Romancing the Anthropologist

It can only be with sadness that I read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ epilogue—written in 1989—to The Harmless People, in which she states that the Bushman way of life is no more, not only for the sake of the people of themselves but because her story appears to contradict Bradford Keeney’s account of going among the Bushman people in the 1990s, dancing with them somewhat as she describes them dancing, becoming one of their shamans—claiming a role in Bushman society she does not mention—and finding among their practices the shaking he sees as a path to God.[1] I have taken a class from Keeney at California Institute of Integral Studies, and earned Ph.D. level credit—I received an A for the course—from him, though I was bewildered from the beginning of his class to the end. In fact, it was my cat who got me through that class, and whom Keeney claimed at one point was teaching that class; it was a very strange class.[2]

Thomas, alas, seems much more credible though I have no way of disproving Keeney’s account. Keeney left C.I.I.S. abruptly at the beginning of Spring semester 2010, for reasons which were not made public.

The Gikwe people, whom Thomas visited in the first half of her book, appear to exemplify a notion of ecological determinism described by Roy Ellen, whereas the Kung people, whom Thomas described in the second half, appear to exemplify possibilism.[3] Of possibilism, Robert Harms writes, “The possibilist approach has been criticized as a crude type of analysis that discovers the obvious, but the obvious is nevertheless a useful starting point.”[4] Harms explains how the Nunu people along what is now called the Congo river occupied multiple ecosystems and had to adapt their culture according to the constraints of each. For his own approach, he chooses game theory which seems perhaps too easily applicable to particular cultures but I fear his description of the Nunu people may resonate because, as he writes in his preface, he “began to realize that the Nunu settlers on the floodplain of the Zaire had a great deal in common with our own pioneer forebearers in the United States.”[5] This attracted considerable controversy amongst my fellow students in class who wondered if Harms might have tailored his observations to fit a theory.[6] I will suggest an additional hazard, that the employment of particular theoretical lenses may afflict readers as well as authors. In my own reading of Harms, I found numerous common elements with contemporary U.S. culture, and while a hierarchical materialist society which seems rigged to drive the less fortunate into frontiers (which no longer exist for the U.S.) is certainly one cultural model, indeed that has been developed in the West since the Protestant Reformation,[7] I share my fellow students’ surprise at finding it in the wetlands of the Congo River. I cannot help but suspect that the story of the Nunu should be investigated and reported by someone from another cultural paradigm, for we may fail to notice differences which may be important and we may be too quick to generalize from our own cultural experiences to the Nunu, both as researchers and as academics reviewing Harms’ work.

  1. [1]Bradford Keeney, Bushman Shaman (Rochester, VT: Destiny, 2005); Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People (New York: Vintage, 1989).
  2. [2]Bradford Keeney, Introduction to Transformative Studies, California Institute of Integral Studies, Fall 2009.
  3. [3]Roy Ellen, Environment, Subsistence and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982).
  4. [4]Robert Harms, Games Against Nature (New York: Cambridge University, 1987), 246.
  5. [5]Harms, viii.
  6. [6]Ecology and Culture, California Institute of Integral Studies, March 8, 2011.
  7. [7]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony, 1991).

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