Keir Martin | Anthropological Theory
Much recent anthropological theory demonstrates a concern to defend indigenous ontologies against allegedly singular and oppressive colonial or modernist settlements. These Western settlements are said to rely upon conceptual separations such as that between nature and culture or between nature and beliefs. Such conceptual separations are held to be at the heart of the malign effects that Western modernity is perceived as creating as they are relentlessly imposed upon non-Western indigenous peoples. De la Cadena, for example, argues that a distinction between (scientific) truth and (cultural) belief has been at the heart of modernist projects to disallow or marginalise the everyday and ritual relations with non-human ‘earth beings’ (such as living sacred mountains) that she describes as being central to Latin American ‘indigenous’ ways of being. The moves to protect the tubuan, a ritual figure and non-human actor held to be of great importance by many of Tolai people in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain Province, could easily be read through this framing, in which a modern Western ontology imposes a separation between a ‘natural’ order and ‘cultural beliefs’, which are relegated to a secondary order of importance. Although this framing looks very much like the perspective sometimes adopted by certain Tolai, it is far from the only perspective that can be advanced. In particular, this framing tends to most often be strongly rejected by those who are severely critical of the emerging postcolonial indigenous elite in Papua New Guinea. In simply advancing a framing that celebrates non-human agency as a rejection of colonial ontological imperialism, anthropology risks not only deliberately flattening out the ethnographic richness of the shifting perspectives of the people we work with but, in particular, silencing subaltern perspectives in a world of rapidly increasing socio-economic inequality.