Fieldwork

When I lived on or traveled to coastal Maine in the seventies, I was tied closely to my wife’s home town by bonds created by that marriage. Back at the university, I was for studying for a career in anthropology. In Maine, I was understudying for the Cap’n on board his 34 foot ketch, being introduced as his son, and learning how to fit in.

It was not too long before seeking one led to studying the other.

There is an old and tired cartoon of natives scurrying to conceal Televisions and other tech items when one of their numbers spots a pair of anthropologists approaching – suitably attired of course in khaki and pith helmets. It plays on old stereotypes about the populations that anthropologists study and the anthropologists themselves. In Maine, the community I was about to study was interested in me much as I was in it.

At the Post Office, I got introduced to the bridgetender. Before I could get a word in edgewise, I was expertly pumped for my life history in New York, and how I liked it here on the coast. As I tried to shift the questioning my informant to be slid away to work. By evening everyone in town knew what the bridgetender knew. And so it went.

Things settled down after a few weeks, but I answered as many questions about myself as I asked about the community.

The Cap’n introduced me to a friend of his named Spinney. Spinney owned a small boatyard and decided that I’d do for a part-time hand. I began at the bottom scraping barnacles, sanding bottom paint and applying a new coat of the stuff to an endless succession of boats. When they discovered that I could carve, I received a promotion to Yaahd Cavah” ( Yard Carver), the guy who produces carved transom work, quarter boards, etc. But I also kept on scraping and painting bottoms.

One day one of the workers stopped and asked innocently enough: “hey Wes, you study anthropology. Can you explain to me what Eskimo kinship is?” Not seeing this coming, I paused, and in my best academic tone, began by explaining that it was the kinship used by most of us in the United States. Seeing some interest, I went into a bit of depth regarding kinship terms used. He asked some well-informed questions, and I enjoyed answering them.

This seemed to set a pattern over the next several weeks. Members of the crew would take an opportunity to ask me, sometimes penetrating questions about anthropology. How did balanced reciprocity systems work, and so on? I began to wonder about it, but not too hard. After answering their questions, they answered mine. But I found it more than a bit curious.

I found the answer quickly enough. I went into our rough and ready lunchroom, and there on the table sat the 1973 edition of Cultural Anthropology by Carol and Melvin Ember. Borrowed perhaps from a former student.

It was well thumbed through. I could now see where the questions had originated. The highlighted sections matched the questions they asked me. I had been subjected to the equivalent of an exam by the people I was interested in studying.

When the Cap’n didn’t keep me busy with his boat or Spinney finding bottoms to paint, I did find time to do some actual ethnography that year.

Years later, I took over a cultural anthropology course from a colleague who was leaving the state. Having inherited the course, I chose not to make any changes in the texts or reading lists. The textbook was Cultural Anthropology by Carol and Melvin Ember, with which I was by then very familiar.

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