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In November 1981, anthropologists and tribal representatives gathered on the Pascua Pueblo Yaqui Reservation in southern Arizona for the 89th International Symposium, hosted by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Although this conference may have been relegated to a footnote in the history of anthropology and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Nicholas Barron, SAR’s 2020 William Y. and Nettie K. Adams summer scholar, argues that its story helps us better understand consequential, ongoing political processes and Indigenous histories. “An almost forgotten event in a seemingly out of the way place, the Yaqui Conference . . . became an unexpected site for what has been termed the politics of recognition.”

In his recent colloquium, Barron described how the conference came to reflect the “tensions that surround the acknowledgment of cultural difference within liberal democracies” and, more specifically, the conflict between individualism and multiculturalism that complicates the federal recognition of Native groups in the United States. “I’m less concerned with evaluating the validity of recognition,” said Barron. “Rather, I’m concerned with how the dynamics of recognition exceed official governmental spaces and flow into unexpected terrains including the rarified air of the academy and its associated institutions and rituals, such as conferences.”

In 1981 the Pascua Yaqui Tribe had just achieved federal recognition after a complex history of migration and settlement. The federal recognition process was itself complicated and required the tribe to represent its people “under newly codified conditions of American Indianness”: both a new category of people and the people who fit this category. The tribe highlighted their deer dance as part of an effort to characterize themselves as American Indians and as owners of their “Indianness,” which Barron described as rhetoric typical of federal recognition proceedings. Official recognition was not the end of the process, however, but a beginning—the conference and its focus on the deer dance part of the ongoing work of living within the bounds of federal recognition.

Anselmo Valencia, a Pasqua Yaqui veteran and community organizer, spoke at the conference, critiquing the work of Edward Spicer, an anthropologist and scholar of the Yaqui. Valencia used the event to push aside anthropological interpretations of Yaqui history and culture and present the Pascua Yaqui as a “legitimate and coherent Indigenous entity.” “Teaching [the anthropologists] how best to learn,” he described the deer dance as an untouched vestige of a precolonial past, different from what Spicer had written about and published.

Barron quoted Spicer, who characterized Valencia’s performance as “idiosyncratic.” But “what Spicer dubbed ‘idiosyncratic’ can be more accurately understood as an emergent depiction of Yaqui-ness shaped by the demands of federal recognition. In the aftermath of the event, Valencia continued to cultivate the deer dance as a symbol of Yaqui-ness, and Wenner-Gren continued to be part of this process.”

“The performance carried out over the course of those five days,” Barron emphasized, “did not emerge de novo.”

As I have already illustrated, Valencia’s cultivation of the deer dance as a primary symbol of Yaqui-ness and Indianess was part of an ongoing attempt to re-present Yaquis as a certain kind of people, an American Indian tribe. The Yaqui [created a] means of carrying out this performance beyond the halls of Congress. That is to say, the conference served as more than just a mere test case for a floundering anthropological institution grasping for life, it constituted an unexpected but palpable terrain upon which the vexing politics of recognition could be negotiated, contested, confirmed.

And it demonstrated how federal tribal recognition influences nongovernmental domains.

Barron ended his presentation by asking how newer practices like land acknowledgments, while an improvement on most forms of institutional recognition or lack thereof, also contribute to the demands of recognition. While often more intentional and informed than other kinds of recognition, these acknowledgments may still reinforce the equation of people and land that, ironically, makes the claims of people like the Yaqui suspect to begin with.

A story like Valencia’s, or Spicer’s, seems to tell us how to make sense of a situation, but the historian of a field shows us how these stories are in fact still making that sense out of the past, out of the present, even when their original tellers are long gone. The history of anthropology or any other field, even obscure and nearly forgotten, shows us how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.


Featured image by Ajay Karpur.