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Field tales from the end of the world – pt. 2

By Wiebe de Jong –

Creating real illusion

A good story is one that gives you the feeling that you are really there. But how can one immerse listeners of a podcast on St. Paul, Alaska into a place they have not been and probably will never go? The answer is: creating an illusion.

One of the differences between historians and anthropologists is that the former base their research on existing data, sources like documents of events that took place. In short, things that really happened.

Within anthropology, human experience is our central focus. When conducting my research in South Africa on indigenous healing in 2008, I interviewed a traditional healer who took his training beneath the ocean surface for two years. Did it really happen? According to my interviewee it did, and as such, this was part of his worldview. As anthropologists, is my contention, it is our task to offer a glimpse of the local context and epistemology as adequate as possible. Though, a historian might not agree.

I can still remember very lively how one of my anthropology teachers in 2004 from Radboud University, let’s call him H.M., raged against historians, calling them ‘feitenneukers’ [fact fuckers].

Yet, perhaps for this reason, anthropology often encountered problems within academia for not being ‘scientific’ enough. Indeed, we often fail the test of replicability. That is why anthropologists, since the 1970s – probably as a result of postmodern influences – took many efforts to become more transparent.

John van Maanen, an American anthropologist with probably Dutch descendants, wrote a beautiful book about this topic called Tales of the field: on writing ethnography (2011: originally published in 1988). He argued that in the days of the founding fathers of anthropology like Bronislav Malinovski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (around the 1920s to 1940s), anthropologists hardly provided any reflection on how they had gathered their data. Moreover, it seemed as if the anthropologist was not influenced at all by the local population – by then often called Natives or Savages. As if one conducts research in some kind of lab.

In an attempt to show that doing ethnography is a craft, a craft for which one needs academic education, anthropologists started to write impressionist tales. In those stories they showed that the skills of researchers matter, for the way they interact with participants in the field influences the research data. That is why anthropologists started to give insight into dilemmas in the field, their doubts, or errors they made. In short, they gave an impression of what it is to be in the field. Usually, this is presented in a way as if the anthropologist has experienced some kind of development to show they now understand the culture they have been studying.

In The taste of ethnographic things (1989), American anthropologists Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes can be seen as a good example of this genre. During their visit among the Songhay in Niger, they are being served awful and distasteful food by Djebo, a family member who does not follow Songhay custom. Initially, they do not understand why the rules of hospitality are not respected. Eventually, however, they find out that Djebo, whilst cleaning, fetching water, cooking and taking care of her baby, is being criticized by her lineage members throughout the day. Serving awful meals is her way to show her discontent with the current situation.

In the anecdotes described by Stoller and Olkes, taste is a metaphor for social relations. By offering an evocative account of the awful taste and smell of the dish, the authors claim that to truly understand a culture using the senses, says more than a thousand words of theory.

The fun of editing a podcast is you both feel like a kind of composer as well as a conductor. The former is because the kind of questions you ask, determines the kind of answers you receive. In a way, we stage answers. We are conductors too, for the way you present the answers in the final edit determines the kind of impression the audience gets of the subject discussed.  

One of the lessons I have learned working as a journalist is that you should always ask the same question to different people. That is, because presenting similar or diverging answers to one question in the final edit offers an interesting insight into a topic. When multiple people react to the very same question, this is a way to show that it is a matter that is one everybody’s mind.

During our interviews, we found out that the seal seems to be symbolic of the current welfare on St. Paul Island. When the seal does well, the community does well. Or in fact, this is what we, as creators, want our listeners to believe.

So, what we did is asking all our participants the same questions: ‘when the seals are gone, we are gone, what do you think’? Subsequently, I selected those fragments and placed them one after another in my editing program.

Then I added some music, and during the afternoon, I went out to get soundbites of the sea, birds and foxes on the island to create an evocative ambiance. That kind of atmosphere which makes…that you get an impression that are actually somehow there.

And this is how it sounds then. On the hand it mirrors reality, yet in some way an illusion.

A renaissance of stinky flipper?

When talking with islanders about their preoccupations for the future, they often mention the high prices of food on St. Paul. Moreover, on foggy days – which are pretty common here – planes skip the island and head back to Anchorage, which means the local store cannot be supplied. In the month of July 2023, there were only three days without fog.

As such, many people still rely on subsistence activities like hunting and fishing. In addition, elders learn young people how to cut meat and, subsequently, how to cook it. Though, many recipes have not been salvaged. During an interview, Chelsea regrets the fact that she has never learned how to cook bird soup. When her grandmother suddenly died, there was no one who could pass on the recipe.

A couple of days ago, I already discussed Franz Boas in relation to cultural relativism, one of major contributions to the field of anthropology. He is also well-known for his plea to conduct salvage ethnography: documenting indigenous traditions before they get lost. When Boas did fieldwork among the Kwakiutl around the 1900s, colonial rule was well on its way to wipe out all kind of indigenous customs. Critics argued that was too much obsessed with collecting facts, instead of constructing anthropological theory. Indeed, his fieldwork material includes thousands of pages concerning indigenous dancing, warfare, folktales and…recipes. Jokes are often made about Boas being such a kind of ‘cultural hoarder’ that he even included extensive recipes on how to cook boiled salmon guts.

Yet…there might be some value in salvage ethnography. Anthropologist Sveta Yamin-Pasternak from University of Alaska Fairbanks published extensively about Arctic food practices. In her article ‘The rotten renaissance in the Bering Strait’ in Current Anthropology, she shows that communities on the Russian side of the Bering Strait massively resorted to traditional foods when the Soviet Republic collapsed in the early nineties. People born before the 1980s might remember images of empty shelves in Russian stores in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Imagine how village stores in the Russian Far East may have looked like?

