Why Anthropology

totem pole 600 ed

[For Gerry Berreman, see headings below]

I did not officially choose anthropology as my major until after I had been at Berkeley for several years and was forced by the Dean of Students to declare a major, but I believe the roots of my interest in anthropology began in my childhood. The earliest glimmering of that interest, I believe, was in elementary school. They were just beginning to have visual aids at that time and I was very excited the first time we had a film shown in our fourth-grade classroom.

The film was about the people then called the Lapplanders (now  Sami) of Norway and how they followed and relied on reindeer.  It was centered around one little Lapp boy and was presented from his point of view. I was enthralled by their beautiful clothes, the idea of milking a reindeer, the challenge of living where it was so cold. I could hardly wait until 6th grade so I could study geography. I was too young to know that geography would be a great disappointment, centering much more on countries and how they can be exploited than on the people and how they live.

Another such film was The Loon’s Necklace, a presentation of a Native American myth using art and artifacts from the tribe whose myth it was. When it was over, I asked the teacher if I would ever get to see this movie again and remember my disappointment when she said “no.” All through elementary school and high school the books I loved  most  were the ones about people in other cultures and sea voyages to strange places.  There was a song on the radio in the 50s that could almost put me in a trance. Part of the lyrics were “I love those strange sounding places with the strange sounding names, calling, calling, me.” I identified strongly with that song.

Geography may have disappointed me with its endless statistics about coal and gross national products, but there was something else that happened in 6th grade that did not. My teacher, the first male one I ever had, was quite enlightened for the time and, instead of always teaching lessons to the class as a whole, he developed individualized work programs based on his assessment of our abilities and, I suppose, on an IQ and aptitude test we took that year.

We each had our own assignments and could do them at our own pace each day, after which we were free to read what we pleased or work on special projects he assigned. This approach was unheard of at the time and caused some uneasiness in the ranks, but I was thrilled to be set free from hours upon hours of fighting boredom by trying to read books hidden from the teacher behind other books. In my private planning session with Mr. Levine, to determine what special project I would work on, I complained that, although I had looked forward since 4th grade to finally learning history, the history book started too late. There was only one chapter about what happened before writing, I told him, and it went by way too fast. People lived in caves and hunted animals with spears, then all of a sudden, we’re in Chapter 2, with writing and civilization. Where did all that come from? Where did the people in the caves come from?  I felt cheated.

I must have been an enlightened teacher’s dream because he lit up like a Christmas tree and said, “I have the perfect project for you.” I was assigned to research where the alphabet came from and thus learned about the Phoenicians and their boats, that there were many kinds of alphabets, not just ours, and that the subjects I learned in school did not just suddenly appear, but grew naturally from other things. Cultural evolution–I did not learn the phrase until much later, but Mr. Levine handed me the idea and I ran with it from then on. Writing grew, languages grow, countries grew from tribes–I was thunderstruck.

Magic, Science and Religion

Another experience that pointed me in an anthropological direction was that when I was about twelve I went to a Baptist youth conference that featured a woman who had been a missionary in India. She came wearing a sari, something I had certainly never seen before,  and gave a presentation and slide show about India. She spoke some words in Hindi, a language far removed from English and Spanish, the only languages I had ever heard spoken. I was so fascinated I went around saying, “Hindi, Hindi” for days after that.  However, given my background, the only way I could imagine that I could ever go to a place like that was if I were a missionary and so, when I was sixteen, I did what Baptists call “dedicating your life to the Lord.”

It is a very public thing that usually takes place during a revival meeting. The preacher gives “the call” and you go to the front of the church while a hymn associated with missionary work is sung, just as if you are participating in the other ritual called “accepting the Lord as your personal Savior,” but in this case you are stating that whatever you do with your life, it will be in the service of Jesus Christ. It could be preacher (for boys), preacher’s wife (for girls), music director (girls), missionary (either) or it could be a non-specific promise to live your life as directed by God. It is implicit that you are responding to a personal emotional experience you believe is a message directly from God.

I was religious enough that I really did believe that I really had been called by God. I believed that I had been called to help people and, throughout everything that’s happened to me since, I believe I have never faltered from the promise I made to the Lord that day. But, lurking somewhere in the mix of my 16-year-old head was this idea that the only way I would ever see anything other than my own culture was if I became a missionary. The central motivation for my working as a waitress during my junior and senior years in high school was to earn money enough to go to college and study to be a missionary.

