Jonathan D. Hill reflects on his career

Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action" | Anthropology

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas:  South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767.  Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.

Pamela Klassen on her book, The Story of Radio Mind

Interview by Georgia Ennis

Georgia Ennis: At the center of your account are the travels and work of missionary Frederick Du Vernet, with whom you speak across time in numerous ways. How and why did Du Vernet come to be the central personage of this story of settler colonial expansion? You describe your first ‘encounter’ with Du Vernet in the text, but can you tell us more about how you came to travel with him and his many contradictions across what is today known as Canada?

Pamela Klassen: I first encountered him through reading newspaper, church newspaper articles for another book I was writing on Christianity and medicine and healing in the 20th century. And they were very unusual articles that were uncommon for an Anglican newspaper in the 1920s, in which he was basically propounding his theory of telepathic thought transference. He also had a kind of theory of media he was writing about, like the new effects of the cinema, and what this would do to young hearts and minds.  By the mid-1920s, he was writing about his new theory of spiritual radio or radio mind — basically the idea that human beings can transfer their thoughts across this energy field, radio waves that God has provided for us as a means of communication. He’s coming up with this theory at a time when a few people have radios. He is doing what is a very common approach by taking a new technology and spiritualizing it.  This happened with the telegraph and the telephone, with all these kinds of means of communication.

I went to the national church archive in Toronto to see if I could find out more about him. And the archivist, very kindly pointed me to a diary that he had written in 1898 when he was a missionary journalist who was travelling across Canada and visiting different missionaries and missions along the way. This diary records 11 days of his visit to the Rainy River, which was an area fairly newly settled by white settlers.  It was on an Anishinaabe territory or Ojibwe territory.

It was a remarkable diary because the way he writes it, he writes often in the voice of Anishinaabe women and men he encounters. Often older women and men who were quite resistant to his presence, even their words are his perspective. It struck me as a really powerful record of Anishinaabe resistance to Canadian and Christian presence on their land.  I put thae diary aside, finished the other book, and then the diary was really haunting me.  Eventually I said, “You know, I wonder, maybe I should actually figure out if I can go up there and bring the diary back to where it was written.” When I did, I met with some very kind members of Rainy River First Nations, especially Art Hunter and his brother Al Hunter, and since then, I’ve been going up regularly.  We now have a website where I talk about the diary. That’s been one life of my encounter with Du Vernet.

I guess one thing I would say is, it’s rightfully very challenging for a white woman to write about indigenous missionary encounters and, and indigenous sort of state relations in the Canadian context, but I also felt it was my responsibility to write about the Canadian side of that history.  He was allowing me to also challenge my field of the study of religion that often looks especially at North American religion, that will often look at a man like him as someone participating in a new religious movement. But he wasn’t. He was an Anglican through and through, he was an Archbishop. He was a mainstream Christian man, but also the ideas that he came to emerged from his relationships with indigenous people across Turtle Island, across Anishinaabe and other nations. And focusing on him allowed me, as a white woman, to tell a story of white people’s responsibility for the world that we live in today.

Georgia Ennis: Themes of testimony, confession, and reconciliation, as well as the ways these genres have been understood within different linguistic and cultural traditions, are central to the book. What kind of testimony do you envision The Story of Radio Mind providing, and what is its relationship to ongoing processes of reconciliation within Canada and other settler colonial states?

Pamela Klassen: A great question, thank you. I began writing the book before the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commissions’ final report came out in 2015, which was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the church-state nexus of residential schools, schools  that indigenous children were often forcibly taken to, often by the police, the RCMP.  They were largely paid for by the Canadian government, but run by different churches. So, you would have an Anglican or a Methodist or a Catholic school. So, the discourse of reconciliation is very much of the moment in which I wrote the book, and still present was when it came out in 2018. Now we are in 2020. And the discourse of reconciliation is clearly not sufficient. At this moment, June 2020, we’re addressing questions of the ongoing, not just legacies, but reality of colonialism and in Canada and the US and how that connects to anti-black racism and anti-indigenous racism and police brutality. Its important for scholars to have a kind of awareness of the moment in which they’re writing but also a kind of humility knowing that the things they write two years ago will have a different resonance and you can’t know what that’s going to be.

