Decanonizing Anthropology

Reworking the History of Social Theory for 21st Century Anthropology: A Syllabus Project

Authors: Rebecca Renee Buell, Samuel Burns, Zhuo Chen, Lisa Grabinsky, Argenis Hurtado Moreno, Katherine Stanton, Froggi VanRiper, Loren White

[Footnotes is very pleased to present the Decanonizing Anthropology syllabus project. This syllabus was assembled collectively as a final project of the graduate Social Theory class in the Applied Anthropology program at Oregon State University. It offers several in-class activities for the project of “decanonizing anthropology,” and overviews the work of ten theorists whose contributions to anthropology should be acknowledged and celebrated. The authors welcome new sections or additions in the comments. Keep in mind the core objective of this syllabus: to challenge the Eurocentricity of anthropological thought and education by exploring influential, though historically ignored, voices in anthropology. The project of re-writing better histories is urgent and ongoing. A full PDF version of the syllabus can be found here.]


The purpose of this syllabus is to remake anthropological social theory by highlighting sources frequently omitted from conventionally taught History of Anthropology or Social Theory courses. We take as our point of departure that the traditional canon of academic anthropology has been violent in its exclusion of Indigenous, non-male, non-white, and otherwise marginalized voices. “Decanonizing” requires that we actively work to amplify voices and concepts silenced by History. Such an endeavor goes deeper than simply assigning new texts; we also ask how visual, auditory, or other forms of expression have shaped academic knowledge practices, and how these practices can be shaped otherwise. It is our hope that students learn to identify and critique the patriarchal influence of EuroAmerican conventions on the field of anthropology while developing tools for their own anticolonial anthropological pedagogies and practices. These readings will expose you to anthropologists who have been central to the development of the discipline, but who have been systematically under-recognized for their work. This syllabus asks you to rethink the category of “theory” and to ask questions about who is credited for its production.


We suggest replacing readings typically included in the anthropological canon with brilliant scholarship often pushed to the margins of our field. The question of how to present “alternative” readings – which are not secondary, mimetic, or “other” to those conventionally assigned – is a deeply vexing question. We hope you do not shy away from it. Far better structures than what we have presented here must exist and we invite new iterations of the syllabus to experiment with new forms.

These alternatives should not be read as a necessary indictment of the conventionally assigned readings (though the work of many authors included in the conventional canon was racist and has hung around for disturbingly long). Instead, we offer them because of what these particular scholars contribute to a field that too-often still privileges white male cis-gender authors in the his-stories it tells about itself. We want to disrupt this history. Look around at who is read, cited, and centered in the field and we believe you will find this disruption long overdue.

Land acknowledgement

Land statements are insufficient without action behind them. We encourage you to learn about the histories of the land that you live on or occupy. Here is one good resource: Please share existing resources widely.

In our case, the labor of assembling this syllabus took place on the stolen homelands of the Mary’s River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855 (The Treaty with the Kalapuya, etc., also known as the Kalapuya Treaty), Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, their descendants are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon ( and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians (

Primary Authors Assigned

Zora Neale Hurston (an anthropology of history)

Ohíye S’a/Charles Eastman (an alternative to Morgan)

W.E.B. DuBois (an alternative to Boas)

Anténor Firmin (an alternative to Boas)

Emma Goldman (an alternative to Boas)

Mareketi (an alternative to Mauss)

Hsiao-t’ung Fei (an alternative to Malinowski)

Ella Deloria (an alternative to Benedict)

Frantz Fanon (an alternative to Evans-Pritchard)

Katherine Dunham (an alternative to Mead)

Gina Athena Ulysse (historical rasanblaj exercise)

To begin: Toward an anthropology of history, Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston, Z. N. (2018). Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” New York: Amistad.

An image of the cover of Zora Neal Hurston's Barracoon, which shows a portrait of Cudjo Lewis, who is profiled in the text.

Consider opening your course with Hurston’s Barracoon to discuss which kind of stories are canonized and which are abandoned. Review publishers’ objections to the text at the time it was written and discuss Hurston’s eventual marginalization from the field of anthropology. Make evident that “history” is a practice carried out in the present by who we read and the ideas with which we engage.