During the summer after high school, when I was having a hard time finding a job because I was not yet 18, and a hard time in several other ways, an evangelical preacher came to our door, “canvassing”, as we used to call it. No one was home but me, so I invited him in and we spoke for hours. I told him I wanted to be a missionary, but I had to earn money and go to college to do so. He told me that college was not a prerequisite to being a missionary in his faith and urged me strongly to chuck the whole college idea and start attending his church. He would smooth my path to a missionary job in a foreign land and college would be no part of it.

It was an entirely new idea to me. I had been fixated on college and encouraged by my favorite teachers, in spite of the opposition of my parents, who saw no reason for a woman to go to college. I was tempted, but my internal alarm bells were sounding. I felt that something was wrong with the way this man was interacting with me. He clearly was making no allowance for the level of my intelligence and his scorn for higher education was in direct conflict with the view of my dear friend Roy, who was writing me letter after letter urging me to go to college, to do anything it took to get there, preferably to FSU, where he was. Plus, if I changed my religion, I knew my mother would make my life hell until I could leave home, one way or another. As it turned out, she made my life hell, anyway, and that was one of the factors that caused me to jump out of the frying pan into the fire of Bible College in south Georgia.

When I lost my religion, the missionary option faded away but by that time I had been educated as to the existence of anthropology. That happened at Florida State University. On one of my surriptitious weekend trips to Tally, I spent some time with one of the people who lived in the house where I stayed, who was an anthropology major. His name was Steve Poe. Roy, then living in a dorm, had stashed me at this house filled with bohemians with a promise to come and get me in the morning. It was winter, the house was very cold, I had not been provided with enough blankets, so I slept little and woke early. Steve also woke early. Roy slept late, so Steve took it upon himself to amuse me until Roy arrived.

Steve’s idea of “amuse” was get some coffee, then walk. We walked all over campus for hours during which time he explained to me what anthropology was. I had never heard the word before and was pretty much hypnotized.  He said that anthropology gave you the ability to project what would happen to a culture if certain conditions were changed or certain things happened to it or it came into contact with certain other cultures.  I was was completely amazed that such a thing could be true and I resolved at that time  to take an anthropology course at the very first opportunity. I had no idea I would soon be expelled, just because I hung out with such bohemians, and would not have a chance to take an anthropology course until years later.

At about this time, my position at Norman College was getting ever more tenuous. I had done a quick about face from the missionary plan during the summer, due in part to the circumstances surrounding the loss of my virginity and the car accident I was in that had totalled the car I had been given by my parents as a high school graduation present. It was not in my name because I was still not 18, but they had said if I really wanted to go to college, I could sell it to raise money. Unfortunately, I was in an accident commuting to the job I finally found in Winter Garden. The accident was not my fault and I was, truly miraculously, not injured, but the money from the potential sale was gone. Then, I failed to score high enough on the test for a Florida teacher’s loan, to be repaid by teaching in Florida. All of this caused a major blip in my faith but, when my best friend in high school, a year ahead of me, wrote me about Norman College, it looked like a way forward. She said, “its hell, but you can stand anything for a year and if you don’t go now, you’ll never go.” I thought, “Ok, a Bible college. If anything will settle for me if there is a God and if He does have a plan for me, surely He will let me know if I go to a Bible college.”

Once there, I saw the flaw in my reasoning. About the time I met Steve Poe, visiting Tally from Norman, I was in the midst of great emotional turmoil, much of it turning around this whole question of God. No one in my world but the Tally people were willing to discuss religion intelligently with me, but they were uniformly aetheists. I needed somebody who had been raised Baptist and then left it, someone more like me. Desperate, I wrote to my big brother, ten years older than me and so cold to me I thought of him as “Mr. Ice Box.” But I knew, from listening to all the family fights that occurred when he left home at 16, that he had had the same Baptist training I had had, until he succeeded in refusing to go to church anymore at age 13 (I had tried that and failed). I knew that he never went to church and could not be made to go. I took a chance that he could help me and wrote him a letter. To my neverending surprise, I shortly thereafter received in the mail a copy of Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion” along with a note that said, “I think this will do it for you.” It did. It was a psychoanalytic explanation of religion, using much anthropological and historical data. Outdated and sometimes incorrect anthropological data, as it turned out, but I didn’t know that at the time and I was once again presented with the idea of cultural evolution.

