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Brody’s Study of Indians in British Columbia Review Essay

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2021

Introduction

To Hugh Brody, true understanding of a particular race or community could be achieved only through ethnographic studies. He has been able to give a true account of Indians in northeastern British Columbia only because of the fact that he lived as one of them, being part of their lives and daily practices for a considerable length of time. Most anthropological researches that were done in the past consisted of a mere recording of facts. Researchers and their assistants collected these facts after talking to the group of people they needed to research on. These researches therefore lacked the authenticity of studies done by anthropologists like Brody who insisted that in order to effectively represent the lives of any group of people, being one with the community was absolutely vital.

Development, at what cost?

The word ‘development’ has come to mean various things for various groups of people. For those living on the fringes of poverty, development would mean financial stability; for those who belong to an economically healthy nation, development would mean the spread of its reach into lands that were hitherto inaccessible. Though development is always thought of in a very positive way, there are many situations where the purpose of development has been defeated because of what has really taken place. For instance, there is always controversy when people from one country try to help the people of another ‘develop’ without giving much thought to their existing ways of life. Every race of people has traditions and customs that are intrinsic to their race. This is an aspect that many people from the developed world tend to forget. With the all-consuming desire to get a race of people on to the road of development, there is a complete wiping away of customs, traditions and simple living that have been the mainstay of the community till now. Brody is fully aware of the lengths to which the ‘white man’ will go in order to ensure ‘development’ of a particular area. He refers to the exploitation of people and land as “… are the most established carcinoma of the North American imagination” (Brody, 1997).

Brody’s methodology

As a research method, “participant observation” is probably the best way to get a true account of the lives of a particular group of people. Observation could be varied – one could just eavesdrop or actually be a part of the life of the group to be observed. Therefore a holistic approach taken by observers has contributed a great deal to ethnography (Barnard et al. 2004).

This is the method that Brody has used extensively in his research done on Indians living in British Columbia. In his book, Maps and Dreams, Brody has shown how living in British Columbia could be for people who are natives of the place. Living in constant doubt with regard to the existence of their culture, this Indian community presented its authentic face to Brody who lived the typical life of an Indian for nearly eighteen months. Hunting, trapping beavers, drinking and socializing, visiting camps and trap lines, moving around on horseback and on foot – Brody did it all, in an effort to understand the psyche of a people trying their best to hold on to tradition. As the name of the book suggests, there is an emphasis on the dreams of the group of Indians Brody lived with. The dreams were more like maps and indicators of what they should do and where they should go in search of either food or safe places. Brody displays an amazing insight into this phenomenon, mainly because of the research methodology he has used, which is an ethnographic viewpoint.

What is also relevant here is the contrast between the dreams of the Indians and the ‘developmental’ dreams of the whites. For the Indians, their wants and needs are a bare minimum when compared with the so called visionary expansion plans of the whites. Brody is categorical in his views of these plans; he has no illusions about the help that the white community is prepared to give the Indians. There is no doubt that this is being done to ensure a proliferation of their own vested interests rather than a true empathy for the Indian community.

The ‘emic’ perspective in Brody’s research

The advantages of doing anthropological research with an ‘emic’ perspective have been demonstrated with a lot of skill in Brody’s book. Emic perspectives refer to a view obtained by an anthropologist who observes a group from within. This is a perspective that is presented in contrast with the commonly used etic view. “In many cases we need to understand how another culture models the environment in order to fully understand individual and group behavior within the subject culture.” (University of West Florida, 2007) To put in very succinctly, different people view happenings in different ways – perceptions are different, leading therefore to varied assumptions and results (Pike, 2007). Brody has used the emic perspective to its fullest possible extent to know how and why Indians in British Columbia clung to their past with tenacity, in the face of white invasive practices that kept occurring in the name of development.

Humanistic vs. scientific approach

The field of anthropology has always been a ground for debate vis-à-vis the research approaches used by researchers in cross-cultural studies. To say that a humanistic approach is better than a scientific one, may be too simplistic a statement to make. There are certain fundamental principles in both perspectives that work well for particular cases. A cursory knowledge of both would indicate that scientific perspectives in anthropology are at total disparity with humanistic ones; delving into the situation will reveal that the veracity of this statement and the extent of its application are rather questionable.

This is why established anthropologists like Brody aver that no single perspective can be used in a study to ensure genuine results. It is not possible therefore for any study to be carried out with a pure scientific or pure humanistic approach. What is needed is a conscious via-media that can put together all relevant part of the study to form a cohesive whole. As Professor Lett says in his essay on Scientific Anthropology,”… science is anything but opposed to the moral values of humanism.” There are many who believe that a pure scientific view is one that is truly objective; one that cannot be altered on the basis of sentiments and emotions. This is true only to a certain extent. When one considers freedom of thought and expression, which are values that are intrinsic to any race of people, scientific perspectives do take a back seat.

Brody has skillfully made use of both perspectives – scientific and humanistic – in this study to ensure that a balanced view of the lives of Indians living in British Columbia could be presented in as unbiased a way as possible. Most anthropological research and research methodologies used do fall into the trap of being biased in some way or the other. Brody has kept in mind the fact that science cannot exist on its own without humanism and vice versa. With a great respect for the freedom of the individual, Brody has done all in his power as an anthropologist to present to the world an unbiased account of a people who are truly comfortable with their way of life despite the general belief of others who think they are not.

References

  1. Barnard, A., Burgess, T. & Kirby, M. (2004). Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Brody, H. (1997). Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Illinois: Waveland Press.
  3. Lett, J. (1996). Scientific Anthropology. In D. Levinson and M. Ember. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (pp. 1141-1148). New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  4. Pike, K. (2007). A Stereoscopic Window On The World: Two Views of Swaying Branches.
  5. University of West Florida (2007). Linguistic Ethnography, and Cultural Ecology.
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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Brody’s Study of Indians in British Columbia Review'. 12 September.

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