“Probably the most significant collector and interpreter of Southern, African American culture, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is the dominant female voice of the Harlem Renaissance era. In her works, she celebrates her hometown, Eatonville, as representative of the dignity and beauty of rural Southern, African-American life and culture. A consummate storyteller, she brings to her readers an authenticity based on her primary research.

Zora has enjoyed a revival of interest since the 1970’s due in large part to the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker; Robert Hemenway, her literary biographer; and most recently, Valerie Boyd’s (2004) biography Wrapped in Rainbows.

Her legacy is a phenomenon which has undergone remarkable development and expansion in recent decades, embracing among others, topics in ethnic identity, social interaction, feminist theory and cultural continuity. Her unique insights into folklore, performance and creative expression have invited new interpretation and inspired emulation, while the corpus of her own works has grown as a result of research and discovery.” –

Supplemental Readings


An image of Bukka White playing guitar.
  • Consider showing this in-class audio clip of Bukka White (Lomax, Lomax, and White, 1939).
    The folklorist and musicologist John Lomax recorded this audio while White was in prison. During the 1930’s, Zora Neale Hurston combined efforts with John Lomax and his son Alan to travel and capture the songs and stories of Afro-Haitians and African Americans in the deep South; the Lomaxes attributed the success of several field trips entirely to Hurston’s contributions (Harold 2008).
    You might present students with the idea that the “anthropology” of this piece is found not only in Lomax’s recording of it, but within White’s composition of song as its own form of folklore, laden with the emotion of his voice and guitar work. This draws from the idea that music, and other artistic expressions, are multifaceted socio-cultural phenomena shaped by identity and experience. These songs can be studied as active elements of culture that transcend the analytical limits of textual sources. They highlight the potential for anthropology to be an evenly collaborative project, in which the bearers of culture can themselves hold the authority to shape knowledge in different and overlapping ways.  

Additional Resources

Instead of Lewis Henry Morgan consider Charles Eastman (nee Hakadah) Ohíye S’a

An image of the cover of Ohíye S'a's "Red Hunters and the Animal People." The image, which appears to be a painting, shows two Native people standing on a mountain range, looking over their landscape. The cover uses Ohíye S'a's Western name, "Charles A. Eastman."

Eastman, C. A. (1905). “The River People.” In Eastman, C. A. (Ed.), Red Hunters and the Animal People (pp. 177-199). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Charles Eastman (named Hakadah at birth) wrote from the perspective of an Indigenous Santee Dakota Sioux. Born in land now called Minnesota, he was given the name of Ohíye S’a in his early youth.  Ohíye S’a was raised until the age of fifteen in the traditions of his semi-nomadic tribal culture. At this age, he moved from the home of his grandfather to that of his father, who had adopted European living traditions.

After his father baptised him and gave him the name Charles Eastman, he began to study the English language and to receive his education from colonial schools. From this point forward, Ohíye S’a spent his life navigating the challenge of balancing love of his childhood culture with the practicalities of survival in an environment of white cultural supremacy. He went on to graduate from Dartmouth College and earn a medical degree at Boston University. While Ohíye S’a worked as a physician and across a range of sectors, he continuously dedicated himself to advocacy for Indigenous peoples.

At the age of 35, he began documenting the traditions, religions, and history of Sioux culture and publishing them in the English language (Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections, n.d.). He is “considered the first Native American author to write American history from the Native American point of view” (Library of Congress Authorities, n.d.).

His book Red Hunters and the Animal People, published in 1905, illustrates Indigenous knowledge and perspectives on their “brothers”, the non-human animals. For example, in “The River People,” as in the other chapters, the beaver is the subject of Ohíye S’a’s story, not the object of observation, as in Morgan’s writings. Morgan never got close to a beaver outside of a museum or the London Zoo (Feeley-Harnik, 2014); meanwhile, Ohíye S’a’s beavers are identified by names, as human subjects would be in a similar story.

This book offers insight into many anthropological kinship themes: perspectives on animal consciousness or mind; comparisons of family and social structure; and theories of the relationship between humans and non-human animals. Each story involves human and non-human actors, both of which are presented with equal depth of character development. The tone is descriptive, not moralizing, but elicits empathy from the reader for each character.