In the years between my expulsion from FSU and the resumption of my academic career, I worked as a typist in Philadelphia, a curb hop in Miami and a waitress in Wildwood New Jersey, and Lakeland, Florida. I married a student at the Wharton School of Business, whom I had met while a waitress in Atlantic City the summer after my expulsion from Norman. We married on the understanding that as soon as he graduated, we would move to San Francisco where I would attempt to re-enter college. I had heard that one could attend two-year colleges there for no tuition, and hoped I could then be accepted to San Francisco State, in spite of my disciplinary expulsions, and work my way through the remaining two years. My husband, Mike, had nothing but scorn for my anthropological aspirations and derided them at every opportunity.

I was wilting under that heat, but then I had an experience that reinforced me in my improbable plan. When we first arrived in Oakland, having never made it to San Francisco, there was a used bookstore just around the corner to which I frequently retreated to be alone. One day, browsing aimlessly, I came across a book with a fascinating title. It was “Magic, Science and Religion” by Theodore Malinowski, whom I would later learn was the father of anthropological field work. Given my experience with religion, I was intrigued by just the title alone. It would never have occurred to me that there would be any kind of a relationship between those three things. I bought the book on the spot.

By the time I finished it, I was again certain that anthropology was the discipline for me. Unlike Mike, I had not been put on a professional path by my parents since birth. I had been vigorously discouraged from wasting my time with college and had pleased my parents sufficiently by landing myself a promising young man, albeit somewhat later in my life than expected (I was 20.) A Yankee, yes, and Jewish, too, but they had worried I might turn out a spinster. I therefore was not looking for a highly paid profession. I was fairly convinced that, as a woman, that was out of the question, so why even think about it. As always, I just wanted answers. Mainly, I wanted an explanation for why I was and had always been such a complete misfit all my life and anthropology was looking like it might have those answers for me. I had no idea how anthropologists made their money, how academia worked, how scientific research worked or what I would do with a degree in anthropology, but I figured, bottom line, I can always feed myself by typing or waitressing. Being supported by my husband while I had babies and made hors d’ouvres for his professional contacts was not even on my radar. I was far too independent for that.

When I mentioned the book and my renewed interest in anthropology to my husband, he was very snide about it. Once, during a fight about why I even needed to go to college (in spite of our deal that I would) since he was going to go to Law School and I would be a lawyer’s wife, he said sarcastically, “Oh yeah? Have you looked in the want ads lately under ‘A’ ?”

His snideness and ridicule began to solidify my foolhardy ambition.  My mother should have told him the best way to get me to do something was to tell me I couldn’t do it. Then, when I was a student at Oakland City College, I took my first anthropology class, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. It was taught by a persnickity French guy named Maurice something. The teacher turned me off personally (though, as it turned out, I appeared to be turning him on), but he was a good teacher and, unlike many anthropology teachers, fed us ideas rather than endless lists of dry and ultimately useless facts. A course requirement was an oral report on any anthropological subject of our choosing, subject to his approval. During our meeting on my paper, I said I was interested in Thor Heyerdahl and that reed boat he sailed to Easter Island. Disguising his disgust thinly, he said Thor Heyerdahl was not a “real” anthropologist and directed me instead to a book about how Polynesia was settled by Asian people in boats. (When I met Heyerdahl years later at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, he was quite charming and nonplussed by this story and said he was delighted that my interest in his book had led me to anthropology, even by so convoluted a path.)

The book I was assigned was a very good book, even if I had been forced to read it. By the time I finished the paper, I was a goner for anthropology. What an idea! That the Polynesians were the best sailors in the Pacific, indeed, the world, and settled Polynesia long before any white folks got there. The courage of that, the navigational skill. I wanted to know everything about them and the way they were before Europeans, but, alas, the course was over. I had to take my “A” and be happy with that until further arrangements could be made.

Gerry Berreman

That summer, the summer before I officially entered UC Berkeley in January, I was told I could take a course in advance for the tuition I would pay as a fulltime student. I chose an anthropology class on India that was supposed to have been taught by an actual person from India. I thought it would be really neat to learn about India from a native Indian. But when I got to the class, it turned out that the original lecturer had dropped out and it was going to be taught by Gerald Berreman, who later became my undergraduate and graduate adviser and beloved mentor in all things both anthropological and political.

