Anthropology News Assignment

There’s a lot to be said for taking it easy beneath the palm trees

My first assignment in Africa, many decades ago, turned into a three-year course in social anthropology, writes Menakhem Ben-Yami. My teachers and examiners were the local people (fishermen, government officers, merchants, fish processors, and some others), and I had to pass many, almost daily exams. I went there as a fishing technologist and master fisherman with terms of reference of introducing improved technology, training fishery apprentices, skippering a government boat, etc.

"You think that you’re going to Africa to catch fish, but don’t be surprised, if you find yourself hunting crocodiles," someone with experience told me before I had even left Israel.

Well, I never came near a crocodile, but I soon found myself negotiating local small-scale fishermen’s debts consolidation, and working with and for them to organise a credit scheme and mutual guaranty groups. Not because those were my professional duties and certainly not my fields of knowledge, but because that was what was needed. So, how could I handle all this without any formal education? Well, I came from an Israeli kibbutz, which was handling all of the above.

Some years later, while working at the FAO headquarters, I read a report by a German anthropologist who had been dispatched to some archipelago to help to prepare an artisanal fishery development project. To the horror of the powers-in-charge, he wrote that what was needed in the islands was to drill for clean water and to build school classes.

“That’s not what you were sent for,” the managers told him.

But he was adamant that this was what the fishing communities were asking for, and that they were right.

“We can fish all the fish we need, thank you,” they told him. “But the children get swollen bellies from the water they drink, and they take their school classes under the palm trees".

A long time ago, I read an excellent book written almost 50 years ago by Shepard-Forman, entitled The Raft Fishermen - Tradition and Change in the Brazilian Peasant Economy, (Indiana University Press, 1970).

Forman spent something like a year among Northeast Brazilian fishermen, sailing in janghadas (sort of rafts, something like the Indian kattumaram, rigged with colourful sails), and made a PhD thesis of it. They'd take their janghadas out in the morning with the seaward breeze, and bring them back in the afternoon with the shoreward breeze with a few or more fish. I’d been there later and saw myself – quite a view, as like a flock of giant butterflies they were coming in through the foaming surf. Forman found out why the janghada fishermen turned down well-paid jobs on board motorised boats with ice-boxes on board. Those boats, introduced by some development project, could stay at sea for some days. The fishermen tried for a while, though, but soon returned to their raft sailing.

The entrepreneurs, the development and government’s agents, and everybody who was not fisherman, told Forman that fishermen were a lazy, conservative lot that wouldn’t pick up a progressive opportunity. However, after some time, Forman, the anthropologist, found out that the higher earnings on the motor boats couldn’t compensate for the loss of other values dear to the fishermen, such as time to attend to their coconut trees, leisure time each evening, and nights with their ladies. Those guys had their priorities in order. Like in a plenty of other cases, however, the project people never asked for anthropologists' opinion.

Back in the 1970s, while working at the FAO fisheries department, I believe that I was the first officer to employ anthropologists for reconnaissance before introducing a project. They mostly did a good job at pointing out futility of some, and expedience of other project ideas.

Later, while travelling in a South American country with a young anthropologist, we found out why local fishermen shrugged off convenient bank loans, provided by an external bi-lateral institution. The staff of the local bank through which the funds had been channelled reported that the fishermen were too dumb, stupid, and backward to enjoy modern financing methods.

In fact, however, the bank staff demanded a percentage of the loans, which were too high to make financing attractive to the fishermen, who were no dumb at all, but rather were smart enough to avoid such traps. Incidentally, in this particular case, with the help of the donor's own personnel, we found a way out by by-passing the local bank, and having the project financed directly from abroad, and the fishermen granted loans directly from the project, managed by foreign, well-paid and honest staff.

Such experiences brought me to believe that anthropology may and should be employed also as an applied science, in spite of much of the anthropological stuff that to me was esoteric and of little help to a field activist, or, as some call them, agents-of-change.

Eventually, I found that there are tasks you need a sociologist for, and tasks for an anthropologist. A sociologist would go to a community and produce a report on the local means of production, the number and character of the local households, how they make their living and who and how many of the people work, how much do they make, etc. A good one would also investigate and describe in socio-economic terms intra-community stratification – the haves and the have-nots, their inter-relations, and produce also plenty of useful statistical, averaging figures.

A socio-anthropologist would go to a community and investigate why things are as they are, describe the local social norms, and cultural characteristics that are important to know before you go there with any human-engineering notions.

Typically, fishery management is human engineering, as one cannot manage fish in the sea. All one can manage is fishing people. For references, read J. Russ McGoodwin's classic book Crisis in the World Fisheries. Just the title is a misnomer: should be Crisis in the World Fisheries Management.

One could wonder how little the basics of small-scale fishermen's lives have changed with time. Well, maybe in terms of technology and marketing systems things have progressed, but one would need a socio-anthropologist to find out and understand who has benefitted and in what way – and who was the loser, and why.