While Morgan bases his claims of shared ancestry on physiological traits, Ohíye S’a presents the case for shared ancestry based on consciousness and personhood. Rather than arguing the case for animal consciousness based on principles accepted by the Euro-American scientific community, as Morgan is compelled to do, Ohíye S’a’s writings take animal consciousness as self-evident.

Additional Resources

  • Sierra, J. (2011). The Political Evolution of the Mexican People. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • For a Latin American “multi-species” analysis of society — much in the tone of Lewis Henry Morgan’s The American Beaver and His Works — consider reading Justo Sierra’s The Political Evolution of the Mexican People.
    Justo Sierra was a Mexican historian, educator, and writer, who revolutionized Mexico’s education system in the early 20th Century. Inspired by the work of Darwin and Spencer, Sierra pushed forward a liberal and laic model of education within the public system. Known mostly for his historical works, Sierra provides an in-depth analysis of the evolution of Mexican society from the pre-Hispanic era to the present era, rendering it as an organism (superorganism) by itself. As such, Mexican society is comprised of organs with specific functions —industry, comments, and government— that enable its improvement and evolution.
    Note: Although an English translation is available, it is encouraged for those competent in Spanish to work on Sierra’s texts in their original language.
  • Patiño, F. (1876). Las Plantas Carnivoras. Gaceta Médica de México 11(24), 474-479.
    Consider also Francisco Patiño’s “The Carnivorous Plants.” Patiño was an influential physician in Mexico during the mid to late 19th century. He was also a prominent writer on botany and medicine-related topics, as well as the founder of a medical magazine by the name of La Independencia Médica (The Medical Independence). Patiño’s “Las plantas carnívoras” (The Carnivorous Plants) seeks to refute the classic distinction made by the French zoologist Milne Edwards that holds that vegetables cannot feel nor move voluntarily whereas animals can. At the end of his publication, Patiño leaves open the possibility that future scientific advancements —aided by Darwin and other intellectuals of the time— would challenge the evolutionarily erroneous notions of Christianity prevalent at the time.
    Note: This text is not available in English, but including supplemental non-English language texts reminds students – even those who do not speak the language of the text – to look beyond English-language sources in their research. Working with non-English languages is an important decolonial praxis.  

Supplemental Readings

  • Feeley-Harnik, G. (1999). Communities of Blood: The Natural History of Kinship in Nineteenth Century America. Comparative Studies in Society and History 41(2), 215-262.
  • Simpson, A. (2014). Constructing Kahanawà:ke as an ‘Out of the Way’ Place: Ely S. Parker, Lewis Henry Morgan, and the Writing of the Iroquois Confederacy. In A. Simpson (Ed.), Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (pp.67-94). Durham: Duke University Press.


  • In-class video:
    Ogden, L., Marambio, C., & Gast, C. (2017). Dreamworlds of Beavers. Ensayos. A Nomadic Research Program in Tierra Del Fuego.  

Instead of Franz Boas consider W.E.B. DuBois

DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.

An black and white photograph of a W.E.B. Du Bois. The photograph shows his profile. He is wearing a white-collared suit.

The Souls of Black Folk provides an insightful series of essays primarily focused on race and its implications in society. The beginning of the book lays out the accomplishments DuBois wishes to see within the Black race: the right to vote for Blacks in the south, good education, equality of treatment and justice. Published in 1903, many of DuBois’ insights have present-day relevance. He sidesteps the argument that race is socially constructed by showing the powerful and stratified effects that racism has on different communities.  

The text offers a powerful elaboration of the concept of double consciousness. He describes the ongoing battle of a Negro presenting themselves two ways, one of which grants him more opportunities (white version) and the other that disgusts mainstream America (Black version). The text illustrates how the life, culture, and experiences of Black folk are treated with disgust by many whites, with lasting effects on political power, civil rights, and accessibility of higher education. It raises important questions about how to effectively demand equality, integration, and justice within (and against) institutional systems that were designed with the intention to exclude.

Instead of Franz Boas consider Anténor Firmin

This is a text-only image of the cover of Anténor Firmin's "The Equality of the Human Races."

Firmin, A. (2000). The Equality of Human Races (Positivist Anthropology). Translated by Asselin Charles. Introduction by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban. New York: Garland Publishing. (Originally published in 1885).