Gerry was one of the world’s leading experts on the cultures of the Himalayas, an exciting teacher, dynamic and amusing lecturer and filled his lectures with slides he took during his field work in India. By the time I finished with that class I was really  enthusiastic about anthropology. He was honest enough to warn us “if you want to go on in anthropology, you probably will never be rich,” a prediction that certainly proved accurate in my case.

I wanted to know about other kinds of people and I wanted to know about them through a secular, rational and objective perspective. In particular, I wanted a way to study people different from me through a lens that did not include racism, imperialism or exploitation and I believed, erroneously I learned later, that anthropology would provide such a lens. I wanted to understand why everything was so messed up in the world, how did we get into this situation where there was so much misery and was there anything that could be done about it.  I suppose you could say, and people have accused me of this, that it was an extension of my missionary viewpoint. But, I deny that. I didn’t have to be helping them. I didn’t have to be selling them a religion. I had yet to learn how much damage had been done by missionaries and how low was their stock in anthropology departments (which are in no position to quibble, since, I also later learned to my great dismay, they train spies.)

My hopes for anthropology were greatly enhanced when I read Gerry’s  paper, “Bringing It All Back Home,” a copy of which he handed me personally at some point. However, I did not need to read the paper, since he was the model for everything he wrote in it. Having had zero experience with the way academia works, I was for the most part blissfully unaware of how much politics figured into intradepartmental relationships and how political themselves were those relationships.  That I was learning that at a time when the normal level of divisiveness to be found in universities was perhaps exaggerated everyone’s emotional load was something I did not have the distance to see until much later. All I knew how to do then was judge individuals on the basis of my assessment of their character, their actions and their honesty and then try to do what they did. It is fortunate for me that I had Gerry as a model, because if I had known at the outset how departmental politics would affect me personally and had not had him as an example to follow, I might have chucked the whole idea much sooner than I did. As it was, Gerry joked me through it, guided me through it, warned me through it and shielded me through it. And, when I came back in an attempt to “unchuck” it, he was ready to help me do that.

Gerry 6 edOther writings of Gerry’s that show who he was and how he lured me into anthropology.

Letter to San Francisco Chronicle, date unknown.

Gerry 6 b

Below, a letter to me on a mock form I sent him when I could stand the suspense no longer on my application to be considered a re-entering grad student, rather than a new graduate student. It was during this process that we both discovered that the M.A. I had been given was to be considered a terminal Master’s, even though terminal Master’s degrees are usually based on low grades. In this case, the professor in charge of approving Master’s degrees when I dropped out 8 years before due, in my mind, to medical reasons, was the very professor who had been exposed as a spy for the CIA.

After informing me that he would only approve my degree if I wrote a letter stating that I would never reapply, this professor let me know that there was a way I could avoid this. I did not take him up on it but neither did I report it to anyone because it was long before the women’s movement had established procedures for doing so and, anyway, I certainly couldn’t prove it. I am told that this professor was later accused by three different female anthro students of sexual harassment and received a “slap on the wrist” reprimand from the university for it. The woman who told me that story was one of the three women, but I only have her as a source for it.

He shall remain nameless, but if you were there at the time, you can probably guess his identity. When Gerry opened my file, while we were discussing my first application, we found a letter right on top, signed by this professor, that said, “The committee recommends that this student never be readmitted,” making my Master’s, according to Gerry, a terminal one in the minds of those faculty members already prejudiced against me because of my activism. Others more hip to how its done than I described to me years later how much like a poker game is the process by which graduate students are admitted, validating the feeling I had on receipt of this letter that I was, in Dylan’s words, “only a pawn in their game.”

I applied twice and was not readmitted. When I went to Berkeley to discuss this with him in person, Gerry told me that even if I did get readmitted it would be “under such a cloud” that my life would, effectively, be hell. Then he calmly reached over to the bookshelves behind him and handed me his copy of John Bodley’s Victims of Progress and said, “Here, read this. You might want to  study under this guy.” And I did.

Gerry 4 ed

Lowie Museum of Anthropology

As an anthropologist, I thought, you’re going to go and learn what they have to tell you, instead of you telling them, anything. You’re going to go in and observe them and try to come up with some understanding of their behavior and how it fits into a picture of human behavior in general. I was fascinated with it, all the beautiful things that people make, all the different ways there are of living. This fascination was greatly enhanced by the fact that I got a work-study job at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology (now Hearst Museum). Although I was hired as a clerk-typist, I was later able to persuade my supervisors to demote me to museum preparator, so that I could work with the artifacts. My boss said that UC personnel policy prevented anyone from being demoted, but he would let me work as a preparator and be paid as a Sr. Clerk-Typist if we were agreed not to mention it to the university personnel department. Lucky break, wonderful man. Frank Norick.

