Decolonizing Indigenous India: Ethnographic Reading Course
Instructor: Dr. Markus Schleiter
In this course, we will explore the coloniality/postcoloniality of ethnographies of South Asian indigenous communities by closely examining contemporary and colonial ethnographic studies of such communities. The first set of readings comprises ethnographic monographs and articles produced in the colonial context of the late 19th and early 20th century. We will analyze the texts as written representations of the more than 100 million people who are categorized as Adivasi (first people) in India, as well as discussing the extent to which the ethnographic studies are shaped by their administrative, missionary, or military colonial contexts of origin. We will then consider the colonial-era texts alongside recent ethnographies, aiming to identify continuities as well as contrasts in the forms of ethnography presented. To support our analysis, the key readings of the seminar include seminal theoretical articles from academic debates on ethnographic writing. Foremost among these are texts from the ”Writing Culture” debate, which deconstruct and critique ethnographic studies from a literary perspective. Furthermore, the course introduces theoretical works that reflect on the coloniality/postcoloniality of ethnographic writing contexts as well as recent discussions on whether anthropology can decolonize ethnography.
The course aims to provide students with a basic understanding of who South Asia’s indigenous peoples are, and to what extent (if at all) they are distinct from mainstream South Asian societies. The ethnographic studies will introduce us to diverse South Asian indigenous communities including the Santal, Kondh, Naga, Mizo and Birhor, and we will discuss these groups’ everyday indigenous culture as well as the ways in which people articulate indigenous belonging, with reference not only to traditional practices such as ancestor worship, dance nights, youth dormitories, but also to new forms of folklore, middle class aspirations, and indigenous popular media. These topics will lead us to critically consider which specific indigenous cultural experiences are generally focused upon in ethnographic writing, and what role colonial ethnographies and the endurance of colonial classifications in contemporary governmental welfare schemes play in continuing to identify the communities concerned as distinct from mainstream South Asian societies. If we conclude that conceptualizations of indigenous communities are at least in part shaped by ethnographic writing, how should we position ourselves as postcolonial anthropologists writing about indigenous people? Furthermore, how can we understand the impact that colonial contexts have had on the production of ethnographies of indigenous people, and how can we continue to work in a discipline that has its roots in military and missionary contexts?
The seminar is a reading course and each weekly session will involve discussions and group work focusing on key ethnographic and theoretical texts. Students – individually or in groups – will be required to analyze ethnographic case studies or theoretical approaches and present their findings to their fellow students. Alternatively, students may introduce the class to the ethnography of a specific indigenous community, produce their own visual presentation as a short video, or do an empirical study with NGOs working in the field.
- Close reading of the key text each week.
- Individually or in small groups: Presentation (15-20 min.) of a subtopic, such as an analysis of an ethnographic case study, an introduction to ethnographic texts relating to a particular indigenous community, or to a theoretical approach; or of two responses to the readings (5-10 min. each). Alternatively, students may choose to conduct interviews with NGO members. Presentations can also be based upon students’ own visual productions combined with a reflection.
- Three critical essays on the readings (1-2 pages each) to be submitted before the respective sessions.
- Submission of a summary of one of the seminar sessions (1-2 pages).
Bejarano, Carolina Alonso; Lucia Lopez Juarez; Mirian A. Mijangos Garcia and Daniel M. Goldstein 2019. Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science. Durham: Duke University Press.
Dalton, Edward Tuite  1973. Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal. Calcutta: Indian Studies Past & Present.
de Maaker, Erik and Markus Schleiter 2019. Introduction: Screening Indigeneity and Nation. In Schleiter, Markus and Erik de Maaker (ed.), Media, Indigeneity and Nation in South Asia. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1-26.
Marcus, George E. and Dick Cushman 1982. Ethnographies as Texts. Annual Review of Anthropology 11: 25-69.
Pels, Peter and Oscar Salemink 1999. Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Shah, Alpa 2007. The Dark Side of Indigeneity: Indigenous People, Rights and Development in India. History Compass 5/6: 1806-1832.
Vitebsky, Pierre  2018. Living without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos. Noida: Harper Collins Publisher India.