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Chinook Nation (You CAN Help!)

23 Feb

Making the world a better place sounds lofty, but can be pursued every day with simple actions. In this case, you can quickly and easily help address a historical injustice by simply signing a petition.

I had the chance to meet and talk with Tony Johnson, Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, at the recent Society for Cross-Cultural Research meetings in Portland, Oregon. Since then, I have learned a bit more about the Chinook Nation, their justified grievances, and continuing efforts to be federally recognized.

Attempts to gain such recognition reveal a history of broken treaties, misunderstandings, and debate about the specific criteria for federal recognition as a tribe. After reviewing these criteria, the outgoing Clinton administration granted the Chinook Indian Nation federal recognition. Unfortunately, this decision was reversed by the Bush administration just 18 months later.

Now, Tony and others are appealing to the Obama administration to review federal recognition criteria and clarify the legal standing of the Chinook. Please visit the Chinook Nation link above for more information about what you can do to help.

I have also started a petition at to help draw attention to this issue. The petition must have 150 signatures to become searchable on the petition site, a necessary step if the petition is going to have any hope of reaching the 100,000 signatures necessary to be reviewed by presidential staff.

Please review and sign the petition here, and share widely so we can (minimally) reach that first threshold. Imagine how good it will feel to know that you have helped bring about this change – all you have to do is sign your name. Thanks!

Land of the Beer Tank

25 Jun

Walking into my local grocery store, I noticed a large tube sticking out of a beer display. Looking at the display from the side, I realized what it was: a tank constructed out of Bud and Bud Lite.

Beer Tank

Archaeologists reconstruct past cultural systems based on the material remains they leave behind. I wonder what archaeologists of the future would interpret about the 2014 United States based on the beer tank! This monument to alcohol, commercialism, and militarism is begging for a cultural analysis (and I say this as a proud American).


Guess who’s coming to dinner? Nine billion of your closest friends.

31 May

Humans eat, poop, and die just like all other animals. How’s that for a Saturday morning happy thought? All of the other wonders that “make us human” begin there: culture, art, religion, language, science, etc. You can’t travel to the stars on an empty tummy, so like the humble clam or hummingbird, we must consume energy in order to thrive and, most importantly, reproduce.


You Are Here.

You Are Here.


And, over the last 10,000 or so years, we’ve gotten exceedingly good at transforming nature to meet our caloric needs. So good that we practically can’t stop reproducing! For better or worse, we have a lot of people to feed. We’re likely going to need all of the ingenuity, intelligence, and experimentation that led us into this mess to get back out of it. How do we sustainably feed 9 billion people by the year 2050? The National Geographic Society is working on it, and you can help. Here’s their fundraising mailer:


“When I say food, what do you think of? Your favorite comfort food? Social gatherings? Family traditions? Food is such a central part of our lives. It’s also a critical issue facing our planet.

When we think of environmental threats, we tend to think of energy use, water and air pollution, or industrial waste. But the truth is, our growing need for food and the environmental challenges posed by agriculture are some of the biggest challenges we need to address.

This year, National Geographic is exploring how we can feed two billion more people by 2050 without harming the planet. You can support National Geographic’s programs, including our work toward finding better ways to produce and consume food in ways that don’t harm the planet…

Here’s a sample of the kind of work our grantees are doing, supported by your donation:

  • Helping farmers develop tools for designing sustainable agricultural systems based on the diversity and stability of local ecosystems, in places like Malawi, where agriculture has been winnowed down to the production of primarily one crop – corn.
  • Discovering, recording, and using traditional knowledge about medicinal and edible plants from cultures as diverse as the Sioux in South Dakota and native Jamaicans in the bio-diverse parish of Portland.
  • Examining the trade-offs of organic farming versus genetically modified crops for farmers and the environment in places like India.

Your gift will help us continue National Geographic’s programs, including exploring ways to double the availability of food to feed a predicted population of nine billion, while simultaneously cutting the environmental harms caused by agriculture.

Discovering low-input, high-output food cultivation practices and disseminating them to small farmers across the planet will both reduce agriculture’s significant contribution to climate change and provide a healthier diet for millions of people.

It will also add to our knowledge about how what we put into our bodies contributes to how we feel and function on a daily basis, and ultimately the length of our life” (


If you would like to contribute to National Geographic’s research, here is a link to make a donation. Thanks!

Understanding Denial

25 Apr



The concepts of cultural relativism and an emic perspective are basic to cultural anthropology. There are plenty of subtly different definitions of these terms. Here are two I particularly like:


Cultural relativism: Understanding another culture in its own terms sympathetically enough that the culture appears to be a coherent and meaningful design for living (Schultz and Lavenda 2014).

Emic: An approach to gathering data that investigates how local people think and how they understand the world (Guest 2014).


Both require understanding and are essential skills for any human in the 21st Century. These skills come to some of us more naturally than others. I’m fairly open-minded by nature, and have had plenty of training, but had occasionally overwhelming culture shock when working in the Central African Republic. I had to consciously practice cultural relativism – and still do sometimes. A great way to practice is by intentionally exposing yourself to beliefs and behaviors that seem inexplicable or nonsensical. And there are plenty to choose from.


What’s most surprising is that some of the behaviors I have the hardest time wrapping my head around occur within my own culture! Maybe this is because we expect far away cultures to be strange and those close-to-home to be familiar. Maybe the “weirdness” is more notable when it occurs in our own backyards.


