In his quest to know the significance of abalone in the lives of coastal California Indians, anthropologist Les W. Field affirms what many who are intimate with tribal life have learned; that a pan-Indian world view is difficult to identify at the clan level.
But rather than conveying that message by employing the standard authoritative voice of a pompous anthropologist, Field uses a culturally conscientious one and is satisfied in ascertaining that although abalone is a likely cultural staple among the tribes, its meaning and uses varies from tribe to tribe, family to family and generation to generation.
He and his Native collaborators accomplish this – what may seem to be not an accomplishment at all – in “Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California.”
Field’s first achievement is in his understanding that no one family, clan or tribe should speak for another and its proper for each to remain autonomous in culture and tradition. He seems to wholeheartedly recognize this allowing him to consider at face value and embrace various Native sources to produce a refreshing book about the sea snail.
“Abalone Tales” is a collection of contemporary Native accounts and non-Native fieldwork in a polyphonic ethnography, an emerging technique of constructing ethnographies since at least the 1980s.
By employing voices from anthropologists and Natives, polyphonic ethnographies bring about varying perspectives. And in doing so here, Field concludes that there is no conclusion and the sense that there shouldn’t be. That abalone remains mystique; he encourages yet more questions and fieldwork.
For instance, his explorations of the Abalone Woman stories, congruent yet different among Ohlone, Pomo, Karuk, Hupa and Wiyot peoples nestled on the Upper California coastline and its waterways establishes her as playing a prominent role in California coast cosmology. But she has divergent origins and roles in the recollections and views by the Native peoples, elders and scholars Field interviews. He accepts that these disparities are part of the fabric of Indian culture and that no one origin story should be a blanket explanation for all Indians that associate with her.
The numerous themes that constantly emerge from “Abalone Tales” are achievements on their own, challenging traditional anthropology. Field is no apologist for his predecessors indicated by his critiques of them. He asserts that their fieldwork was skewed by ethnocentric parameters and obsessions that detrimentally affected some tribes. He seems to possess a special empathy for tribes still struggling with obtaining government recognition. “Abalone Tales” bravely promotes shifts in anthropology. Among them a “divorce” from lumping Indians in the natural history shelf and merge them with social and ecological studies led by the Indian scholar.
Throughout his journey in Alta, Calif., Field ties in sovereignty, cultural revivification, government recognition and nearly every contemporary issue affecting Indian country with his abalone shells and tales by inquiring intimately about its use as ceremonial regalia and its history as a resource and commodity. At the same time, Field prominently credits his Native informants as authors, explaining his methods and rationale along the way, and acknowledging his limitations and failures, permitting him to move further toward understanding the connection between the California Indian.