Questions of testimony and confession were really alive in the cultural moment in which I was writing, because a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is profoundly a moment of testimony. There really was not a lot of confession going on, because it was mostly indigenous survivors, telling their stories and giving their testimonies. Still, the very notion of reconciliation, which I discussed a little bit in the book, is from one kind of understanding, a profoundly Christian concept and it’s still a Christian ritual – about forgiveness and becoming, restoring your relationship with God. The fact that a state-based ritual of Reconciliation has these Christian roots I think is worth pondering.

I also like to think about what can become appropriate anthropological stories about these places, and how anthropologists were similar to missionaries in that both anthropologists and missionaries sought stories out of the indigenous people that they encountered. The anthropologist turned them into ethnography, the missionaries turned them into stories that they could package in church newspapers and missionary newspapers so that they could get more funding for their missions. The anthropologists also wanted funding from the Smithsonian, or other sources. So the whole question of “stories for cash” was something I wanted to think about. And which, of course, I’m implicated in as well.

Georgia Ennis: You close the book by reflecting on another kind of medium, the body. Yet, you consider throughout ways in which various media technologies interact with, shape, and otherwise mediate bodies or embodied relationships, from photographs and accounts that “firsted” and “lasted” Indigenous peoples out of existence, to spiritual frequencies said to have connected minds across great distances. How do you envision the interrelationship among the various forms of mediation you examine—embodied, spiritual, and technological? What effects do they have on each other? And, relatedly, do you have any thoughts on the role of digital or supposedly “new” forms of mediation, and the future of the stories you examine here?

Pamela Klassen: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I should say, I guess, that I think about – since we started our informal part of the conversation talking about midwifery, my earlier work was on midwifery and women’s experiences of childbirth, and how, in the North American context, a lot of women turn to midwifery for very different reasons. Sometimes they do it through legal means, illegal means, grey area, law, that kind of thing. And so, when I worked on that project, it was the 1990s. So, it’s a different sort of midwifery landscape than there is now. But I always really thought of myself as someone who thinks a lot about the body, gender, racialization, and these kinds of things. And then I found myself writing a book that was all kind of channeled through the body of this man who was a white Christian missionary, and sometimes I worried that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the body. Yet one of the things that I really want to want people to take away from the book is realizing that whiteness was a very active category at this time and it was a lived reality. So, when Du Vernet gets to Northern British Columbia in 1904, he was doing what the missionaries call Indian work. He was working with indigenous people who are there. But he arrives there at the same time that the railway is getting going, because they want to build a railway for all kinds of complex reasons, to this point, in Prince Rupert, because it’s got a very deep harbor and they see Prince Rupert as being the gateway to Asia, also the gateway to the north, and also a competitor to Vancouver and Victorian San Francisco. It’s the crawl of the railway, the spinal cord of colonialism.  By the time he’s at the end of his life, he is doing what everybody calls “white work”, which is working with the settlers. He is aware, he talks a lot about the differences, the challenges of doing both Indian work and White work. Whiteness is a very active animating category for settler colonialism. I think people often don’t realize how freely people spoke with these racialized terms across North America in different ways, and with different differences.

One of the things I also wanted to point out is that all of these communication tools depend on matters that is drawn from the earth, the minerals in our cellphones, in our computers, stuff that makes our cellphones, and our computers.  The cloud is not a cloud, its actually made out of servers that require cooling and heating, demanding vast resources to actually keep our communication systems alive. I wanted to frame and draw attention to the fact that all forms of mediation and communication have consequences for the earth and for the world, and therefore for us, and all the creatures on the earth.

Then, just to end briefly with a website I would love for people to go and look at:   On this site, we take the diary that I was talking about earlier, and we annotate it. We try to put it in the larger historical context of Treaty 3, in relationship between missionaries and Ojibwe in that context.  We visit the community quite often to talk to them about ideas and about where to go next.  So soon we’ll be trying to build curriculum resources, so people can use it on their online teaching that they have to do in the near future, both in high schools and in universities.  We are doing a pilot study with indigenous youth students to get feedback from them about how this website tells the story of colonialism of indigenous presence and continuity on the land and what we learn from it. We welcome anybody  to visit and learn from the website. And it was actually very interesting to write about this story in two different forms — in the book and the website. The book is done, not clear if the website will ever be done.