So, I spent two years of my life handling, mending, cleaning, cataloging, researching and typing up reports on all the wonderful things that people make and how those things related to their cultures. I became acquainted with all the varieties, all the different ways that people live, the range of ways of being human. I learned that male and female roles are not always the same as in our own culture. I was intrigued with how much culture  makes you who you are.  I figured if I learn what cultures are, what all the different possibilities are, maybe I’ll be able to figure out why I was such a misfit in my own culture. That was at the beginning, but once I got into it, I no longer needed a justification. I had a tiny studio apartment, but the museum was my home. I loved most of my co-workers, also work-study students. I loved my supervisors. I loved what I did every day, the work and the classes.  And, it was such a relief to go from the irrationality of my religious background and  the irrational malice of the religious college to the clean, calm rationality of anthropology.

That was how I experienced it at the beginning. Later on, I got into primatology, because primatology was the new exciting thing in Berkeley at that time. For a while it seemed to explain everything, people are just apes with clothes on who talk. I took all the courses required to be a physical anthropologist, save one,  hoping to be the next Jane Goodall. Then I got to the last one, Primate Evolution Lab.  At the first class, we were told that we were each going to be assigned our own dead monkey to dissect and we were shown a big freezer full of dead monkeys. It was at the height of anti-war protests and horrible images from Vietnam and my nerves were scraped raw. Looking at that freezer, I suddenly saw not dead monkeys, which is bad enough, but dead human babies. It was only for one horrible instant, but I knew I would never be able to dissect my own monkey after that. So, I left the class, abandoned all hope of becoming a primatologist and changed my schedule back to cultural anthropology classes.

What I had learned in all those physical anthropology classes, though, stayed with me. I still believe that if every person could realize what components of their behavior come from genetics and then what components come from their culture, they would be better able to see what makes the individual person–what makes them the individual that they are and therefore, how they can change themselves. This was a radical idea in anthropology and if I had expressed it outside my own little group of anthropology friends, I would have met with strong resistence. But, in that time and place, there really was no more relevant a question for a responsible intellectual than how can we change our culture and can we do it by changing ourselves. I worked on that question the rest of my life and am still working on it.

I came from such a structured culture, the southern United States, but it wasn’t until I was able to see how many of the things I did and thought were the result of what I was taught there, that I was able to stop doing them. For instance, I acted like a lady even though I didn’t want to. I was compelled to do certain things and I’d say, what are you doing this for?  And I would have to answer, “it’s habit.” What people call “habit” is really the influence of the hidden assumptions of their culture.  If you can stand back and look at it, you can see that you were taught this habit and it fits in with a lot of other habits that people have that interlock–like habits of racism, habits of war, habits of greed. The roles fit together into cultures, they are complementary. What everyone is doing out of habit , in a functioning culture, reinforces what everybody else is doing, so that the pressure is strong on the individual to stay in their role. But, if you can stand back and see the roles and see what they cause you to do, you can make a choice next time and your choice, little or big, will contribute, little or big, to the direction of your culture.

There’s one more factor in my life that may or may not have propelled me into anthropology and its a bit of a sensitive subject, in more ways than one, and that is my great-grandmother. I think of her as Granny Mary Ann, though I did not know her name and the deep secret about her until I was grown. Granny Mary Ann was the mother of my father’s father, known to me as Grandaddy. I knew two stories about her, before I learned the secret. As a teenager, I had suddenly become interested in the family history and managed to squeeze those two stories out of my usually taciturn father by dint of persistent charm. They were stories my Dad had heard about her when he was growing up.

One was as follows: It was the wilderness part of north Florida soon after the Civil War. My great-grandfather, a former Confederate soldier, was a circuit-riding Baptist preacher. Granny Mary Ann got left with all the kids in a cabin deep in the piney woods when he was gone. One such night, a Florida panther (same thing as a mountain lion elsewhere), came up on the porch and started nosing around the windows and door. Granny Mary Ann got her biggest iron skillet, went to the door and opened it and hit the panther over the head with the skillet and it ran away and didn’t come back. So, the very first thing I ever knew about her was that she was incredibly brave in the defense of her children.

