Why anthropology

I was drawn to anthropology because I’ve always been interested in the human condition in all its varieties. I’ve always wondered what makes humans act the way(s) they do. Also, I’ve always questions a lot of the things my society and culture taught me were “normal” and “natural”, especially those things that justify injustice and oppression. When i took my first anthropology class, I saw that one of the things anthropology does is debunk a lot of those ideas about what is “normal and natural” and forces us to question ourselves. It also allows us to see that there are so many ways of living and that these ways of living all make sense somehow. However, after a couple of years, I learned that anthropology had its downfalls. While there have always been anthropologists who used anthropological knowledge to encourage social justice, there have also been anthropologists who worked in ways that were oppressive and in line with colonial projects. Anthropology has been widely and justly criticised for treating human societies like “lab rats” and, even worse, misrepresenting the very people that had hosted anthropological researchers. This led some of my fellow students to switch to other disciplines that they felt were less problematic. I chose to stick with it and learned about other ways of doing anthropology. I still believe that, if practiced carefully, ethically and in partnership with the groups of people that anthropologists want to work with, this discipline can help shed light on the many barriers to communication that exist in our societies and help spread a more global awareness of the different ways of living and experiencing humanity.

My research philosophy

I believe in doing research that is considered relevant by the community that an anthropologist wishes to work in. In other words, it’s more about working WITH people rather than “studying them.” Obviously, not everyone in every community is going to agree on what is relevant! But if enough members of a group feel that the topic is important, then it is important. This brings up a number of ethical issues since the topic might be controversial within the community which is why it’s important to practice ethical research. When I talk about ethical research, this includes a number of things. First of all, as a researcher, it’s my responsibility to protect the privacy of the people who share their stories and views with me. This is done by promising confidentiality, using pseudonyms and avoiding descriptions that would allow other community members to know who the person is. It also means that if a participant wishes to withdraw some statements that they made, I do not use that information in my research. And of course, if a participant wishes to withdraw their participation, they can do so at any time without any attempts on my part to get them to change their mind. You can see a copy of the consent form that all participants will sign here.

Why am I interested in Native peoples?

I grew up in a small town in New York State. In 4th grade history, I remember that the first chapter in our book was called: “The Indians.” I enjoyed the chapter and then was puzzled when we didn’t really read anything else about “Indians.” I kept asking myself what happened to them after all these Europeans came and started having these turf wars. It was later, in high school, that I got a glimpse of that but of course, it was all framed in terms of a Western point of view. Although I had not yet heard any other view, I understood, in my heart, that the actions of the European colonizers were unfair and inhuman. In 1990, during the Oka crisis, I was 19 and working at a convenience store. I would hear all the negative comments by people picking up the newspapers about the actions of the Mohawks as they defended their rights. I was angry about the comments but didn’t have the language to argue. As I continued my education, I was exposed to other views and knowledge about how colonization happened and how neo-colonialism continues in the form of various “development” projects that interfere with Native people’s ways of life and relationship to the land. It still makes me angry but now I am able to explain things better to my fellow non-Natives. After a few years of college teaching, one thing I’ve realised is that many non-Natives don’t truly understand the depth of the injustices that have been committed against Native peoples. For the most part, they don’t understand that it goes way beyond stealing land. Until recently, so many people did not know about the existence of residential schools, for example. Many people are unaware of the ways that non-Native people benefit from the oppression of Native people. This issue is so important to me that I make it a point to devote a large part of my work to educate my students and anyone who will listen about these realities. I discuss colonization (in Canada and elsewhere) at great length in my anthropology classes, trying to get students to see for themselves what kinds of short and long-term impacts these processes have on people’s lives and cultures. I also bring in guest speakers who can speak first hand about these issues. However, I also make it a point to highlight positive developments through the things people are doing to improve the situations of their communities. This is important because I don’t believe in propagating portraits of Native peoples that make them look like passive victims.

A more personal reason that makes me interested in Native peoples is that, as a child, I heard “rumours” about my great grandmother being Native. It was weird because, while some family members were proud of this, others seemed reluctant to talk about it. And even the ones who were proud were vague about the actual connection between our family and a specific Native society. It is only recently that I found out that my great grandmother was a mix of Innu, Inuit and Irish. While I do not claim that this makes me Native in any way since I did not actually grow up in a Native society, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that this branch of my family is the result of at least one union between a European and a Native ancestor. So I’m at least partly rooted in Northern Quebec, just as I’m partly rooted in France, Ireland and Germany.

Why Chisasibi?

I was in Chisasibi for the first time in 1998 doing research for my master’s degree in anthropology. I was 25 and while I was here I realised that I came here more for personal reasons than for academic reasons. I was running away from my life in the south. I had lost some people that were close to me not long before, including my father, and I was recovering from abusive relationships and alcohol and drug abuse. Spending time here helped me grow as a person and find a sense of peace and resilience that I had lost somewhere along the way. I think it has a lot to do with the generosity and spirit of many of the people that I met here. My hosts let me stay with them for three months although I was a total stranger.  Other people that I met fed me when I was hungry and kept me company when I was lonely. Yet many others shared their experiences of their lives and culture with me. All these people inspired me and taught me about the value of sharing. Overall, the sense of resilience, courage and generosity that I encountered here made me a better person and influenced me to reach out in my own community back home in Montreal.
I’m back now, at least as much for person reasons as for academic reasons. When I think about it, the decision to do a PhD project here was largely an excuse to come and spend a year here so that I can see, really, if this is a place that I would ultimately like to settle down in. 12 years of imaging what it might be like doesn’t compare to doing it. So this time, instead of running away from the south, I ran toward the north.

Why am I interested in the topic of alcohol?

When I was in Chisasibi for the first time in 1998, I spent a lot of time walking around the town. In spite of warnings from well-intentioned people, I did stop to talk to people who were drinking or drunk. I learned that, even in a state of intoxication, there was a sense of spirit that was not completely crushed. I learned that sharing is an important value whether it be sharing material objects or a can of beer. I learned that traditional Eeyou culture was still a topic that inspired passion in many of the people who were drinking. I also learned that many of them were very angry about what had happened to Eeyou lands and culture through the processes of colonization and neo-colonialism.
Why am I personally interested in the topic? I grew up with alcohol abuse in the family. Many of my early memories involve a drunken parent and the smell of alcohol. However, I also grew up with a view that a person who drinks is not evil. My dad never abused me or my mom. He was tender, loving and loved to laugh. He was also very supportive of me in my endeavours. So the messages I was hearing around me about “drunks” were confusing to me because they made it sound like people who drank were kind of like monsters, not to be trusted. People who had turned away from their society. But that’s not what I saw at home. And that’s not what I saw in Chisasibi when I was talking to small groups of young people sharing cans of beer.

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