The Taíno are (not) extinct

I am usually a silent fan of Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog; but a (now not so) recent post spurred me to blogging…*

The cause of the post was a retraction by Nature of a statement that the Taino are now ‘extinct’. Here’s the retraction:

This article originally stated that the Taíno were extinct, which is incorrect. Nature apologizes for the offence caused, and has corrected the text to better explain the research project described.

And here’s the corrected article, whose initial paragraph states

…Today, the genomes of most if not all descendents of Taínos now contain few of the unique markers that characterized their ancestors.

That seems to me to be both more factually correct, and to reflect the difference between genetic labels and cultural ones that goes to the heart of this post.

Pontikos finds that offensive, and calls it “timorous” that science will “acquiesce… to sensitivity in matters ethnic”. The rest of the post gives examples of labels which refer to groups, species, etc which are now uncontroversially “extinct”.

Scientific discourse is full of discourse that is alienating and offensive to indigenous peoples. One that comes to mind immediately is how biological anthropology tends to talk about ‘mating’ or ‘reproduction’ rather than ‘marriage’ in indigenous groups. Jack Ives (U Calgary) has shown that not considering the social dimension of marriage rules and choices has consequences for how those rules play out at a population level. That is, ignoring “marriage” in favour of “mating” leads to bad science, as well as being offensive.

One of the many good things about the internet is that it is making science publishing more accessible to the “subjects” of that research. Some scientists seem to be having a little trouble adjusting to this. Much is predicated on he assumption that ethnographic (and linguistic fieldwork) writing will most probably not be read by the subjects of that work. There are many barriers (both obvious ones and not so obvious ones) – language barriers, educational ones, access ones – even for people brought up as insiders to the system – think of the number of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the difficulties of getting tenure-track jobs. Increase in access to science is only going to pay off in better research down the track, and if that means not phrasing the results in a way that is offensive to research participants, and that helps us keep in mind that without those research participants, we would know an awful lot less about the diversity of our world, the choice seems obvious.

 

*Caveat: I haven’t read the 95 comments+ on this post.

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6 responses to “The Taíno are (not) extinct

  1. Your comment on the language of cultural description reminded me of this quotation from James Wilson’s “The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America” that’s stuck with me for a while: “Analysing the ‘romantic colonial vocabulary’ used to describe Native Americans — tribe rather than nation; medicine man rather than doctor, minister, psychiatrist etc.; warrior or brave rather than soldier, the Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham linked it to the eighteenth-century (and even earlier) idea of ‘the Noble Savage’ and concludes that it ‘serves to dehumanize us, and make our affairs and political systems seem not quite as serious or advanced as those of other people'”.

  2. Good point Josh. There’s also things like “costume” instead of “regalia”, and qualifying everything with “ethno-“…

  3. I wonder about your claim that Jared Diamond says offensive things, esp. since the link is to someone who subtitles himself “unrepetant Marxist”, which strongly suggests to me someone who is not trying to be very objective in his views. Saying that most tribal societies are in a state of near-constant low-level war is either correct or incorrect but I can’t see why it should properly be considered offensive. I think you may be confusing “should be considered offensive” with “is in fact considered offensive by some groups”, which aren’t the same. Small ethnic groups in general aren’t any more (or less) morally pure than the rest of us and may be inclined to find offense at uncomfortable statements even if they’re true. (NB I am NOT saying that Diamond is right — I have no idea — but simply that you shouldn’t take everyone’s offense at face value. Classic example: Eskimo vs. Inuit as synonyms, where Inuit and Yupik groups have conflicting views of which is and isn’t offensive: Inuit think “Eskimo” is offensive but Yupik call themselves Eskimos and think “Inuit” is offensive in the same way that Scottish people get offended at being called “English”.)

    • BTW I completely agree about the problem with the term “mating” in place of “marriage” (provided that the arrangement is in fact marriage). It seems like “reproduction” might or might not be offensive depending on context, since it’s used in speaking of non-indigenous Americans as well (cf. “reproductive rights” etc.).

  4. Increase in access to science is only going to pay off in better research down the track, and if that means not phrasing the results in a way that is offensive to research participants, and that helps us keep in mind that without those research participants, we would know an awful lot less about the diversity of our world, the choice seems obvious.

    But being excessively concerned about not phrasing the results in a way that is offensive to research participants could mean obscuring the facts. I’m all for taking people’s sensibilities into account, but science has to be more concerned with facts than feelings.

  5. (I hope it’s obvious that I’m not talking about “romantic colonial vocabulary” but making a more general point.)

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