Transforming translations (part I): "The owner of these bones"

Amiria J. M. Salmond


Recent writing associated with anthropology's "ontological turn" has worked to transform the familiar trope of ethnography as a mode of translation. In place of popular conceptions of social anthropology as the more-or-less faithful transmission of other peoples' cultural meanings, these approaches frame the ethnographer’s task as that of generating novel concepts and terminology—ones that are "peculiarly ours" rather than "theirs"—through a creative synthesis of philosophy and field experience. Within this scheme, the roles that "native thinking" (and indeed "native thinkers") are invited to play in this burgeoning discourse remain unclear. Here I address this issue ethnographically, through an ongoing initiative on the part of Te Aitanga a Hauiti Māori people in New Zealand to build a digital repository of tribal taonga (ancestral artifacts, images, knowledge). In an account written with the purposes of their project in mind, I consider what Hauiti's efforts to translate their whakapapa (genealogies and oral histories) into digital forms might imply for an anthropology that would seek to reframe questions of difference by mobilizing such native "anthropologies" in the service of disciplinary self-renewal. These ethnographic insights then set the scene for a second discussion—to appear in the following issue of Hau—of how ontological approaches are seeking to transform anthropology, considered in relation to earlier debates on the difficulties of translating cultural and ontological alterity.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.002