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Katherine Dunham Exhibit, Lovejoy Library - Fall, 2017

Dr. Cory Willmott curated an exhibit on Katherine Dunham at SIUE's Lovejoy Library in fall of 2017. In this video, she hosts a talk by Dr. Eugene Redmond about his recollections of Katherine Dunham's activism in East St. Louis in the late 1960s. More on Dunham to come when the exhibit opens at the East St. Louis Center in April, 2018.

Joanne Shenandoah and Doug George Visit SIUe - Oct. 7-9, 2017

The SIUe Native Studies program partnered with SIUE’s Arts & Issues series to bring Joanne Shenandoah (Oneida Iroquois) and Doug George-Kanentiio (Mohawk Iroquois) to campus. Joanne is a Grammy award-winning singer, recording artist, and educator. Her concert at the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability (the Dome) was sold out on Saturday night. Doug is an award-winning native journalist, editor, and author. He gave a lecture at the Dome Monday night on Aboriginal Law and Justice. Doug and Joanne also led an observance of Columbus Day honoring indigenous peoples Sunday at Cahokia Mounds.

We thank Joanne and Doug for sharing their voices with us! We also thank our partners in Native American Studies - Anthropology, Historical Studies, and Philosophy - and the College of Arts and Sciences, Arts & Issues, and Cahokia Mounds for their support in making this visit possible. And thanks to Ben Lowder for taking the photo below of Joanne's concert at the Dome!

Anthropology Alumna, Susie Oettle, is Runner-up in the Midwest Archaeological Conference Student Paper Competition - Oct. 8, 2016

Susie Oettle presented her paper, "Jane, His Wife: An Analysis of Spouses' Gravestones in a Rural Midwestern Cemetery," at the Midwest Archaeological Conference in Iowa City, Iowa, winning runner-up in the MAC student paper competition. This was a much abridged version of her anthropology senior project, with which Susie won the Oustanding Senior Project award in May of 2016. Susie is now working toward a master's degree in Geography at SIUE.

Archaeology Field School in the news: Jacksonville Journal Courier - June 29, 2016

"Digging up history" at

Jay Kemp, Anthropology Major and Native American Studies Minor, Wins Phi Kappa Phi Undergraduate Scholarship - April 6, 2015

Jay Kemp is the winner of the 2015 Phi Kappa Phi Undergraduate Scholarship.  This award is for outstanding juniors or seniors. Jay received a scholarship of $1500 to be applied to undergraduate or graduate tuition/fees at SIUE.

Alex Taitt, Anthropology Major, Wins NSF Grant and URCA Fellowship for her Study of Anishinaabe Language and Arts
- June 25, 2014

Alexandra Taitt combined her Anthropology and Computer Science majors to design a senior project in which she is collaborating with Native American (Anishinaabe, AKA Chippewa) language instructors and artists to develop audio/visual language instruction materials that will be deployed through GRASAC, an international research network that produces a database of Great Lakes indigenous peoples’ cultural materials called the “GKS.” Following an URCA Assistantship in the IRIS Center with Dr. Kristine Hildebrandt, and a Museum Internship in the Ethnology Museum Laboratory and the Missouri History Museum with Drs. Cory Willmott and Adriana Greci Green, Ms. Taitt won support for her novel research plan from an NSF-REU grant (attached to Dr. Hildebrandt’s NSF grant) and SIUE’s URCA Associate program.

In June 2014, Ms. Taitt’s NSF grant funded two weeks working with Mary Ann Corbiere (Anishinaabe Language Professor, University of Sudbury), Alan Corbiere (Language Coordinator, Lakeview School, M’Cheeging First Nation), Mary Pheasant (Laurentian University) and Wanda Ozawanimke (Anishinaabe beadwork artist) to record interviews in the Anishinaabe language about beadwork. Culminating Ms. Taitt’s research in Ontario, Canada, she presented a paper at the GRASAC conference based on her Museum Internship, titled, “Uses and Abuses of Audio Recorded Collaborative Research for the GKS.

During Fall 2014 and Spring 2015, Ms. Taitt will conduct her senior project in anthropology supported by her URCA Fellowship. During this phase of the project, she will analyze the Anishinaabe language interviews and design a method to produce them as language instructional materials on the GKS database.

Click here for information on, and program for, the GRASAC conference:

This Week in CAS news story available here.

Anthropology Alumna, Kaitlin Roberts, Wins Illinois Archaeological Survey’s Student Paper Award - October 20, 2014

Kaitlin Roberts, Anthropology graduate in 2014, won the Jeannette E. Stephens Student Paper Award 2014 for her research paper “The Gehring Site: A Ceramic Analysis.”

Here is the link to the This Week in CAS news story:

The article can also be viewed in pdf form here.

Archaeology Day at Cahokia Mounds - August 2, 2014

SIUE Anthropology Alumna Lori Belknap, Executive Director of Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, wasa field supervisor ofexcavations for Archaeology Day at Cahokia Mounds on August 2, 2014. She was joined in the field by SIUE Anthropology Alumni Angela Cooper,who also supervised excavations on Archaeology Day,Greg Guntren, Erin Marks Guntren, and Melody Chester.

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