The other story is that she got up in the middle of the night one night to check on the wood stove (it can get cold in north Florida), and got her heel stuck in a knothole in the floor. She was trying to pull it out without waking anybody up and some animal underneath the house, probably a dog but it could have been any number of things, licked her heel and she screamed and woke everybody up. This story was told by my father with some amusement, as if it were somehow a joke on her. I saw it as an example of what pioneer women were up against, including being ridiculed unjustly. Those two stories were all I knew about her except her name until much later when my Dad finally told me the important part. I don’t know how it came about that he mentioned it, but I have a pretty good suspicion as to why it had never been mentioned before. Granny Mary Ann, I was told, was a Seminole Indian.

I asked my Dad how much that made me an Indian and he said he that, as far as anyone knew, Mary Ann was all Indian, which made Grandaddy half-Indian, my Dad a quarter and myself an eighth. My sister has a different story. She says that he told her that Mary Ann was half-Indian, making me and my siblings a sixteenth. I like my story better and have decided that my sister was told a different story to lessen whatever shock she might feel about it, since racial mixing was greatly frowned upon at the time. I believe my father told me the truth because by the time I was a teenager, things had loosened up a bit in general, or because I was Daddy’s girl, unconventional like him, and he just wanted me to know the truth.

Years later, in the 1970s when I worked for an Indian organization in California, I learned that Indians raised as Indians may have nothing but scorn for Indian “wannabes.” It would be the last thing I would mention in a roomful of ethnic Indians. Nevertheless, when I was working for this organization, I met many, many people who had the same number of Indian ancestors I did and many of them looked less Indian than I do, but they were Indians culturally, raised as Indians and listed on official tribal rolls. Although I know better than to expose myself to the “wannabe” accusation around Indians with a claim to their culture and a right to be jealous of it, in my heart of hearts, I have treasured my Indian ancestry and been curious to learn as much about Indians as I possibly could.

I should mention that I’m using the politically-incorrect word “Indian,” rather than Native American, in this context, because that is how all the Indians working in the building where I worked as the only non-Indian, referred to themselves and each other, most of them pronouncing it “Injun.” I’m talking here about how my own claim, howeve sketchy it may be, has affected me, my choices and my feelings about myself in society, so I am going to refer to myself and my relatives in the way all my Indian co-workers did in 1976. I’m going to claim my relatives, as they would have, using their language, wannabe or no.

When my Dad told me about my great-grandma, three mystifying things in my past fell into place. One was the meaning of all the jokes at family gatherings about how much my Dad looked like the face on the Indian head nickel, or the face on a totem pole. One was an explanation for why, in addition to my being unusually thin, my face appeared so serious and sharp in repose–there had been complaints about that and people always urging me to “smile more.” It was not an overly serious or sharp face. It was a face with high cheekbones, narrowly-set eyes and a mouth downturned even when smiling, a stereotypically Indian face. The third cleared-up mystery involved something that happened to me when I was about 7 or 8 that I had always remembered but had never understood until that moment.

The story is that one summer when I was a child, I spent two weeks with my then very old grandparents. I had begged to be allowed to stay with them mainly because my two older siblings had done so and were teasing me once again that because I was the baby, trailing 8 years behind my sister, they had had experiences I had not had. The two weeks were, in general, unremarkable but unexpectedly educational. On one of the two Sundays, instead of going to the little church down the road, a lady picked us up in her car and we went on what seemed to me to be a very long trip. All Granny told me was we were going to a different church today because Grandaddy wanted to. At one point I found myself looking out the backseat side window at what looked to me like mountainsides. I had seen mountains on a day trip from Cleveland to Pennsylvania. But Granny said, no, those were the dikes holding back Lake Okeechobee. She explained what dikes were, but it made no sense to me.

At the end of the journey, we parked on a large hummock in a sea of swamp grass, where perched a one-room square church packed completely full with dark, unfamiliar looking people. The three adults went inside, telling me to stand on a crate under a window with some other children and watch from there, since there was so little room inside. And, for a while, it was quite a show. The preacher seemed to be preaching enthusiastically in a language other than English. I have since wondered if it could have been Seminole, or whether it was just such a very rural Southern accent that I couldn’t understand him, being at that point from Cleveland and Miami. Yet, my grandparents were very rural and very Southern and I had no trouble understanding them. At the same time, he was moving around physically much, much more than I ever had seen a preacher move. It was almost a dance and certainly was rhythmic. When the hymns were sung, I recognized the tunes but not the words. They, too, seemed to be in a different language.

