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Learning anthropology by doing anthropology

October 24, 2010

Learning anthropology by doing anthropology

By David R. Huelsbeck – professor of anthropology

The two courses mentioned in Ted Charles’ essay seek to provide an opportunity for students to experience a different culture: to learn anthropology by doing anthropology.

This summer, as part of the Tribal Journeys celebration, the focus was on Northwest Native American culture. The J-Term course specifically focuses on Makah culture. The goal is to help students learn to recognize cultural values that are different from their own, and learn to recognize when they are acting/reacting on the assumption that their values are “right.” (In other words, to recognize when they are being ethnocentric.) These anthropological learning objectives are congruent with PLU’s Wild Hope Project, in that they give students the chance to discover the kind of “big enough questions” that will continue to have an impact in the student’s life beyond the classroom, today and in the future.

Both courses involve on-campus in-class preparation, and then 12 days in Neah Bay, Wash. Ordinarily 12 days is not nearly enough time to recognize often subtle differences in customs and values and, more importantly, not enough time to resolve conflicting emotions about cultural differences in a way that allows one to understand the other culture.

The courses are a collaboration between PLU and the Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC). PLU students learn about Makah and Native American culture from Native Americans. The Makah are eager to share their culture and are very talented cross-cultural educators. Why is this collaboration is so effective? I began working with the tribe during graduate school in 1977. We know and trust each other. I’ve been bringing PLU students to Neah Bay since 1995. Year in and year out the students are eager to learn, respectful and honest – even if they don’t always agree with every Makah value. The students have earned the trust of the Makah people who work with us. The trust makes possible an openness and sharing more characteristic of the multi-year relationship than a 12-day experience.

The trust relationship is reinforced by service activities. We “help out.” It might be something as simple as stacking firewood for an elder, creating an opportunity to get to know each other as individuals. It might be helping serve dinner at a potlatch or helping with elder hospitality at Tribal Journeys, creating an opportunity not just to observe, but to participate.
Participating in another culture is truly a life-changing experience.