Faculty in Focus: Michael Brown, James N. Lamber ’39 Professor of Anthropology

What is your educational background? How did you become interested in the field of anthropology?

I was an undergraduate at Princeton University. While I was at Princeton, I took a course with one of the great American Indian anthropologists, Alfonso Ortiz, who at the end of my first year asked me if I was interested in working on the Navajo reservation.

There was a program for financial aid students at the time, ironically called “Summer in the City,” which mostly sent college students on financial aid who needed summer jobs to inner city areas but it also applied to Indian reservations.

Alfonso…had a lot of connections on the Navajo reservation, so I accepted in a heartbeat and just got hooked on anthropology. I actually went out to the reservation three summers, the three summers of my college years, and decided I wanted to be an anthropologist.

I went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for graduate work and did summer work in Peru in the mountains, in the highland areas but decided that I really liked the lowland areas, the Amazon.

So when I did my dissertation work I started in 1976, and spent 23 months with a group called the Aguaruna. I went back during the ’80s and wrote a couple of books about them.

One was obviously based on my doctoral dissertation. Another was about magic, and the kind of ritual life of this particular tribe of Indians and their understanding of how the world works.

By that point I was a professor at Williams, an assistant professor of anthropology. Then, the political situation in the late 1980s in Peru became pretty dangerous because of the Shining Path insurgency and other problems.

At that time I was doing research for a book called War of Shadows, which I published with an Argentine colleague of mine. The research was about a Marxist guerilla movement of the 1960s, but because we were in the midst of another Marxist guerilla war, the work was rather dangerous….

The situation was so risky, I decided to suspend fieldwork in Peru for a few years until things improved, which they happily have.

After leaving Peru, what did you research?

I was on a sabbatical in Santa Fe, N.M. at the School of American Research and writing that book, which was published in 1991, and really became interested in the New Age movement, which was all around me in Santa Fe.

In some ways, it was more interesting…[and] more exotic than what I was writing about, and I found that people weren’t writing about it except either to criticize it and ridicule it or…because they were true believers.

So I developed a project, which ultimately took about five years in which I interviewed scores of people involved in New Age work, especially in the very controversial New Age practice called channeling…. [The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age] was published in 1997 by Harvard University Press.

It really became clear to me that working in your own society, and especially with controversial material and controversial individuals, is different from and in some ways harder than writing about a distant society like the Aguaruna. The project was really useful because it really did give me an appreciation of what it’s like to write a book that you know will be read by the people you’re writing about, who will call you up or write you or maybe even sue you if they don’t what you have to say about them.

What sort of response did The Channeling Zone receive?

The reviewers, while they seemed to like my book, really detested my subjects, so I was criticized for not being critical enough of the people I was writing about.

On the other hand, the New Age press liked the book because I seemed to be taking them seriously, although a lot of them were bewildered by the neutrality of the tone, so it was one of those cases where the book really looked different from different perspectives.

Whereas anthropologists and sociologists would never think of criticizing Australian aboriginal religion or a West African religion…[they] wouldn’t hesitate at all about denouncing New Age practices as irrational, dangerous, oppressive, patriarchal, anything and all the negative things one can say about someone’s religious practices.

I felt that you really can’t have a double standard…but it seems that the same ground rules have to apply when you’re working in your own culture.

Have religion and the supernatural always been areas that you were interested in researching?

What I’m really interested in is how human beings deal with the real world, what scientists would say was the real objective world.

And yet, every people, every culture, gives that a unique cast. So in the case of the Aguaruna, these people are very down to earth, very practically oriented, and yet somehow, magic is…actually part of their practical understanding of the world they live in. And in fact, the New Age for all its problems, contradictions and self-indulgences is similar. It’s very expressive of American values.

I think one of the reasons why it’s so threatening to some people is that it exaggerates or intensifies things that apply to the culture as a whole. Where as we feel very safe when we’re analyzing the magic in the Amazon…the New Age is threatening because it’s all around us.

What research are you currently working on?

In the process of doing the New Age book, one thing that struck me as really unusual [was that] I heard a lot of criticism of the New Age from Native Americans or people sympathetic to Native Americans, who argued that New Agers were stealing American native religion….

It’s really hard for me to see how you could steal a religion since virtually all religions are based on the followings of other religion’s traditions. So, once I was over the New Age book, I really started moving into this question of cultural ownership, that is to say, attempts, which are now a really important aspect of indigenous movements all over the world…to protect their traditional cultural or their heritage from inappropriate or any use by outsiders.

[In some cases there are] demands by some native groups that books containing religious information that they feel should not be available to the general public should be removed from library shelves or information held in archives, which is available to the general public or is at least available to researchers that that information should be removed from the public domain….

So it raises these interesting issues because we’re suddenly in the realm of moving from general human right into the conflicting rights, where native minorities are demanding things that really do infringe upon the rights of other minorities groups or even the majority group….

There seems to be a really interesting issue about how you actually go about implementing multiculturalism in a real political system, that is what kind of compromises are required for this to work….

We, as a profession, seem very reluctant to get into the difficult issue of how all these conflicting demands for rights can be reconciled in one nation. So I published a bit on that, and that developed an idea for writing a book about it. The book is basically going to look at two kinds of struggles, the struggles over information and the struggles over sacred sites on public land, places like Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and Big Horn Medicine, which is a really spectacular religious Plains Indians site in north central Wyoming.