Anténor Firmin was a Haitian lawyer and intellectual who was involved in the Pan-African movement fighting for the rights of blacks all over the world. Well before Boas was writing about anti-racist thought, Anténor Firmin published The Equality of Human Races. The book was a direct response Arthur de Gobineau’s The Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855). More generally, it challenged prominent race/racist science of the time with a particular focus on the anthropological community, which openly supported racist ideals. Unique for anthropologists of the time, Firmin utilized empirical methods to debunk racism.

He points in particular to Egyptian social orders. Their technological advancements run counter to a prevalent Western-based argument about African inferiority. Firmin also argues against polygenism, the accepted “science” of the time, which was based on the idea that blacks and whites are in fact two separate species. He made a convincing argument against scientific racism, but it would be some decades before the anthropological community was willing to take this up.

Supplemental Readings

Instead of Franz Boas consider Emma Goldman

This is a text-only image of the cover of Emma Goldman's "Anarchism: What it Really Stands For." The cover says, "Price Ten Cents and was published in 1911."

Goldman, E. (1910) “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For,” In E. Goldman (Ed.), Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 53–67). New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association.

Like Boas, Goldman was a U.S. immigrant born to a Jewish family. Yet rather than work within the academic establishment, she challenged it—and was eventually arrested, jailed, and deported for her commitments to democracy and free speech.

Goldman’s contributions to anarchist theory prefigured contemporary anthropological concern for power, domination, and violence. Goldman provides anthropologists with an accessible framework for thinking about human relationships, which focuses on power: on who has access to it and who doesn’t, on who benefits from it and who suffers from it, on how it is wielded and fought over and controlled.

Her work shows how cultural narratives – often controlled by those with access to power – will make violence committed on behalf of the powerful against the powerless invisible and inevitable, while condemning violence committed by the powerless against the powerful. Goldman’s work, by focusing on the differential access to power, shines a light on this hidden violence. Her thinking about anarchism also helps to show how violence is built into the modern global capitalist state in the form of police brutality, economic exploitation, sexual harassment, terrorism, or war.

The classic statement of Emma Goldman’s essential philosophy is the short essay “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For” (1910). In this essay, Goldman outlines the core beliefs underlying anarchist thought. Although the popular mind conceives of anarchism as focusing exclusively on the individual, Goldman explicitly sets up society as equal in importance to the individual: “the history of human development will disclose two elements in bitter conflict with each other; elements that are only now being understood […] as closely related and truly harmonious, if only placed in proper relationship: the individual and social instincts” (Goldman 1910, 51).

According to Goldman, there are three major forces that prevent the harmonious flourishing of individual and social instincts: religious institutions that dominate the human mind, economic structures ­that dominate the human body, and governments that dominate human behavior. Anarchism is, in its essence, an opposition to these systems of domination. Domination is an exercise of power: it is the exploitation of unequally distributed power to allow those with access to power to impose their will on those without access. Thus, anarchism focuses on analyses of power distributions.

Beyond its value as an analytical tool, anarchism can also help anthropologists develop an anthropology that actively fights against reproducing unjust violence within the discipline itself. As the recent #metoo movement has made clear, unequal distributions of power have led to deep and pervasive cultures of abuse in many different fields and industries. Anthropology is not immune to this. Indeed, the history of anthropology is deeply entangled with colonialism, war, capitalism, and many other forms of unjust violence. The academy itself is a system with rigid hierarchies and deep structural differences in the distribution of power. By making these power differences explicit and bringing them to the analytical foreground, anarchism is a powerful tool for holding those with access to power to account for abuses of power.

