totem or Do-daim (as the Ojibways pronounce it). The totem descends invariably in the male line, and intermarriages never take place between persons of the same symbol or family, even should they belong to different and distinct tribes, as they consider one another related by the closest ties of blood and call one another by the nearest terms of consanguinity’ (William W. Warren 1990, p. 12).


It seems not inaccurate to suggest that the ‘ototeman’ (odoodeman) are culturally recognised forms of a collective self (not so different from the way that corporations are considered as ‘bodies’ of legal ‘self’, which I’ve written in brief about before).

‘Yes ok’ – I came to think – ‘totems are “sacred” but sacred in the not-so-unbelievable-sense’ – sacred as it is derived from the Latin root of the term ‘saceres’ from saq– meaning ‘bind, restrict, enclose, protect’ – sacred as in bound, restricted, enclosed and protected as is the body of the self – as is my body, your body, our selves or any selves – totems are aspects or properties of the self and others –  part of who we know and feel ourselves to be.

People get upset if you a burn a flag because they feel that it’s an important part of who they ‘are’ – of who they know and feel themselves to be. It is in this sense, I think, that what anthropologists refer to as ‘totems’ are ‘sacred’ – as qualities or properties of the self. Actually, generally speaking, this is what I think ‘property’ is. To ‘appropriate’ something, writes Gauthier, ‘is to make it one’s own’ –


‘The most complete and literal appropriation is of course appropriation into oneself – the conversion of an external object into one’s body. But not all goods can be appropriated in such a way that they lose their own bodily identity; what is one’s own thus extends beyond one’s body to the physically distinct objects, which constitute property. To appropriate is then to acquire property; the very object of appropriation is individual possession’ (1977, p. 147).


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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, General personal writings

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