A cultural feast coming to Seattle

First Foods, Obama's sister, the anthropology of Farmville and Smart Phones, and the last student of Franz Boas are just a few promised highlights of a major five-day anthropology conference here next week (starting March 29).

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Seattle will host the 71st annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology.

First Foods, Obama's sister, the anthropology of Farmville and Smart Phones, and the last student of Franz Boas are just a few promised highlights of a major five-day anthropology conference here next week (starting March 29).

Later this month, Seattle will host an intellectual buffet for anyone interested in human behavior, what it tells us about the real world, and how to apply what we know in hopes of improving life.

Seattle is the site of the 71st annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (March 29-April 2nd). And lest you begin to fall asleep at the name of the organization, consider that in addition to scores of academic presentations and panels, the conference will feature a locavore's dream conference on First Foods, a video appearance by President Barack Obama's half-sister, insights into urban sustainability practices and public health, a look at the anthropology of social media, and a tribute to the man considered the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas (1848-1942), by his last surviving PhD. student, Amelia Susman Schultz of Shoreline. 

While some 2,500 or more participants will be coming from around the world, the conference will have strong Northwest content, and many of the topics will provide fascinating perspectives on issues directly relevant to Seattle, from homelessness to technology to climate change. The conference will look at the expanding role of applied anthropology generally, and the Northwest specifically. As local organizers put it: 

Throughout the region, applied social scientists work on important initiatives both locally and globally. We continue to work with communities that have long been a focus of applied social science, such as American Indians, and are engaging new groups, including corporations in industries from biomedicine to retail to technology. We continue to work on long-term problems in areas such as health care and education, and we innovate in new areas such as food sovereignty and resource management.

Food is a good place to start, as the Northwest is a foodie's paradise and a hotspot for the eat-local and Slow Food movements. But native foods and preparations are often missing from the local conversation, not to mention menus. Planned presentations are designed to expand our understanding of indigenous diets and food sources including and beyond salmon.

A session on "First Foods" will kick-off the conference and will cover Indian foodways, sustainable and traditional agricultural practices, water protection and habitat restoration, food gathering and foraging, and collaborations such as the work of the Makah Indians and organic farmers to re-introduce a traditional crop, the Ozette potato. One roundtable session will look at how a program by the Indian Health Service attempts to deal with problems such as diabetes by using traditional native games to foster physical activity.

Another fascinating aspect will be a video appearance by Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's maternal half-sister, who will discuss the work of their mother, Ann Dunham, who was herself an applied anthropologist who worked in Indonesia. Her wanderlust and work in foreign countries has, ridiculously, come back to haunt her son, but she was a scholar often working overseas. Her doctoral thesis was on Indonesian blacksmiths and identified them as highly entrepreneurial, profit-oriented, and lacking capital. She helped pioneer the concept of microcredit and microfinancing in that country. Even Newt Gingrich should like that. As a young teenager, Dunham lived for awhile on Mercer Island with her family. 

The preliminary conference program runs to nearly 90 pages, and it would be impossible for any person to take it all in. But scanning the titles of presentations and papers gives a sense of the scope of a program designed to show how the application of anthropological research contributes to understanding and responding to the world around us. 

Despite the frequent academic-ese, the subjects of research need not be exotic (though there is research presented from cultures around the world). They can be the people, communities, and behaviors right under our noses, like the decision-makers at the Chamber of Commerce or the geeks in the office park next door, or the migrant families down the street.

The study of remote peoples and tribal cultures can also have relevance for modern society, such as how people respond to climate or technological change, or how the knowledge of indigenous peoples can inform policies and approaches to water, land, and resource management.

The following sampling hints at the range of topics that will be covered, which generally take on broad subject areas with highly specialized study. A few themes and presentations that caught my eye, with a bias toward regional connections:

Exploring the Boundaries of Social Media

"Applied Reciprocal Exchange in Farmville and 'Ville Games: The Economics of 'Good' Friends and Neighbors," by Karol Ezell, Austin State University.

Indigenous Fisheries on Today's Northwest Coast

"'She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore,' More Like He Sells Sockeye by the Side of the Road," by Kimberly Linkous Brown, University of British Columbia.

The Social Dimensions of Plant and Mushroom Gathering in Urban Ecosystems

"Urban Foraging and Gleaning as a Place-making Practice Amongst Newly Arrived Seattleites," by Joyce Lecompte, Melissa Poe, et al.

Assessing the Refugee Experience: New Perspectives and New Tools

"Vehicular Residency: The Mobile Homeless of Seattle," by Graham Pruss, University of Washington.

Applying Anthropology to the Business World

"Mobile Phone Use, Bricolage, and the Transformation of Social and Economic Ties of Micro-entrepreneurs in Morocco," by Hsain Ilahiane, University of Kentucky.

Research Methods: Refashioning Old Tools and Inventing New Ones

"How Smart Phones Can Reshape the Landscape of Ethnography," by Erica Ruyle, Wayne State University.

Making the Human Dimension Count: Applied Anthropology in Interdisciplinary Climate Change Research Projects

"Responding to Climate Change: A Case Study from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community," by Ed Knight and Jamie Donatuto.

Environmental Anthropologists Working at Home in Western Washington

"Toward Sustainability: Common Property and Egalitarianism within Urban Collectives," by Rebecca Rivera, University of Washington.

Addressing Policy Problems in the Cultural Assessment Process: National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act"

"The Corruption of Cultural Resource Management," by Thomas King.

All of these, it seems to me, have relevance here. That last-mentioned panel, for example, is chaired by Darby Stapp, an archaeologist in Eastern Washington who is a key local organizer of the Seattle conference. He and his wife, Julia Longenecker, a cultural-resources specialist who works with the Umatilla Indians, are co-authors of a book, Avoiding Archaeological Disasters, that looks at the pitfalls of cultural-heritage preservation. The panel aims to look at how the laws that relate to protecting cultural resources are being carried out. 

Speaker Thomas King, author of Our Unprotected Heritage: Whitewashing the Destruction of Our Cultural & Natural Environment, is a critic of the way NEPA and NHPA are implemented, often by government agencies that consider heritage protection a nuisance. King and others believe the system for enforcing the acts contains inherent conflicts of interest that often lead to shortcutting or circumventing the intent, and sometimes the letter, of the laws.

Washington's legendary senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson was a principle architect of these environmental and heritage protection laws. Controversial projects such as the the proposed demolition of the 619 Western Building by the Washington State Department of Transportation, or the demolition of Boeing Plant 2, or the proposed razing of the Federal Reserve Bank are examples of why implementation of the laws needs to be carefully watchdogged, and loopholes closed.

The conference looks to be a fascinating source of the latest academic thinking and research on a variety of subjects that touch on nearly every aspect of life here. Members of the public can attend the conference, headquartered at the Grand Hyatt. Check here for the schedule, registration fees, and other details.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.