Supplemental Readings

  • Weiss, J. (2018, July 7). Citation is a Gift: ‘Punking’ Accounting in #hautalk. Footnotes Blog: Multimodal, Anticolonial, Iconoclastic.
    There is a close association between anarchist theory and punk culture. This piece looks at the practice of academic citation from an explicitly punk perspective, showing how something as seemingly mundane as citing a source in an academic paper or syllabus can reinforce and reproduce structures of power; or alternatively, can become an act of resistance.
  • Black Trowel Collective. (2016, October 31). Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto. Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology. (Blog).
    This piece is anarchist theory produced using anarchist practice. Written by a non-hierarchical collective, it is a bullet list of short principles for an anarchist archaeology (although most of them apply equally to general anthropology). These principles range from critiquing power to recognizing agency to respecting diversity of identity. Together they highlight the multitude of ways that simple anarchist concepts intersect with anthropological theory.
  • Anarchy and Archaeology [Special issue]. (2017). The SAA Archaeological Record, 25(1).
    This newsletter volume is a collection of essays and mini-manifestos that discuss various issues involving anarchist theory and archaeology. Glance through the entire volume and read any of them that catch your eye. Several of the articles (Crumley; Fajardo and Rotermund; Henry et. al) bring anarchist thought into the anthropological toolkit, while others (Welch; Orser Jr; Sanger) discuss using an anarchist lens to study past societies that have different power structures than modern, western culture.
  • Simpson, A. (2018) Why White People Love Franz Boas; or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession. In N. Blackhawk and I. L. Wilner (Eds.), Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (pp. 166-181). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Additional Resources

Instead of Marcel Mauss consider Makereti

An Image of the cover of Makereti Papakura's "The Old-Time Maori." The book cover features cut-out black and white photographs of three people wearing typical or traditional clothing.

Makereti (Sometimes Chieftainess of the Arawa Tribe, Known in New Zealand as Maggie Papakura). (1938). The Old-Time Māori. London: Victor Gollancz.

From the website:

“Margaret Pattison Thom, who was later widely known as Makereti (or Maggie) Papakura, was born in Matata, in the Bay of Plenty, on 20 October 1873. Her father was an Englishman, William Arthur Thom, and her mother was Pia Ngarotu Te Rihi, a high-born Te Arawa woman of Ngati Wahiao hapū of Tuhourangi. Makereti was taken to the rural community of Parekarangi to be raised by her mother’s paternal aunt and uncle, Marara Marotaua and Maihi Te Kakau Paraoa. It was from them that Makereti learnt the genealogies, histories and customs that informed her book, The Old-Time Māori.

“Maggie Papakura became a famous hostess and guide to the hot springs and geysers of the Rotorua district. In 1911 she met and married Richard Charles Staples-Brown, a wealthy English land owner, she moved to England and they lived near Oxford. In 1926, Makareti enrolled as a student at the University of Oxford to study for a BSc in anthropology. On 16 April 1930, just weeks before her thesis was due for examination, Makereti died suddenly. Her thesis, The Old-Time Māori, was published eight years after her death.

The Old-Time Māori is Maggie Papakura’s biography, the life-story of the old people she was raised by and to whom the book is dedicated. It tells the story of the kainga in which she was born and her own early life. Maggie Papakura narrates her observations from childhood through to her later years covering such areas as whakapapa, the record of marriages and births; rituals such as the tohi rite over children and collection and cultivation of food.

“The book has a unique place as the first extensive published ethnographic work by a Māori scholar. The most striking quality about the book is that while scholarly in approach, it is based on traditionally acquired knowledge and first-hand experience. Moreover, it reflects the self-awareness of its author who was at all times conscious of her lineage and responsibility to her people.”

Image of Makereti by the Mahi Tahi collective here.

Supplemental Readings

Instead of Bronislaw Malinowski consider Hsiao-t’ung Fei

This is a text-only image of the cover of Hsiao-t’ung Fei's "Peasant Life in China." The book cover is red, and a map of China and surrounding countries can be seen in the background.

Fei, H. (1939) Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Hsiao-t’ung Fei, who studied with Malinowksi and Firth at the London School of Economics, went on to help found the field of anthropology in China. Teaching his work offers a reminder to your students that while anthropologists may share a history of connection, anthropology is also practiced globally in diverse ways. This may be an especially useful lesson in American Anthropology courses, which tend to excessively center work undertaken in the US. This is also a way to educate students about the merits of participant-observation ethnography through a text that does not fetishize otherness or which is not undermined by the explicit racism and sexism in Malinowski’s diaries. For Dr. Fei, anthropology was never a “romantic escape” from his own culture. His academic life and achievements remain highly valued and he continues to inspire generations of young Chinese anthropologists and sociologists today.

