Interview: Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss

Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss is a PH.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In the fall of 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Unsettled Co-Existence: Political Community and Everyday Life on Canada’s Northwest Coast,’ supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. We touched base with Joseph to learn more about his research on the remote archipelago of Haida Gwaii and the tricky game of sovereignty that plays out amongst its inhabitants. 


Could we begin by learning a bit about your fieldsite?

map courtesy wikipedia

My project is focused on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago just off the coast of Western Canada. Haida Gwaii (which means literally “Islands of the People”) is the traditional territory of the Haida nation, whose people have inhabited the islands since time immemorial. It’s also claimed by the Canadian government on behalf of the Crown and forms part of the province of British Columbia. The islands are pretty rural, with only one major paved highway connecting its communities together, mail that comes by ferry, and completely appalling grocery store prices. Logging roads veer off from the highway like veins, reflecting the islands’ recent history as a major logging center. But even with the bald patches left by a century of logging in the tree cover, the islands are one of the most beautiful places on Earth, something I think would still claim even if I wasn’t just a bit biased.

Haida Gwaii’s population lives in small towns dotting the islands, the largest of which has a population of about 1,200. There are two Haida reserve communities and about four other towns with by and large split populations. That said, segregation was far more pronounced in earlier colonial times, and there’s a still sense that some of the non-reserve towns are basically “settler” communities. My work’s located principally in Old Massett, the Haida community on the north end of the islands. Old Masset’s on reserve, but the neighboring formerly exclusively settler town of Masset isn’t, and you really get a sense of the colonial history of the place when you notice that all the grocery stores, the credit union, and amenities are located exclusively “uptown” in Masset. My day-to-day is spent mostly in Old Massett as a volunteer at the local Elementary school, but one is always moving between communities for public events, to see friends, or even just to get the mail or pick up groceries. It’s an interesting place to live and, of course, to conduct research.

Could you explain the paradox surrounding sovereignty that is at the heart of your research question?

One of the challenges when putting together a long-term research project, especially for a first-timer graduate student like me, was figuring out how the things happening in one’s fieldsite that seem so interesting and important in context can speak to larger questions in anthropology. In my case, I became particularly interested in the ways in which a series of questions and dilemmas seemed to be recurring (and recurrently recalcitrant) at multiple dimensions of Canadian socio-political life. So, I argued that, from a certain perspective, a First Nations fisherman on Haida Gwaii trying to deal with commercial fishing licenses and sharing the water with non-Native tourists doing catch and release fishing is facing the same questions about “co-existence,” Aboriginal vs. settler rights, and resource availability that First Nations are negotiating as they put together territorial title and sovereignty claims and that the Canadian government is facing as it attempts to figure out how to respond to these claims while preserving sovereign authority over Canada. And, in turn, the way this all plays out in Canada, I suggested, can offer insights into what is happening all over the world as more and more indigenous peoples claim rights-to-difference from nation-states with complex colonial histories.

Here’s where the paradox comes in. At the national level, the questions posed by indigenous rights claims seem pretty intractable. Canada, like most nation-states, has a long history invested in the idea that it is a relatively unified “nation” of people, who in turn are protected (and bounded) by a strong and centralized sovereign authority, the “state.” There’s a lot more to this idea philosophically and historically, but here what really matters is that it’s an idea that is a lot more aspiration than it is reality. So governments like Canada’s have to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy performing the idea that Canada really is a coherent, unified nation of equal people with a strong government. The irony is, and here I’m very influenced by some of Wendy Brown’s writings, that the more a government has to perform that it is secure and stable and sovereign, the more it actually reveals its basic insecurity, which in turn makes even more dramatic performances of security necessary. That’s paradox one.

Aboriginal rights claims in Canada are especially unsettling in the context of this pervasive insecurity, and this at two levels. In the first instance, they make the illusion of sovereign closure on the part of nation-states impossible, suggesting instead a landscape of indigenous nations-within-nations in complex, often fraught relationships with a settler world that is also attempting to assert sovereign rights over the same territories. Even more profoundly, the fact that contemporary Aboriginal Title and rights claims are grounded in First Peoples’ rights to territories that they have been occupying since long before Canadian “settlement” suggests that Canada has always been such a fragmented landscape, one whose legitimacy is at best uneasy and at worst the product of colonial violence and domination. So how do you deal with that, especially in the context of trying to maintain Canada as a tolerant, multicultural-nation? That’s paradox two. And it gets even trickier when First Nations themselves are drawing on political ideas like the nation-state and sovereignty in forming their own governments even as their presence as governments destabilize those ideas at another scale!

The trick is, though, that when these dilemmas are encountered by people like that fisherman I mentioned above in the context of his day to day life, he isn’t able to let them exist as irreconcilable paradoxes. Instead, he has to deal with them somehow. What my research is meant to capture are the means through which he and the many people like him on Haida Gwaii do that, sometimes in ways which are explicitly and reflexively “political” and at other times which are not.


What challenges did you encounter during your fieldwork? How did your research questions shift as a result?