All anthropologists have weak points in their relativistic armor. Mine are 1) a strong sense of morality, which makes it especially hard for me to objectively interpret practices that conflict with it and 2) what can be loosely lumped together as denialism: clinging to widely-discredited, counter-factual beliefs or opinions in the face of “beyond the shadow of a doubt” evidence. (Of course, if I was suffering from severe denial, I wouldn’t know it!).


Well-documented perspectives that can classified as denialism are: creationism, climate change denial, people who think the moon landing was a hoax, flat earthers, “birthers,” anti-vaxxers, people who doubt links between smoking and cancer or HIV and AIDS, holocaust deniers, 9/11 truthers, etc. We’ve all met people who are dogmatic about absurdities and seemingly impervious to contradictory evidence. And it’s very easy to come up with rational explanations for their irrationality. Still, I’ve never felt like I really understood where they’re coming from.


Irrationality in response to emotional trauma is easy to understand. In his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, author Michael Specter notes: “We have all been in denial at some point in our lives; faced with truths too painful to accept, rejection often seems the only way to cope. Under those circumstances, facts, no matter how detailed or irrefutable, rarely make a difference” (2009:3). Yet some forms of denial, like “moon landing skeptics,” aren’t particularly tied to strong negative emotions or personal suffering.


Undoubtedly, tons of psychological and sociological studies have been conducted on this phenomenon, and I’m simply unaware of them. I would speculate that a denialist’s personal identity gets inseparably intertwined with his or her “strange” beliefs; to abandon the belief would be to lose his or her sense of purpose or self – but I’m way beyond my field of expertise with this speculation.


Donald Prothero’s Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future is an excellent overview of the many forms of American denialism. Michael Shermer’s foreword to Prothero’s book includes the best explanation of the process of denialist reasoning I know of:

“Denialism is typically driven by ideology, politics, or religious beliefs, in which the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence for or against it. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to assure that the belief is always supported” (Prothero 2013:xiii).


Shermer describes a pretty sophisticated and self-reinforcing system of denial. As someone who values empirical evidence above all else, it’s hard to accept this perversion of the scientific method. For me, reliable facts are the objective – even if they only lead to an ambiguous or tentative conclusion. For a denialist, sustaining a preconceived “conclusion” is the objective – even if evidence must be ignored or forced through the narrow funnel of belief. I guess I can understand that, even as I fervently disagree with it.


Interestingly, both books cited above include “Threaten” in their titles. Do you see denialism as a threat or harmless oddity?

Happy Easter (Island)

20 Apr

Okay, it’s a pretty tenuous link between the holiday many of you are probably celebrating and Easter Island. But it is a good excuse for me to learn a little bit more about a place that I’ve always found fascinating. Obviously, the famous moai statues are the most striking feature of the island to an archaeologist (I first saw them in a comic book as a child and only later learned that they’re real!). They’re probably some of the most recognizable prehistoric monuments in the world, notable for their stylized faces and massive size. I suppose there’s some “mystery” about their construction (safe to say, not aliens).


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia


But, backing up a bit, “Easter” seems like an odd place name for ancient Polynesian peoples. And, of course, current residents call it Rapa Nui. There’s some ambiguity about its previous name and meaning. A Dutch explorer sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722 and…why does no one ever ask local people what they call their land?…dubbed it Easter Island.


Jared Diamond’s account of Easter Island’s collapse (2004) is a powerful cautionary tale. The ecological and cultural issues faced by the island today are a continuation of those identified by Diamond, and a microcosm of global issues. Gideon Long of BBC News provides an excellent summary of the troubles of sustaining a small, remote island population. Easter Island is both blessed and cursed by the massive tourist interest in its sites. I’m personally stretched between wanting to see moai before I die and not wanting to contribute to the island’s tourist-related problems. According to National Geographic, January-March is the peak tourist season, so, if I’m ever fortunate enough to visit, it will probably be another time of year.


Have any readers ever visited Easter Island? Please share your stories in the comments!

Your Inner Fish Tonight

9 Apr

A three-part documentary called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name begins tonight on PBS (Check local listings). Must-See TV for anyone interested in vertebrate evolution!


Nobu Tamura (

Nobu Tamura (

The Archaeological Record: Making Things Right

7 Apr

I came across a couple of news articles over the weekend that are worlds apart, but with a similar theme: damage done to the archaeological record and what’s being done to mitigate the harm. Both reflect cooperative efforts to make things right.


Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Wikipedia).

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu (Wikipedia).


The first story involves the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa. Many shrines, dating to the 14th and 15th Centuries AD, were destroyed by Islamic militants who view local Sufi practices as sacrilegious. It’s a tragic, and all-too-common, pattern; erasing the past in an attempt to make way for a new view of the future. I can think of hundreds of examples of such desecration occurring throughout history and prehistory. And there are many more examples we’ll never know about because the “visionaries” were so thorough in their destruction. In Timbuktu, hope arises as a result of committed local and international efforts to rebuild, made easier by the fact that Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The second story comes all the way from the U.S. state of Indiana. The FBI uncovered thousands of artifacts in the private collection of a 91-year-old man, many of them illegally acquired from around the globe. Anthropologist Larry Zimmerman from Indiana University -Purdue University Indianapolis said: “I have never seen a collection like this in my life except at some of the largest museums.” The LA Times is running the story, by Paresh Dave, under the headline “Indiana Jones? FBI finds thousands of artifacts in 91-year old’s home.” Archaeology. State of Indiana. I guess that headline writes itself… I’d call it Indiana Looter’s Last Crusade, myself! But here’s the bright spot, the man is cooperating in a massive effort to repatriate as many artifacts as possible. Dr. Jones would approve of this part since these cultural items belong in a museum!