After a while, I got bored with the church service and began looking around me. I had started out sharing the crate with two other children, whom I had noticed were not dressed in Sunday clothes, as I thought of Sunday clothes. They were both gone. I was suddenly struck by the fact that children were running around, chasing each other, shrieking and behaving in a way I would have been punished for behaving, so close to a church service in session. And, I noticed that all of these children were darker than me and had black hair. I became first a little frightened and wanted my Granny, but then I became intrigued. What was the explanation? Could these be Indian children? Why am I here? Then something really interesting happened.

There was a white Sunday School bus parked in the churchyard near where the swamp started. I heard enormous yelling and shouting and squealing coming from that direction. No one was paying any attention to me, so I quietly walked over to the edge of the group to see what was happening. Three boys clearly not dressed for church, in shorts and nothing else, were struggling to get a gigantic turtle onto the bus. I could not begin to imagine where the turtle had come from or why they had it or what they were going to do with it when they got it into the bus. A door in the floorboard was opened and a compartment revealed that I had never suspected a school bus might have, next to the driver’s seat. The boys crammed the turtle down into the compartment.

I ran back to the church window before I could be noticed. Presently the service was over and my party of adults emerged. I ran excitedly over to my grandmother and said, “Granny, Granny, they put a turtle on the bus! Why did they do that? What are they going to do with it?” She quickly shushed me, looking around to see if anyone had heard me and spoke the words that puzzled me for years to come. She said, “Why, I reckon they’re going to eat it. Now, hush, child, some of these children might be your cousins.” The last part sounded like a reprimand. I had no idea what I might have done. I was completely and utterly floored. I had no idea what she could have meant. How could I possibly be related to these children? Not that I would have especially minded, just that I couldn’t imagine how that could be. I was also bemused about the turtle. Did people eat turtles? How did they fix it? Did they boil it? Fry it? Bake it? How did they get the shell off? Why would they eat a turtle? Why would she be embarrassed that I had asked about it? Why would she reprimand me and mention the part about the cousins? If they were my cousins, why would it matter that I saw them catching a turtle. But, I really knew better than to ask any more questions.

My grandparents never told me not to mention the trip to the other church, but somehow I knew not to, even though I was very puzzled. I did venture to ask my Dad if people ate turtles and he said of course they did, didn’t I remember the song about Mock Turtle Soup in Alice in Wonderland? And I did come up with a quasi-explanation for the remark about the cousins. At any church I could remember going to, adults might very well refer to each other as Brother So-and-so or Sister So-and-so. At Granny’s regular church, out in the country, they seemed to do that a lot more than at our city church. Maybe, I thought, if you go way, way out in the country as we did, people also call each other Cousin So-and-so. That didn’t quite fit with the remark that some of them might be my cousins, but it was the best I could do.

After my Dad’s revelation, the whole adventure with my grandparents made sense. I went and checked a map of Florida, and, sure enough, the Seminole reservations were located on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, we would have driven east to west below them and I would have been looking up at them from the right side window. Probably my grandparents knew or suspected that my parents, as upwardly mobile as they were, and particularly my mother, with her obsession about respectability in white southern society, had never told me my grandfather was half-Indian and would be livid if they told me. So my Grandaddy, with the reputation for being a scamp and a moonshiner before he got all churchy, organized that trip to the reservation, figuring that was a way to let me know without ever telling me directly. He hoped I would figure it all out later, and I did.

Something else now also fell into place about my appearance. As a small child, I went with my family to my grandparents anniversary party, I’m guessing maybe 50th. There were an enormous number of relatives there, including some of my grandfather’s many sisters. Since I was the youngest member of the extended family, born up north, nobody had ever seen me before except my grandparents. One of my aunts was taking me from group to group, saying over and over again, “This is Dink’s baby girl.” The introduction would be followed by a chorus of observations, “Oh, yes, she’s the little Yankee, look at her pretty hair, my ain’t she small for her age,” and so forth. One of the great-aunts had a different observation. She said, “My, my, she looks just like Babe did, don’t she?” Babe was a great-aunt who was not there and whom I never did meet. In overheard conversations at later family reunions,  I heard my Aunt Allie say, “Yes, Babe, she looks just like Granny, don’t she?” Granny meaning Aunt Allie’s Granny, Granny Mary Ann. So, I thought, even then, I must also look like my father’s Granny. With the new information that my father’s Granny was an Indian, that her daughter looked like her and I looked like the daughter, I put it together that I must look in some way, Indian as well, in spite of the blonde hair and gray eyes.