Weiss at a famous Haida Gwaii landmark

There are two major challenges that spring immediately to mind, both of which speak to the difference between imagining a research project based on a lot of reading and a few exploratory visits to a research site and the realities of conducting long-term fieldwork (not to mention living) in that place. The first, broadly speaking, has been the negotiation of my own positionality as a non-Aboriginal researcher conducting a study in a First Nations community. Old Massett, the Haida community in which the lion’s share of my fieldwork has been done, has been a site of ethnographic research for more than a century. So, unlike the cliché of the ethnographer who needs to explain what anthropology is to each new interlocutor, I arrived in a research context where most of the population already has a good sense of social science research and the kind of work that anthropologists tend to do. And because of the inequalities that have been pervasive in that long history of research relations between Haida people and non-Haida scientists and researchers, there’s serious concern in the community about scholars misrepresenting Haida cultural practices and understandings and a keen awareness of the extent to which past scholars have “given back” to the people whose knowledge they have drawn on in their work.

What this means is that in the course of doing my research I was often called on by community members to account for myself, not just in terms of the work that I was doing and its potential benefits, but also, and more profoundly, for my own desire to do research in their community given long-standing inequalities. In those moments, questions about researcher ethics that felt important but abstract in a methods class became very concrete indeed, and I was distressed to realize that the answers that I had – “I’m hoping my work will be useful reference point for the community,” “I’m volunteering at a local school every day in order to be a productive community member,” and similar such – felt inadequate as responses. Even now, I can’t say I’ve figured out a “solution” to this dilemma, but I do believe that the fact that I have been continually called on to account for myself ethically as a researcher has kept me honest and kept me thinking about the consequences of my work and about what I can do to avoid repeating patterns of exploitation and researcher abuse. In the absence of answers, it’s helped to at least keep the questions at the forefront.


What is the significance of “home” in contemporary  Haida politics?

Addressing the second big challenge I mentioned above is actually (and rather helpfully) a good way to start responding to this question. As originally conceived, my research on Haida Gwaii was focused on the impact of a particular treaty-alternative agreement between the Council of the Haida Nation and the Canadian provincial and federal governments, one which proposed a new kind of “co-existence” between Haida people and the settler world. When I got to the field and started asking people what they thought about this agreement, it turned out not to be particularly at the forefront of popular awareness. I even had a couple of moments in interviews where I wound up detailing the agreement for my interlocutors rather than the reverse! To deal with this, I decided to scale out a bit in my interview design, and I started asking people much more general questions about the kinds of changes they felt they had seen over the past decade or so on the islands, political and otherwise. This wound up being very, very productive, and if it wasn’t quite what I expected, the fact that it’s pushed me to reconsider my own assumptions and think about how my research questions can be really made relevant to the people with whom I’m working has been a very good thing.

During these broader conversations, I began to get more and more captured by all the different ways that the people I was talking to were using the idea of “home.” I first started noticing it when my interviews would turn to the topic of youth and education. One of the realities of living in a (relatively) remote place like Haida Gwaii is that there are limited opportunities to pursue post-secondary education on island. For most island youth, continuing their education means leaving home, which for Haida young people especially means being separated both from their families and the historical center of Haida culture understood as such. So there’s some ambivalence there. But at the same time, almost everyone I spoke to was completely confident that their children and relatives would return when the time was right. Why? Because Haida Gwaii was and would always be their home. One of my interlocutors even called the islands a “homing” beacon!  Through this conviction, people were able to manage the ways in which movement was necessary to their lives and the lives of their loved ones without travel entailing a necessary “loss” in what it means to be a Haida or a member of the Haida Gwaii community. This in turn figures an indigenous modernity in which an inextricable connection to one’s ancestral territory can be reconciled with the demands of mobility and success in the “mainstream” (settler) world.

And the figure of “home” here is a really generous one, referring not just to one’s own domicile or nuclear family but also a more general sense that the islands of Haida Gwaii are the home and rightful territory of the Haida people (the name translates to “islands of the people,” after all). In this sense it also troubles conventional divides between “private/domestic” and “public.”  Consider the fact that a major dimension of Haida sovereignty claims revolves around the rights of Haida people to protect the islands’ lands and waters from pollution and resource exploitation – keeping “home” safe, as it were. Or that for Haida people, most of the major ways of acting publically qua Haida revolve around fishing, food, and plant gathering activities that revolve around Haida Gwaii’s particular ecology. A major reason people come home is to engage in these kinds of activities. One can even see echoes of the figure of home in the way my interlocutors have spoken to me about what leadership means to them, as they frequently evoke the notion that a leader should be accountable to his people – an idea that is at once reflective of a democratic notion of popular representation and a Haida traditional one that chiefs “take care” of their clans. In other words, a good leader cares for and is responsible to his “home,” imagined at once as a place and as a network of relationships.


What’s next for your research? Are you planning on continuing this project in any way, and if so how do you see it developing?

Well, I’d like to write a dissertation at some point drawing on this research, I guess that’s the big thing. This said, one of the things I’ve learned being in the field is how little I really know and how difficult it is to try to come to understand even a single human community like Old Massett. That’s kind of scary, but it’s also amazing, because it means I know I still have (and will always have) so much to learn. I’d like my relationship with Old Massett to be a permanent one, and I would like for my work to be useful to that community and to the Haida Nation more generally. So in that sense I certainly hope to continue doing research there, though I don’t know in what form(s) that research will happen. As to the theoretical content of the work that I’ve been doing and how that will develop, the short answer is that I’m not sure. What began as a project that was relatively firmly grounded in a certain kind of political anthropology has taken twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting, and I feel like the next step is to start writing with my field data and exploring what kinds of directions that suggests for my thinking. I’m looking forward to it.

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