COOL CLASSES: “Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Representation”

This anthropology course explores the tensions between indigenous peoples and the various political and ideological structures that govern their lives.

Class name: Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Representation”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jacob Culbertson


Here’s what Culbertson has to say about his course:

This class is fundamentally about the tensions between indigenous peoples and the various political and ideological structures that govern their lives. In particular it interrogates that ways that liberal multiculturalism as an ideology and mode of governance can actually limit the lives and projects of indigenous peoples through the very ways that it claims to be honoring and facilitating them (through regimes of rights, public displays of culture, mechanisms for participation in decision-making, and so on). This year, though, the class is specifically focused on encounters between “sacred” landscapes and big infrastructure projects—“sacred” is in quotation marks because one line of thought in this class is about how our analytical concepts may overdetermine our understandings of what landscapes mean in other cultural contexts. So we spend some time looking at contemporary issues like the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline at Standing Rock in the Dakotas or the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is opposed by many Native Hawaiians on their ancestral volcano Mauna Kea. But after that the students pair up and pursue their own research into a similar phenomenon that they choose. The course readings are meant to inform this big research project.

In that regard, this class also teaches social science research methods for grappling with complexity, against the grain of our familiar ways of making sense of what’s at stake when “sacred sites” are destroyed, including unpacking concepts like “nature,” “technology,” “the state,” or “spirituality” to see how those concepts may actually gloss the many non-human actors that comprise such encounters. So beyond learning about indigeneity as a political-ecological phenomenon, I hope the students will learn to think through the materiality of pipes and lenses, spirits and rocks, ancestors and oil, corporations and kinship, etc, and, thus, pay attention to all the translation that is at work in making the lives of other people appear in the terms of our own (as is one way to understand the vocation of anthropology).

I think indigenous peoples have long been romanticized in the American popular imagination and in other settler societies. That romanticism is complicit in colonialism and its ongoing legacy in various ways but also offers little points of connection, to imagine the world differently by asking how we might imagine the work of living with each other and the earth differently. The complexity and ethical mess lie in our tendency to make indigenous peoples then into the “wise elders” who can furnish the solution to any number of problems—that’s a way of thinking with a lot of racist baggage, including in anthropology. But still, the work of learning from and amplifying other ways of living in relation, especially as those emerge in the emergencies to defend ancestral ecologies, can be inspiring. I think this is an intractable problem, to learn how to learn with care. And students bring their own diverse backgrounds and relationships to these histories and ecologies, so this class is always a great opportunity to think through and enact intersectionality, to foreground the different relations and obligations that we embody, as thinkers and makers—to put it crudely, that’s a way of thinking that resonates generatively with many of the indigenous philosophies that we learn about in this class.


See what other courses the Department of Anthropology is offering this semester.

Photo: Thousands gather at San Francisco Civic Center to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota and the massive gathering of Protectors standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Peg Hunter/Flicker

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.