Conspicuous consumption: An intercultural history of the Kwakwaka'wakw Hamat'sa

Aaron Glass
Dept. of Anthropology, New York University
July, 2006


This dissertation examines the representational and performance histories of the Hamat'sa---or 'cannibal' dance---of the Kwakwa&barbelow;ka&barbelow;'wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia, Canada. The Hamat'sa has been widely depicted through written ethnography, film and photography, museum and art gallery display, and touristic or non-ceremonial performance. By tracking the Hamat'sa performance and its dramatic depictions over the past century, I ask how different modes and media of anthropological knowledge are materially produced, circulated, and received, and how they function to represent indigenous peoples to both outsiders and themselves. The Kwakwa&barbelow;ka&barbelow;'wakw have proved remarkably amenable to participating in their own ethnographic objectification through strategic practices that have had significant ramifications for their current approach to local heritage education, tourist productions, and political negotiations. This case study helps illuminate the larger colonial dynamics under which representation (in political, semiotic, and epistemological senses) has been the primary mode of managing relations between indigenous people and the settler states and scientists that attempt to establish the terms of their recognition. Rather than focus on 'representation,' however, I present a theory of intercultural objectification as an alternative model of ethnographic knowledge. I argue that the act of creating anthropological knowledge is intrinsically collaborative, and that most contemporary indigenous cultural production takes place in a complex historical and intercultural dialogue with non-Native societies. Specifically, I locate the production and circulation of cultural knowledge in particular institutional locations, formats, and frameworks (such as salvage ethnography; commercialization; aesthetic appreciation; and nationalist appropriation) in order to complicate our understanding of these variegated colonial practices. Taking this case as relevant for broader theoretical work in indigenous, performance, and media studies, this study examines how Kwakwa&barbelow;ka&barbelow;'wakw communities have historically managed---materially, performatively, and discursively---the products of ethnography in transforming and debating their ritual practices, both ceremonial and non. This entails detailed attention to the highly selective, recursive, and self- authorizing nature of scholarly depiction, and to the local particularities of indigenous consumption of this knowledge. The larger project addresses the dynamics of social memory in which indigenous people re-appropriate academic, archival, and popular representations in their ongoing process of fashioning viable (and alternative) modern identities.