Going Native Conference: A look back

Looking Back

by Amy Shuman

On May 20-22, 1999, the Center for Folklore Studies hosted "Going Native: Recruitment, Conversion, and Identification in Cultural Research."

When we designed the Going Native conference, we imagined many intersecting areas of inquiry, and we were not disappointed. As the subtitle for the conference indicated, we invited people to consider questions of recruitment, conversion, and identification in their relationships with the people they study. Going Native opened up conversations about many dichotomies at the heart of not only folkloristics, but cultural studies more generally, including native/foreigner, insider/outsider, history from above/history from below/history on the ground, bottom up voluntarism/top down experts, and local/global, to name a few. As is by now common in cultural studies research, the conversations at the conference served to break down and further complicate the too easy binary oppositions. At the very least, the local approach of folkloristics was a constant reminder that particular cultural and historical factors always complicate the problem of the outsider (academic, expert, privileged) academic who seeks to understand, translate, and describe native, other, local cultural practices.

The Going Native conference was held at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University and coincided with a major exhibit titled "Self-Taught Art." Folklorists, accustomed to questioning the categories of folk art, vernacular arts, outsider arts, and self-taught art, had the opportunity to carry their conversations out of the conference rooms and into the gallery. While it would be tempting to summarize all of the sessions, we only have space here to refer to a few comments and to the keynote addresses. All sessions were videotaped, and those tapes are available in the Folklore Archive.

In one of many moments of the local interrupting academic categories, Henry Glassie, one of the keynote speakers, observed that for the potters he studied in Turkey, art is not so much self-taught as stolen. The Turkish word for "glaze" is, in fact, the same as that for "stolen." Glassie was one of many speakers who proposed a model that addressed the complexity of a local perspective. Many presenters suggested that we understand the theories and models for globalism developed and used by the people we study. Several panels focused on place, from East Asia to Appalachia; the Appalachian panel, Reclaiming Appalachia, described a new model for ethnographic research in which ethnographic knowledge provides a means to understand multiple globalisms, competing ways of understanding a particular place (Appalachia) within larger economies and political agendas.

In his keynote address, Alessandro Portelli described "history from below" or "history on the ground" as a site of ambiguity and contradictions. He referred to his ongoing research with people who live in an area outside Rome, bombed by the allies. To the Romans, the allies were both liberators and killers and they, the Romans, saw themselves as liberated former aggressors and victims. Folklore, history from below, Portelli said, is complex because it is about survival.

Panelists in the "Salvage Scholarship" panel specifically addressed questions of cultural and political survival. While we may share questions about the role of folklore as a resource for maintaining cultural identity, as a source of oppression though the management of public cultural expression, or as a form of alternative documentation (to name just a few possibilities), each particular cultural situation raised new questions and provided new models for understanding folklore. Abdul Ali Ahrary, a scholar from Afghanistan, spoke about excluded groups deprived of access to cultural materials and knowledge. Naila Ceribasic, a scholar from Croatia described the official promotion of folk culture of particular groups rather than others. Ouisseina Alidou discussed Niger conceptions of folk culture as indigenous, as women's knowledge tied to a cultural past that excludes Western conceptions of culture. The panelists provided not only different cases, different kinds of data about folklore and exclusionary practices, but also different native theories of folklore.

Going Native began with Robert Farris Thompson's keynote address, with an audience of more than 200 people, and continued for two days with an equally large audience. A copy of the program is still available on our Web site (as of this writing). Local activists, public scholars, and academic scholars participated in panels and workshops as panelists explored the relationship and obligations between the researcher and the researched. Some panels included conversations between researchers and folk artists or researchers and local activists. The conference provided a range of ways of organizing discussion, from the formal presentation of papers to workshop discussions on the definition of folk art, to participatory cultural expression. The Friday evening banquet with Rusalka, OSU's Slavic Chorus, combined good food with an introduction to Russian toasts, songs, and dance.

Certainly, the conference addressed more issues than it resolved, and if some new answers emerged, we were also left with new controversies. While we might agree to examine our relationships and obligations to the people we study, we do not agree on how that might be done. We disagree about the role of the expert, about whether the academic or the cultural practitioner has either rights or perspectives for interpretation, and we disagree about how to use the privilege of our expertise and status. We might agree that the field of folklore can make an important contribution to the study of colonialism and to global discourse in the post-colonial era, but we disagree about the position of the folklorist as potential colonizer. Some would say that we act best when we enter public political arenas and speak on behalf of the preservation of folk culture. Others suggest that we create more public possibilities for people to speak about their own situations. Some worry about actions taken on behalf of others, and others worry about a failure to act. Some of us endeavor to fulfill obligations to convert, identify, or be recruited (to use the words from the subtitle of the conference), and others suggest that in our efforts to "go native," we are taking away one of the few privileges of the subjects of our study.

For many participants, Going Native provided a forum for exploring the disciplinary practices of those who use ethnographic methods in cultural research. Many scholars today are troubled by both the ethical dilemmas of appropriating local cultural truths for academic discourses, and scholars are additionally troubled by the methodological validity of their research. Put simply, translation can both appropriate and contaminate. But the participants at the Going Native conference did not, by and large, suggest that we avoid ethnographic research or refrain from studying others. Quite the contrary. Instead, many participants suggested that we recognize the contaminations that are part of cultural exchange-that we recognize that our exchanges as academics entering other cultures are not unlike any other points of contact. Many participants mounted a defense for folklore, for ethnographic research, for the view from below. As Alessandro Portelli said, folklore can bring the discourses from above and below into a dialogue. As Ana Cara said in her paper on creole cultures: from above, the creole is seen as lazy and incompetent, a contamination of categories, but from the creole perspective, what looks like contamination from above, looks like creativity and invention.

The Going Native conference occurred at a moment in the history of folkloristics when we have willingly discarded our quest for "authentic," undisturbed, or uncontaminated cultural practices. After all, we recognize that "folklore" describes a category of culture already past, already contaminated, at the moment it is "discovered" by the folklorist. Having relinquished our quest for the authentic, we find ourselves not having lost a vanishing subject but instead redescribing our subject as the very complexity that undermines, and always undermined, any possibility of a more simple, pre-contamination folk group.