At Berkeley, I became free to get into it. I had thus far usually had long hair. Now I grew it even longer and took to wearing it in braids. I worked on getting as tan as possible and was surprised just how dark I could get. People told me I resembled the Indian folk singer, Buffy St. Marie, and I was pleased. Thank you, Granny Mary Ann, I thought, for saving me from being an unmitigated WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Between Granny Mary Ann and my probably mostly Irish Granny, I was not quite white and not quite all Anglo-Saxon. Along with my status as a “working class intellectual” not being completely a WASP made me very cool in Berkeley. Thinking about the whole thing, I remembered my Grandaddy’s coloring. In pictures, he had straight black hair and a hatchet-face like my father. By the time I knew him, he was so ancient that there were only white wisps of hair and it was hard to tell what his face might have been like because all his teeth were gone and he wouldn’t wear his false teeth, so his face had fallen in. But the eyes, I definitely remembered the eyes. My grandfather’s eyes were so black that you could not see where the pupil ended and the iris started. Between that and their deep set in his sunken face, looking into his eyes was like looking into two long, dark tunnels.

When, years after Berkeley, my mother sent me a large envelope full of copies she had made of photos of my father’s family she had obtained from the eldest sister, I was able to confirm the resemblance part of the story. My mother had already sent me a color picture of my Dad and my Great-aunt Babe, a woman perhaps in her 90s then, and I had seen our shared face at once. Now, I had a picture of Granny Mary Ann as a very old woman as well and could line up three pictures–me as a young woman and the two old women and see exactly what I would look like if I lived long enough and it would be like them.

I only shared this feeling of connection to Indians and its relationship to my wanting to know about them because of it with a few very close friends, since it would have compromised my claim to objectivity had it gotten around the department. People would either have claimed I made it all up in order to gain some kind of more-ethnic-than-thou status in the midst of the zeitgeist of the 60s (some truth in that except that I didn’t make it up), or they would have claimed that, if true, it rendered me incapable of strict anthropological objectivity, an argument that has since fallen into disuse as the relationship between Indians and anthropologists/archaeologists have reworked themselves to some extent.

Further evidence of our Indian ancestry emerged from the physical anthropology lab class I took at Berkeley. Of a sample of 30 students, I had the smallest, roundest head, a trait of Asians and American Indians. I have a genetic anomaly, ripples on the roof of my mouth, that is found most frequently in American Indians. My hair, though blonde, was found to be coarser than the average white Americans, another characteristic of American Indians. Because of my study of American Indians at Berkeley, including the museum, I now think that Granny Mary Ann was not all-Seminole. We all look like what is most people’s conception of American Indians, which is what eastern Indians exclusive of the Gulf Coast and Florida look like, not what the original tribes of Florida looked like.

When the Cherokees were unhanded and forced to move West, some ran south into Florida and joined with Florida tribes, related more to Mayans (Miami, get it?). Seminole means runaway, some say with the connotation of coward, in one of the Indian languages involved, I don’t know which one. The Florida tribes, which mixed with south running Cherokees and south running black slaves, came to be called Seminoles. I believe that the timing is right historically that  Granny Mary Ann’s people were Cherokees who ran south and that, therefore, I am part Cherokee. Since my family on both sides are Florida crackers with little education and there is evidently no family tradition involving my great-grandmother’s history, everyone has just assumed she was a Seminole. Add things I learned in anthropology that enlighten me about my own ancestry. Another is the realization that, if my theory is true, some of my ancestors were likely part of the general movement that forced others of my ancestors onto the Trail of Tears, a very strange thought.

So, in the end, anthropology did for me much of what I hoped it would. It gave me a way to know more about myself in many ways, it fulfilled my childhood interest in different people, it allowed me to study religion in a rational way and ultimately make peace with the damage religion did to me. I did get to be an anthropologist, though I never made it to India and I have never doubted that my discipline is and was uniquely qualified to speak to the cultural changes that took place in my lifetime, spy-training notwithstanding.

“Bringing It All Back Home” is in Dell Hymes, Reinventing Anthropology, so I could find no link to a downloadable copy, but the article below is similar.


For more about Gerry Berreman:


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