By Eric Henry, Saint Mary’s University

As part of my research methods in linguistic anthropology class, I devote a week to discussing ethics in fieldwork. The class is cross-listed, so I typically have students from both linguistics and anthropology. For the linguistics students, it may be the only time they are exposed to data collection in the field (rather than in the lab), and for the anthropology students, the only time they encounter the idea of language itself as a rich source of data rather than simply the means of collecting it. At first glance then, language appears to students to be a relatively uncontroversial topic of research – in what possible way could listening to an oral history or eliciting verb conjugations harm someone?

I wanted to get students thinking about some of the thorny ethical issues surrounding linguistic heritage, appropriation, and ownership. At the time, Navajo actors had just walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six because of the disrespectful treatment of indigenous culture and women in the film. I was also following the legal case in which Paramount is claiming copyright over the Klingon language. Within globalized mediascapes, the commodification and appropriation of cultural resources raises new questions about who owns – and who can profit from – a language.

I decided to put together an ethics case study. Our class read both the Ethics Statement of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Anthropological Association’s Principles of Professional Responsibility, and discussed what constitutes ethical research. Working in small groups, the students then read through the case together and had thirty minutes to formulate their response.

Here is the text they received:

You are a professor at a Canadian university who has spent many years researching language revitalization on Nafa’aisala, a small South Pacific atoll. The island has a population of about 500 people scattered among four distinct villages, all within a day’s walk of each other. The main sources of income are fishing, agriculture and remittances from those who have migrated off-island to find work. There is also a small tourist industry.

Nafa’aisala is one of several Polynesian languages related to Samoan and is currently moribund – all of the remaining thirty or so speakers are over fifty and very few young people know more than a few words. The language is expected to go extinct in the coming years unless substantial efforts are made to revive it. Over the past few years you have developed a good working knowledge of the language and are considered one of the few outsiders capable of speaking it.

Two weeks into your current field research, you receive an interesting email: Game of Thrones is coming to Nafa’aisala. Producers for the show have contacted you, asking for your assistance. They have received permission from the Territorial Government (on Mata’utu, about 100km away) to film several scenes for the upcoming season in a village near your field site. They are seeking to cast several Nafa’aisalans as Sothoryi (see http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Sothoryi) for the series, a group of antagonists for the show’s heroes. They would also like to adapt the Nafa’aisalan language for use by the Sothoryi characters. You would be contracted (and paid fairly well) to translate the scripted lines into Nafa’aisala and coach the young actors in pronunciation.

As word spreads of the coming production, you find the community roughly divided into two groups. Younger people are excited to be able to meet the actors (they have watched bootlegged copies of the show), and you have heard several speculate this could be an opportunity to find work off-island. There is also some enthusiasm for the opportunity to learn and use a bit of Nafa’aisalan during filming, as it will spread the island’s fame around the world (and might bring in more tourists). Some have said that this could do for Nafa’aisala what Lord of the Rings has done for New Zealand.

However, your language informants, especially the matai chiefs and elders, are more hesitant. They fear what the months-long production will bring in terms of outsiders, money, and crime. They also worry how they, and their language, will be depicted in the show. Some have voiced discomfort with the language being spoken to outsiders when so few young people are fluent today.

Tonight the village council (fono o matai) are meeting to discuss the issue, and you have been asked what you plan to do. Using the various ethical frameworks we have discussed, develop a response to both the Game of Thrones producers and the community describing your course of action.

So what should one do in a case like this? Ethics case studies are designed to present dilemmas, and the most ethical course of action is rarely obvious. Our class discussion quickly honed in on several related issues. First of all, is it acceptable to profit from your knowledge of the language? Certainly you would have invested years of your time and effort into acquiring it: should you not be compensated for contributing your expertise, just like any other technical skill, to the production? But as some students pointed out, indigenous knowledge is not equivalent to other forms of knowledge. Rather than just being invested in the individual, it is often a collective good. Charging a fee to translate a text into Spanish is not equivalent to charging a fee to translate a text into an indigenous language because scholars do not “own” that knowledge in the same fashion. Some students advocated taking the money and donating it to the community. But who receives it, and for what purpose? After some more discussion, most of the students agreed it would be best to recommend the producers hire the village elders themselves to train the young people, which might provide a framework for future revitalization efforts.

Next, should anthropologists take a role in how cultures and communities represent themselves? Only one group of students followed the link to the Game of Thrones wiki. There, they discovered the Sothoryi are a savage and barbaric people in the Game of Thrones universe, with “sloped foreheads” and “flat noses that suggest snouts.” They “worship dark gods and perform obscene rites.” These types of representation negatively reinforce the most loathsome stereotypes of indigenous people. And yet, some people in the community might see this as an acceptable trade-off if it leads to, for instance, a tourism boom or a revival of the language. How does one discuss these potential risks and rewards with the community?

One consistent feature of the students’ answers that I did not expect was the central role they adopted in negotiating between the producers and the community, with some even proposing specific compromises: the filming would only be allowed to proceed, one demanded, if the show offered to fund a job training program or youth centre in the village. Who, I asked, had appointed them to this role? Perhaps this was a consequence of the case study structure itself – where students assume their job is to “find the answer” – but the students had trouble understanding why taking charge was a problem. After all, weren’t they the experts? The westerners who knew how to deal with Hollywood? The AAA statement notes that “Anthropologists must be sensitive to the power differentials, constraints, interests and expectations characteristic of all relationships” but for my students, those power differentials were assumed to be between others, not between oneself and a community. As they became more aware of what bargaining “for” the community implied in terms of their own position of power, the students agreed to let the community itself decide the best course of action, while making its members aware of the potential advantages and disadvantages.

We often teach students that language extinction is a tragedy and revitalization an inherently positive process. In reality, revitalization often pits various constituencies, both inside and outside the community, against each other. Anthropologists may find themselves caught in the middle, trying to use our ethical principles of research as guidance. Having students think about the ways these principles should be applied in practice asks them to start thinking like anthropologists.

I plan to use this exercise again in the future and welcome any comments or feedback. My thanks to Pauline McKenzie Aucoin for her advice and input on setting the case in the South Pacific.


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