Dr. Fei’s book, Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley, grew out of his PhD research. It is a descriptive account of the system of consumption, production, distribution and exchange of wealth among Chinese peasants as observed in the village. Economic life of the villagers is presented around two core themes: (1) exploitation of soil, and (2) reproductive processes within the household and family. He shows how economy rooted in the soil, based on land tenure, and adjusted by ethnicity and morality is pre-capitalist. Peasants’ economic life followed moral codes and traditional ethics as much as – or even more than – the “rational” trading and bargaining rules. Their household is based on land, and land is an integral part of their being. Non-monetary values such as honor, ambition, devotion and social approval are more important than economic value. It is an economy which hasn’t been separated from the household, echoing the original meaning of the word “economics” in Greek (“house”).

Fei shows how these local descriptions also have a wider significance. Malinowski, who wrote the introduction, explains: “By becoming acquainted with the life of a small village, we study, under a microscope as it were, the epitome of China at large.” Fei’s methodology marks a new path towards “micro-sociology” (proposed many times by Sir Raymond Firth in the following decades)—although, Fei’s work was interrupted by WWII and by China severing ties with the western academy.

Following the text’s publication, Fei suffered political repression during the Anti-Rightist Movement and China’s Culture Revolution. For more than twenty years of his life, he was unable to teach, do research, or publish. In his late sixties, Dr. Fei’s reputation was finally rehabilitated. Instead of mourn his lost years of work, he established a sociology/anthropology research base in the community, connected with western scholars and introduced them to China to do field work.  

Instead of Ruth Benedict consider instead Ella C. Deloria

Deloria, E. C. (1944). Speaking of Indians. New York: Friendship Press.

This is an image of the cover of Ella Cara Deloria's "Speaking of Indians." The book jacket shows a Native person in elegant traditional dress standing next to a fabric structure with a field in the background.

(From the book jacket) “Ella Deloria could speak intimately about Indian ways because she belonged to a Yankton Sioux family. A distinguished scholar who studied with Franz Boas at Columbia University, she had the gift of language and the understanding necessary to bridge races. Originally published in 1944, this book is an important source of information about Dakota culture and a classic in its elegant clarity of insight. Beginning with a general discussion of American Indian origins, language families, and culture areas, Deloria then focuses on her own people, the Dakotas, and the intricate kinship system that governed all aspects of their life. Deloria goes on to show the painful transition to reservations and how the holdover of the kinship system worked against Indians trying to follow white notions of progress and success. Her ideas about what both races must do to participate fully in American life are as cogent now as when they were first written.”

Supplemental Readings

Instead of E. E. Evans-Pritchard consider Frantz Fanon

This is a text-only  image of Franz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth."

Fanon, F. (2003). Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press. (Originally published in 1963).

Evans-Pritchard is often called the father of medical anthropology, but we might consider a different kinship for the field. Frantz Fanon, from Martinique, was a practicing psychiatrist in Algeria who wrote numerous books exploring techniques for working within and again powerful institutions. Stuart Hall has called The Wretched of the Earth “the Bible of the decolonization movement.”

Additional Resources

  • Somé, M. P. (1994). Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. New York: Penguin Press.

Instead of Margaret Mead consider Katherine Dunham

This is an black and white photograph of Katherine Dunham working on a dance maneuver with a partner in Mexico in 1955. She wears a black dress. Her partner, who supports both of her hands, wears jeans and is topless.

Katherine Dunham brought anthropology to a broad public audience, popularizing anthropological techniques of story-telling through dance long before “engaged anthropology” became known as a domain of the field. Rather than explore Dunham’s work through texts, this week focuses on films and video-based film analysis. The hope is to encourage a multimodal anthropology that works to diversify content through experimental forms. Dunham’s choreography and performances drew heavily on fieldwork in the Caribbean – Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Tabago, and Haiti. She was one of the first African American women to be awarded a degree from the University of Chicago. She brought an ethnographic sensitivity to her performances, although she arguably gave far more to the field than she was granted in return. Among her many lasting contributions is the deep concern for the politics of representation that she brought to her work. She recognized early on that not all stories were hers to tell and carefully attended to the responsibilities that came with translating across places, audiences, languages, and genres throughout her acclaimed career.  

