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4.1: Finding the Field

  • Page ID
    56387
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    My first experience with fieldwork as a student anthropologist took place in a small indigenous community in northeastern Brazil studying the Jenipapo-Kanindé of Lagoa Encantada (Enchanted Lake). I had planned to conduct an independent research project on land tenure among members of the indigenous tribe and had gotten permission to spend several months with the community. My Brazilian host family arranged for a relative to drive me to the rural community on the back of his motorcycle. After several hours navigating a series of bumpy roads in blazing equatorial heat, I was relieved to arrive at the edge of the reservation. He cut the motor and I removed my heavy backpack from my tired, sweaty back. Upon hearing us arrive, first children and then adults slowly and shyly began to approach us. I greeted the curious onlookers and briefly explained who I was. As a group of children ran to fetch the cacique (the chief/political leader), I began to explain my research agenda to several of the men who had gathered. I mentioned that I was interested in learning about how the tribe negotiated land use rights without any private land ownership. After hearing me use the colloquial term “índio” (Indian), a man who turned out to be the cacique’s cousin came forward and said to me, “Well, your work is going to be difficult because there are no Indians here; we are only Brazilians.” Then, abruptly, another man angrily replied to him, stating firmly that, in fact, they were Indians because the community was on an Indian reservation and the Brazilian government had recognized them as an indigenous tribe. A few women then entered the rapid-fire discussion. I took a step back, surprised by the intensity of my first interaction in the community. The debate subsided once the cacique arrived, but it left a strong impression in my mind. Eventually, I discarded my original research plan to focus instead on this disagreement within the community about who they were and were not. In anthropology, this type of conflict in beliefs is known as contested identity.

    Image of children playing outside a home on the Jenipapo-Kanindé reservation
    Image of author Katie Nelson with her Brazilian host family
    Image of a young Jenipapo-Kanindé boy showing off his grass skirt prior to a community dance
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Jenipapo-Kanindé Reservation, 2001
    Image 1: Children playing outside a Home on the Jenipapo-Kanindé Reservation, 2001
    Image 2: Author Katie Nelson (center) with her Brazilian Host Family, 2001
    Image 3: A young Jenipapo-Kanindé boy shows off his grass skirt prior to a community dance, 2001.

    I soon learned that many among the Jenipapo-Kanindé did not embrace the Indian identity label. The tribe members were all monolingual Portuguese-speakers who long ago had lost their original language and many of their traditions. Beginning in the 1980s, several local researchers had conducted studies in the community and had concluded that the community had indigenous origins. Those researchers lobbied on the community’s behalf for official state and federal status as an indigenous reservation, and in 1997 the Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio or National Foundation for the Indian) visited the community and agreed to officially demarcate the land as an indigenous reservation. More than 20 years later, the community is still waiting for that demarcation. Some in the community embraced indigenous status because it came with a number of benefits. The state (Ceará), using partial funding from Funai, built a new road to improve access to the community. The government also constructed an elementary school and a common well and installed new electric lines. Despite those gains, some members of the community did not embrace indigenous status because being considered Indian had a pejorative connotation in Brazil. Many felt that the label stigmatized them by associating them with a poor and marginalized class of Brazilians. Others resisted the label because of long-standing family and inter-personal conflicts in the community.

    Fieldwork is the most important method by which cultural anthropologists gather data to answer their research questions. While interacting on a daily basis with a group of people, cultural anthropologists document their observations and perceptions and adjust the focus of their research as needed. They typically spend a few months to a few years living among the people they are studying.

    The “field” can be anywhere the people are—a village in highland Papua New Guinea or a supermarket in downtown Minneapolis. Just as marine biologists spend time in the ocean to learn about the behavior of marine animals and geologists travel to a mountain range to observe rock formations, anthropologists go to places where people are.

    Doing Anthropology

    In this short film, Stefan Helmreich, Erica James, and Heather Paxson, three members of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Anthropology Department, talk about their current work and the process of doing fieldwork.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): mitanthro. "Doing Anthropology". Youtube, uploaded by mitanthro, March 10, 2008, https://youtu.be/BhCruPBvSjQ.

    Adapted From

    "Doing Fieldwork: Methods in Cultural Anthropology" by Katie Nelson, Inver Hills Community College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.


    4.1: Finding the Field is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.