According to Yamin-Pasternak, young people resorted to their parents and grandparents to find out how fermented foods were produced in the olden days. One of them is stinky flipper, fermented seal flipper, both known in Russia and Alaska. To prepare this dish, seal flippers are being put in hole, covered with grass and seal fat (also known as blubber). After six weeks or so, the fur is peeled off easily, after which the flipper is poured over with hot water.

Stinky flipper is well-known on St. Paul, although not many villagers regularly eat it. Interest in these kinds of recipes, though, ubiquitous, in particular because of high food prices, unregular supplies and a renewed curiosity in local culture. In the end, food and consuming food together takes part in identity-forming.

Franz Boas took great efforts in documenting cultural traits before they are vanished. Today, TikTok does the job. Watch Amanda Shavings from Mekoryuk, Alaska preparing stinky flipper and do not forget to read the comments below the video.

Recording this American life

Among podcast producers there are a couple of audio documentaries which are viewed as the holy grail. Podcasts that stand out for their storyline, ways of interviewing and interesting protagonists to name a few factors.

One that stands out for me is S-Town, created by the collective called This American Life in collaboration with Serial Productions. The podcast is based on seven chapters and starts with the disclosure that a murder has taken place somewhere in a little town in Alabama. The listener follows the journalist and host of S-Town on his quest, which eventually, only deals with the murder in a very minor sense.

What we do encounter, however, is American life in its purest form, starring John McLemore as protagonist who shows what it is to live in American periphery, and be…different…in this “this Shit-Town.”

John McLemore is the protagonist which is essential in every good story: a person that you either love or hate, someone which one can relate to in one way or another, who shows different characters. Seeking for a protagonist is one of the pillars we try to convey during the third-year Bachelor course Future Anthropology. In this final course of the Bachelor’s program, students are supposed to create a production – in the broadest sense of the word – based on their Bachelor’s thesis for a non-anthropological audience. After all, these third-year students soon graduate and will need to present themselves in a job interview or somewhere else to people who are not aware of what anthropology is about. As such, you would better have a good story to tell, a story with an interesting protagonist.

Back to S-Town. Through the kind of reportage style creator Brian Reed applies, one gets a pretty good idea of how Alabama life looks like by getting to know John McLemore.

With This American Life in mind, we convinced we should have an colorful protagonist. Someone like Kukax Zee.

Kukax [grandma; pronounced as Koogah] Zee is an elder from St. Paul who has lived all her life in the only town of St. Paul. A devout Christian in her eighties who did not care about studying, because she would eventually ‘marry, get kids and become a housewife anyway’.

Yet a grandmother with a different kind of character at the same time. She, allegedly, once asked a female, visiting Saint Paul, why she did not eat meat. Apparently, when not offered a convincing answer, she asked: “but you do eat cocks, don’t you?” and cheerfully chuckled with her characteristic laugh.

How to capture this lady? How to get a glimpse of this American / Aleut life on St. Paul Island?

We, firstly, decided that we should record an interview with Kukax Zee in her own home. A ‘shack’, as Kukax says herself, built by officials of the American federal government in the 1950s. “They still have the same cupboards.”

Hence, we included the typical sound of knocking on one’s door that is so exemplary of American homes. Knuckles on pinewood.  On entering her house, we found out that Zee’s radio was tuned in to KUHP, the local radio station of St. Paul. Normally, I definitely try to get rid of all kinds of disturbing sounds in the environment, like air-conditioning, all kinds of beeps or people walking up and down the stairs. It spoils your recording. But in this case, I decided to lower the volume somewhat, just enough to still hear this typical soundbite of American kitchen tables on the countryside. A kitchen table blues.

Recently, I took a podcast course on ‘oral history interviewing’ by Annegriet Wietsma [latest podcast De Zwemclub]. One thing I remembered very well from Wietsma, herself a very experienced podcast creator, is that you should always try to get informants talk nineteen to the dozen [in Dutch: op de praatstoel zitten]. Once they do so, you will see their eyes pointing halfway to the ceiling, trying to paint a scenery from the past. One way of seeking informants to do so is by asking them to dig up memories about a particular phenomenon.

In our case, we asked Kukax Zee to talk about her cooking memories – as she is famous on the island for her seal stews – which soon ended up in talking about what it was like growing up in her family.

So, podcasting seems like an entertaining way of disseminating worlds unknown, but what could be the added value for the scientific discipline of anthropology? In a way, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, in Mushroom at the end of the world. On life in capitalist ruins, gives an answer that comes close to my gut feeling:

To listen to and tell a rush of stories is a method. And why not make the strong claim and call it a science, an addition to knowledge? To learn anything we must revitalize arts of noticing and include ethnography and history. But we have a problem with scale. A rush of stories cannot be neatly summed up. Its scales do not nest neatly; they draw attention to interrupting geographies and tempos. These interruptions elicit more stories. This is the rush of stories’ power as a science.

The more I experiment with podcasts, the more I tend to think in ‘tracks’ in an editing program. One track for interviews that get under your skin, one for persuasive voice-overs, one for ear-catching music and a final one for conveying an evocative atmosphere. And what the eye does not capture, is, fortunately, being imagined by the mind.

That is our version of This American life.

One Comment

  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Hi Wiebe,
    Many thanks! The coming weeks I have to give lectures on the relationship between history and anthropology and then two on theorizing and empirical data, and your blog gives me inspiration!

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