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October 18, 2004

Positioning (Tina R. Majkowski)

One can never go home, return to the primal scene, to the forgotten moment of our beginnings and authenticity, for there is always something else between�[p]erhaps it is more a question of seeking to be at home here, in the only time�we have.�

Iain Chambers, Border Dialogues: Journeys in Post-Modernity: 104.

I came across this text last fall in preparing to write my final paper for Tavia�s Black Performance: The Black Atlantic class. I was interested in thinking about how the diasporic movement from the Llano Estacado of the Texas panhandle to Lawton, OK (the place I call home) and the subsequent internment at Ft. Sill, OK before placement on reservation lands affected contemporary Kiowa Native American performance practices. Before I had even purchased my ticket home to do research for this paper I had become quite preoccupied with the �between� Chambers evokes in his text. This between signaled for me not only a liminality between New York and Oklahoma in the sense that one never really fully leaves home but also the growing suspicion that after nearly a decade of absence my experience of home would be altered. Of course, I was not forcibly removed from my home. Rather, I chose to leave which, as an extended friend of my family explained to me on my first night in town is worse than if I had never been there in the eyes of some. During my first interview with Kay, one of the organizers of the Kiowa community powwow that would become the focus of my paper, I felt utterly silly trying to conduct an interview. My note pad and tape recorder never made it to the table and the interview became a conversation. Indeed, as Gwaltney discovered decades before me, traditional research methods do not always work when doing ethnography at home. However, it was not simply stodgy research apparatus that got in the way. I was reappearing as a �smarty pants school-girl� who had defected from Oklahoma. I spent a great deal of time explaining why I had come home.

After all, if this place was so dear to me why did I leave. I had to acknowledge my competing identifications before an easy rapport could be established. For example, as I was packing up to head back home to New York, Charles�the host drummer of the powwow�stopped by my house to ask why I was really in town. Charles was a year ahead of me in school and while I knew of him and remember making small talk with him when our mothers visited with one another, we existed in different worlds. My choice of friends (mostly gay and white), my love of anything alterna-teen, my infatuation with �fancy� colleges separated me from those who devotedly wore the badge of Native American affiliation. At the time, I simply accepted that this was the logic of high school cliques; to belong with some always means a disavowal of someone else. He let me know unequivocally that he knew that without my mother�s prompting I would have never learned to dance, or cook fry bread or any of the other traditions that for him was part and parcel of being Native American. He was right to a certain extent. I never really liked going to the Native American youth center and I never did join the Native American society in school. I am not altogether certain that I would enjoy doing such today and, yet this to me is not essential to the experience of Native American heritage. What I said to Charles that afternoon is a blur after almost a year but what I can recall is employing a lot of self-effacing humor and an unapologetic acknowledgement that I didn�t identify solely as Native American. Aside from the Polish half of me that surely was to blame for my clumsiness during my flailing attempts at the jingle dance and pathetic efforts at fluffy fry bread, I was strangely cosmopolitan and extraordinarily homosexual before I ever left for New York. Feeling all flustered from divulging so much personal information, I launched into a frenetic outburst on what it meant for me to be an Indian, and a half-breed at that. As the outburst slowed, I found myself having said things I never had (at least not out loud). Charles had managed to pry loose all of the growing up Indian stories that I deemed too sappy or sad to say out loud. After a beat, I promptly laughed it off and he offered me one of his drums (a small one I could bring back to New York to show my school friends) and an interview. We talked until I had to leave for the airport and two weeks later I, indeed, received the drum along with a note, which among other things said �thank you for sharing some of your life�before I shared mine.�

My hope in offering this narrative is not solely as an exercise in self-reflexive writing styles but, more so, to illustrate my relationship to my �research subjects.� Charles has over the last year imparted to me a wealth of information regarding ritual drumming practices. However, being a �native� anthropologist did not help me in the way that Gwaltney might have expected. Rather, the separation of geography, a queer identification and scholarly ambitions made it necessary for me to explain my objectives many times. I, nevertheless, do not see this as a simple resistance on the part of my �informants�. My first interview with Charles taught me that in order to get a story one must give a story as well (Charles often jokes that he had to teach me that real Indians barter).
Despite the connection of Native American heritage, there is a sense of ambivalence between my �research subjects� and me. Nevertheless, this ambivalence�I would contend�is a site of possibility instead of a pure limitation. First, I do not fool myself into believing that my common identification as Indian makes me more privy to the people I work with. This is not to say that I am not intimately involved with the people and performance practices that will form the subject of my dissertation project; more so, the point here is that this identification does not make me a better conduit or interpreter of Native American culture or persons than someone of non-Indian descent. This intimate involvement does, however, change the shape of our interactions.

The people I work with, regardless of whether they are from my hometown or not, are not the subject of my project. I completely agree with Narayan when she urges us to, �focus our attention on�the quality of relations with the people we seek to represent in our texts� (Narayan, 672). When I sit down with someone to do an interview, I am obviously engaged with my scholarship. However, our intimacy pushes the exchange further. We both tell stories, we both might get nervous at times and I have listened uncomfortably to someone share their grief, hatred and remorse. We sit together and talk. When I come home to analyze my information I have not only the tapes and text but also my bodily and emotive reactions as an index of what indeed transpired. In my experiences thus far I have been amazed at the sheer enormity and depth of affectively registered knowledge.
Neither my scholar self, nor my Indian self perceives the people I work with as Other. Over the summer, I worked with a friend of mine from home, Chris, who is working on his dissertation in the Ethnomusicology department at UCLA. We spent the first half of the summer familiarizing ourselves with each others discipline and projects and the second half, �in the field.� In one particular instance, Chris and I were talking with a Seneca storyteller. Chris was interested in a particular rhythm utilized in one of the stories and was asking specific questions about the evolution of the cadence. The storyteller after taking a pause exclaimed that his best guess was that over the years the cadence had been distorted. I still wonder if the frankness of this answer was, if only partially, influenced by our common identification and intimacy. Over the course of our �tag-team� interviews and performance observations we often wondered how the interaction might have changed if we approached such as non-Indians. Of course, I am hopeful that the people I work with find our mutual positionality as �native� a bit comforting in the sense that they might feel that they do not need perform (and inform) for me an authentic replication of Native-ness.
Still yet, whether in the field or in the classroom, I am aware of my always shifting identifications. Is this indicative of a �halfie� positionality? I agree with Narayan that while this particular positioning highlights the competing identifications of the ethnographer, the symmetry of equal parts does not get at how our identifications are constantly being shuttled between foreground and background. Surely, my Native American attachment shifts into the foreground when I am working on my project. The Polish half, nevertheless, nags at me. This feeling of not-quite-native has offered me a particular point of reference in thinking about the relation between the self and other in that I do not wish to dissolve this difference into a coerced Sameness. I understand on an intimate level a relationship between the self and other that does not end in a cannibalistic devouring of the other. I am made aware by this fragmentation that no knowledge is ever full but, rather, partial and necessarily positioned within the dynamics of my particular subjectivity. I am neither fully inside nor outside the culture I want to know more about. Perhaps, it is productive to think of this positionality as an in-between space. I find this notion of an in-between the perfect way to think about this question of my positionality to those I work with as the narratives and knowledges I gather in this process is the product of the interactions that happen between us.

Supplemental Work Cited
Chambers, Iain. Border Dialogues: Journeys in Post-Modernity. London: Routledge, (1990).

Posted by BKG at October 18, 2004 11:22 AM