Erin Debenport on her new book, Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibilty in Indigenous New Mexico

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Interview by Shannon Ward

You identified commonalities in the processes of creating the San Ramon dictionary and pedagogical texts, as well as in the speech genres and cultural practices they encode.  For example, both texts are continually refined, or “perfected,” through editing meant to closely control the circulation of knowledge about certain linguistic and cultural practices. Also, both texts contain chronotopes that link authoritative knowledge about the past to present community issues and the potential future implications of cultural and linguistic loss or revival.  How do these features of the texts intersect with other socialization strategies practiced informally within families or among community members? That is, how does the use of these texts fit into broader language and cultural socialization within San Ramon?

The most visible socialization strategies that connect to ideas about perfectibility at San Ramon were approaches to childrearing and the associated transmission of knowledge. Although outside the focus of the book, I noticed that caregivers—both men and women, parents, non-parents, adults, and teenagers—felt comfortable “correcting” children, telling them to be respectful, to listen, or simply stop what they were doing if they were misbehaving. This connects to the idea that the responsibility for the transmission of knowledge is shared among all community members. Related to this, adults would often correct or comment on behavior even when the child was performing a task correctly or behaving themselves.  Once I heard a Head Start teacher say, “That’s the way, Amber. You don’t go messing up the play area when you spend time there,” almost keeping the master/apprentice “channel” open between teacher and child. A new way that texts are figuring into broader patterns of language and cultural socialization at San Ramon and the other Pueblos is through the use of Facebook. When posting about community events or commenting on tribal policies, I have noticed that the past is often invoked in this new context, as in “Make your ancestors proud and help clean up the arroyo this Saturday.” Processes of perfectibility are apparent here, too, as users craft elaborate comments, replies, and visual materials while composing Facebook posts.


The student authors of the Keiwa soap opera, As the Rez Turns, artfully employed characteristically Pueblo speech genres, extracommunity genres, and non-Native images of indigenous people to create subtle social and political critiques. How does this project differ from young people’s everyday interactions that may (or may not) similarly display multiple intertextual links? What does it suggest about changing possibilities for young people’s community-directed action?

I think the soap opera project differed in that the abstract notion of a “language dialogue” provided enough distance for participants to employ such intertextual links while discussing things like tribal politics, “tradition,” and Native identity. Usually the two “realms” are quite separate: the copious use of pop culture references and the production of intertextual links on one side and the serious work that is being an engaged community member on the other. As far as changing political possibilities, I think this is an example of how new spaces for critique are opening up almost within new forms of language circulation. I would not go so far as to say that Facebook and other platforms are singlehandedly enabling youth participation and political action, but I would say that I continue to see social critique within such spaces, spaces that are considered to be frivolous or unconnected to tribal history and values by older community members.


You argue that language revitalization projects perform culturally and linguistically meaningful work beyond preserving grammar and phonology. For example, language revitalization projects serve as metapragmatic resources for reproducing cultural practices and morality, as well as for enacting social critique (pg. 112). Participants in these programs thus tend to view them as beacons of hope for future linguistic and cultural revival, even in the absence of data proving the successful reverse of language shift (pg. 112-117). What possibilities do you envision for expanding recognition of and support for these other facets of language revitalization, in San Ramon and beyond?

I think that one potential influence of the U.S. educational system and dominant approaches to parenting in this county is that increasingly younger tribal members insist on being given credit “for trying” or for attending language classes regardless of their linguistic abilities. In such moments, youth connect attendance and participation with “being Indian” or being a good community member, invested in the future of the Pueblo. I have started to work with an additional Pueblo community, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (not a pseudonym) in El Paso, Texas, and these kinds of connections are much more overt there than at San Ramon. Due to their distance from the other Pueblos, intense discrimination, state educational policies, and the predominance of Spanish in the region, the Southern Tiwa language was largely lost at the Pueblo. Their language program has been an incredible success, however, with the emergence of several advanced speakers who have learned the language as adults. While meetings with other Pueblos or native speakers of the language can be stressful for these learners, they often say that the fact that they are trying to learn shows that they are true Pueblo people rather than being able to speak Southern Tiwa without making any mistakes.


While Pueblo secrecy radically affected your participation in the community of San Ramon, you also harness secrecy in your ethnographic writing, for example, by focusing on cultural and linguistic knowledge production without revealing the content of this knowledge. What aspects of ethnographic methodology aided you in continually adapting to the changes and complexities of your consultants’ relationships with outsiders?  That is, how did your ethnographic training help you reconcile your initial expectations of your anthropological endeavor with the constraints (and associated possibilities) you encountered in your fieldwork, analysis, and writing?Your description—“continually adapting to the changes and complexities”—really captures my experience perfectly! Having to always revise my new and ongoing projects keeps this concern at the forefront of my thinking and research, too. I think that two parts of my ethnographic training continue to inform how I research and write in and about Pueblo communities: being introduced to the ideas of informed consent, harm, and language ideologies; and being introduced to literature on knowledge production and power. I first experienced the former when preparing my IRB, which was a surprisingly nuanced process at my graduate institution (there was a separate IRB for social sciences, so I felt guided by scholars working on comparable projects). My advisor also shared with me instances where he chose not to circulate language examples as part of a language project to which he contributed. Also, critiques of language revitalization discourses by scholars including Jane Hill, Robert Moore, Joseph Errington, and Peter Whiteley alongside work on language ideologies and literacy (especially by Paul Kroskrity and Justin Richland who have worked in Pueblo communities) really paved the way for being able to think about such projects as both objects of analysis and potential sites for conflict or collaboration. However, it was really being in the field and realizing the stakes involved with keeping secrets that led directly to the choices I eventually made in the way I presented data in the book. Lastly, works in anthropology, social theory, and science and technology studies that analyzed the ways that anthropologists produce and circulate knowledge had a tremendous effect; Bourdieu, Foucault, and Fabian were key.



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