Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

The Ends of Anthropology, A to Z

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Two profound endings for the field of anthropology took place this past week, one at either end of the alphabetic spectrum. In New Mexico, ethnographer Michael Agar succumbed to ALS. News meandered to Walnut Creek through his former affiliation at the University of Maryland. In Indianapolis, a suburban backyard retirement party was held for archaeologist Larry Zimmerman, retiring from decades at Indiana U Indianapolis. In one week, two of the most creative and caring members of our community leave anthropology and leave a deep chasm in the middle of the field.

 One cannot say enough about the brilliance, commitment, or creativity of Mike Agar. I’d known him since the early 1980s. He’s one of the few scholars whose fan club I would have joined if he had decided to start one. Would have bought the I Like Mike banner for my office wall, learned the secret handshake, and lined a bookshelf with all his books. I was fortunate to have published one of them and had a chance to read and critique many of the others. He lived what he preached, grittily hanging out under railroad bridges to understand the world of drug addicts, suffered saddle sores of cross country trips with independent truckers to interview them. And he could write about these worlds like no one else. Quit his tenured academic job, lived off the land and a regular flow of NIH grants.  Self-published his final book so he wouldn’t have to compromise his vision with those narrow-minded publishers. Supported important causes in his Santa Fe neighborhood. Lived a life without the many compromises that most of us make to secure our future. Walked the walk. 

No conversation with Mike was wasted. I often could follow what he was thinking, but he usually was several leagues ahead of me, doing mental highwire work while I was still trying to master the trampoline.  His last book, pieces of which sit on his website, merges anthropological concepts of culture with classical social theory, artificial intelligence, and complexity theory.  He asked me to review previously drafted parts of it and I was of no help. My theory toolkit wasn’t deep enough to keep up with his ideas.

I banter well, but never could hold a candle to him.  Now I’ll never get to hear the story about the lesbian scuba diver he met in Honduras and her attractive NGO friend, promised for the next time we get together.

I’ve known Larry Zimmerman almost as long as I've known Mike. His official title is “Professor of Anthropology & Museum Studies and Adjunct Professor, Native American & Indigenous Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, and Public Scholar of Native American Representation, IUPUI and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.” This requires him to have a business card as large as a Denny’s breakfast menu, but is also indicative of the many ways in which he has influenced the field of anthropology.

“Indians are certain that Columbus brought anthropologists on his ships when he came to the New World. How else could he have made so many wrong decision about where he was?” –Vine Deloria

 Larry Zimmerman has been trying to fix that problem for the past three decades. The Native American archaeologists I know treat Larry as one of them— a member of a lost tribe that ended up in Iowa via Germany. Larry hosted the 1989 Vermillion Accord, which first established principles for archaeologists on the treatment of indigenous people and their remains, an ethical code which, over the past two decades, has become the norm in the field. He has taught and mentored numerous Native American scholars. He has been integral to the ethical debates of the World Archaeological Congress and provided leadership in creating the mindset that archaeologists’ responsibility is to honor and collaborate with the people whose past they study. Walked the walk.

In more recent work, he’s validated Native oral traditions as a form of knowledge of the past. He’s studied the material culture of homelessness to help policymakers design meaningful ways to help those populations. He’s trained generations of archaeologists, Native American scholars, anthropologists and museum professionals. I’ve had the honor of publishing a number of his works. Yet, if you ran into Larry at the local Safeway and asked what he did, he’d claim to be a garden variety archaeologist, not someone central to changing the ethical compass of an entire field. Then he’d go back to the vegetable bins.

Fortunately, Larry’s retirement won’t necessarily mean his absence from the world. It would be hard to bet against him leaping up from the rocking chair on the Indy porch and jumping back into the fray when he’s next needed. Still, his retirement will put a crimp on the growth of indigenous archaeology, archaeological ethics, and archaeology as a tool for social change. It’s not too late to start a LZ fan club and invent a secret handshake, but Larry would prefer we just go out and do good in the world.

Both Mike and Larry would be uncomfortable with this piece; they never wanted the focus on them.  But the coincidence of their simultaneous departures from anthropology cannot go unmarked. Nor are we done with the bad news this month. Rick Wilk, another brilliant, committed anthropologist who helped found the archaeology of contemporary garbage, household archaeology, and the anthropology of food, is retiring next week. Rather than a fan club, he’ll need a dinner club.

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