Additional Resources

On bringing dance to Anthropology

Browse the Library of Congress’ extensive collection. In particular, play this clip from the Library of Congress where she speaks about filming ethics:

Conclusion: Historical Rasanblaj (Gina Athena Ulysse)

This is an image of Gina Athena Ulysse's "Because When God is Too Busy: Haïti, me and THE WORLD." The lettering is yellow with a green backing. Three silk scarfs are visible (one white, one yellow, one blue).

For your final assignment, consider returning to the work of Gina Athena Ulysse with an interactive exercise. Ask students to re-read “How do you overturn history in 400 years?” and to read for the first time the poem “The Passion in Auto-Ethnography: Homage to Those Who Hollered Before Me” (Ulysse, 2018).

This poem names numerous influential theorists who are frequently omitted from the anthropological canon, including (in order):

Papa Legba, Anacaona, Nèg Mawon, Cecile Fatiman, Sojourner Truth, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, Charlemagne Péralte, Marcus Garvey, Jean Price Mars, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Patricia Williams, Peter Tosh, Gloria Anzaldua, Maryse Conde, Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire, Winnie Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Irene Diggs, Roberta Stoddart, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Shirley Chisholm, Michelle Cliff, Ruth Behar, Michel Rolph Trouillot, Faye Harrison, Nesha Haniff, Walter Rodney, bell hooks, Miriam Makeba, Elias Farajaje Jones, Betty Lou Valentine, John Gwaltney, Lauryn Hill, Nelson Mandela, Sisters of the Cowries, June Jordan, and Brenda Cardenas.  

Supplemental Readings


  • “The Passion in Auto-Ethnography” activity
  • At home: Ask students to select someone whose work they are unfamiliar with from “The Passion in Auto-Ethnography” and to write a one-page summary of this theorist’s work, which will help them as they make a brief presentation in class.
    Also have students select one line from the theorist’s writing that they find especially moving and bring a printout of the line to class.
  • In class: Brief presentations of the theorists that the students will read aloud in class.
  • Afterward: If the class is large, break students into groups of no more than 10 students. Have the groups compose a story/poem out of the individual lines they have brought from their theorist, pasting these into a vignette or poem. Have them read these aloud to one another at the end of class. Part of the lesson is to make to make apparent how our voices are composed of the voices of our ancestors. Another goal of the lesson is to make apparent that who we read shapes how we think and what we will ourselves be able to write.
  • Materials: scissors, glue, large sheets of paper (one per group).
This image, similar to the image at the top of the post, is of a large brown piece of paper with snippets of cut-out poetry pasted to it. This is a second example of a final Decanonizing Anthropology "historical Rasanblaj" project which has been explained in the assignment above.

Rasanblaj II by Theory of Culture Class 2018

[A full PDF version of the syllabus can be found here.]

Works Cited

Boyd, V. (2004). Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner.

Feeley-Harnik, G. (2014). Bodies, Words, and Works: Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan on Human–Animal Relations. In T. Gianquitto & L. Fisher (Eds.), America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and US Culture, 1859–Present (pp. 265-301). Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections. (n.d.). Eastman-Goodale-Dayton Family Papers, 1861-2013. Northampton, MA: Smith College.

de Gobineau, A. (2015). The Inequality of Human Races [Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines]. London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published in 1853-1855).

Dechavez, Yvette. (2018). “It’s Time to Decolonize that Syllabus.” Washington Post (Books). October 8.

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5 thoughts on “Decanonizing Anthropology

  1. This is awesome but I’d add as an alternative to Rudolf Virchow in relation to Filipino & related cultures we should consider José Rizal … People forget before doing graduate work in Ophthalmology, JR was doing ethnographic work under Virchow for Berlin Ethnological & Berlin Anthropological Societies


  2. Fantastic, I’m looking up these books right away. Might I also suggest instead of EB Tylor and James Frazer on evolutionary hierarchies of belief, we read Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1609). Armchair ethnography was being done by the first published Peruvian author 300 years before Tylor wrote “Anthropology.”


  3. Your good work here demonstrates fabulous examples of teaching/learning approaches that could be applied in many subjects/fields. (Speaking as an applied linguist with extensive experience doing teacher/academic and writing/research development in and across varied disciplines.) Thanks so much!


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