Fieldwork today or cultural theft ? (part 4)

Neil Alasdair McEwan ap435 at
Fri Feb 7 00:08:43 UTC 1997

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On Thu, 6 Feb 1997, Peter Keegan wrote:

> kia ora

     Feasgar math.  I should explain before saying anything that I'm not
     a professional linguist or even a serious hobbyist, but a G.dhlig (Scots
     Gaelic) learner with an interest in the future of endangered languages
     generally.  Since I'm outside the academic system, I don't claim for my
     opinions the weight of anything but personal conviction.  I hope this is
     not too much of an intrusion.  I just wanted to ask some questions that
     come to mind about what you've said previously:

          Why would it be the case that a Maori is always the most qualified
	  person to talk about Maori?  I don't think anyone would confuse
	  linguistic knowledge about a language with a deep spiritual
	  attachment to
	  that language; that being the case, and seeing that
	  communities by definition cannot produce as many professionals in a
	  field as the dominant culture can, is it impossible that a
	  language-speaker might be the best authority on certain aspects of
	  language, or that even if he is not the best authority he might be
	  to explain these matters to the best of his ability to his peers?  I
	  apologize for embedding too many questions in this sentence, I'm
	  getting ahead of myself.  What I mean to say is, if it is granted
	  that the
	  spiritual leadership behind a language tradition will invariably
	  come from
	  within that community, for instance from bards or story-tellers or
	  and if in this way it is ensured that knowledge of and about the
	  language is
	  handed down directly from one generation to the next without outside
	  "interference", is there really any harm in the much more rarified
	  academic study of the language being carried out by outsiders, which
	  often unlikely to have much of an impact within the community
	  anyway?  How
	  much damage can they actually do?  And how does the outside scholar
	  the right to study the language?  Who gets to grant permission for
	  things, and in what way would this be different than expecting
	  anyone at
	  all to get permission to study aspects of any culture other than
	  their own?
	  I know a person deeply devoted to the G.dhlig language and culture
	  ancestry is Chinese, for example -- was it presumptuous for him to
	  the language, and to claim authority in speaking about it?  Looking
	  back I
	  see that I've asked many questions, and I hope that these do not
	  strike you
	  as being in any way hectoring -- I'm just putting down questions as
	  come to me.  I'm sincerely interested in what a professional
	  in these matters would be.

	  beannachd leat,

	  Neil A. McEwan

> It seems a number of linguists have "confessed" is this discussion to using
> their hard won research on indigenous/endangered languages to gain
> International kudos via the conference scene. What follows is an
> "indigenous prospective" on how exploitative/degrading  this activity
> really is. If you are offended easily or upset by my earlier postings -
> read on own at your risk -
> About 3 years ago New Zealand's Maori Language Commissioner, Professor
> Timoti Karetu (a Maori) attended a conference on endangered languages in
> Israel. He was astonished to find 2 other people (I think both North
> Americans) also intended to talk about the Kohanga Reo (Maori language
> early childhood schools) movement here in New Zealand.
> When these 2 individuals found that a "Maori" from New Zealand was present,
> 1 suddenly left the conference, the other promptly changed the topic of her
> paper. Quite frankly, we Maori were disgusted and offended that two-Non
> Maori (I think both North Americans) would even dare to give papers on
> topics they know little about.  Surely, we Maori are better informed to
> talk about
> the Kohanga Reo movement than Non-Maori.
> At the same conference there were white Australians talking about the
> situation of Australian Aboriginal languages. Who gave the white
> Australians this right ?
> Why where there no Australian Aboriginals at that conference? Do you think
> educated Australian Aboriginals like having white Australians telling the
> world about their languages and cultures? (perhaps this should read
> misrepresenting their languages and cultures !)
> (p.s. I am deeply saddened by personal email from Australians outlining how
> institutional racism and hatred towards Australian Aboriginals is still
> rampant in 1997)
> Some people have mentioned that they are training indigenous linguists, and
> I
> very much commend this activity, but will these trainers ever resign or
> step side
> from a high paying university position to allow an indigenous
> linguist/academic
>  to take their rightful position ?
> Peter Keegan
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