chapter  2
18 Pages

Indigenous voice, community, and epistemic violence: The ethnographer’s ‘interests’ and what ‘interests’ the ethnographer


The controversy around Rigoberta Menchú’s Testimonio is an old one for Indigenous1 people. The questioning from those who have the power to claim the space and set the standards and boundaries for what counts as legitimate inquiry has changed little in a hundred years. Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Indian woman, gave accounts of military atrocities carried out against her people to one anthropologist, only to have the ‘truth’of her testimonio attacked by another anthropologist, David Stoll. In his book, Stoll (1999) seems excited to have discovered discrepancies in the numbers of people murdered, the locations where Rigoberta’s family members were tortured, and where mass graves were located. He does not, in general, dispute that such things happened in Guatemala; he only exclaims that the ‘details’ are exceedingly important because they show how Rigoberta Menchú’s truth was told – as in Emily Dickinson’s recommendation – with a slant. Stoll, of course, has a larger goal. He wants to nudge other anthropologists back into a preceding era of colonial cynicism sealing up the spaces of flux and transformation for listening to the Indigenous voice. The message is, ‘Don’t be lulled out of a foottapping stiffened posture when listening to the Indigenous narrative. These people have an agenda and some of them may be aligned with popular movements on the left; some of them may be trying to stop U.S. corporate-backed military thugs from murdering their people. We must remain stolid and disinterested as scholars. We are only interested in truth; justice is down the hall, in political science . . . or philosophy perhaps.’ Stoll demands an empirical, and therefore presumably neutral and objective, interrogation of the Indigenous voice. He views an emergent openness in Indigenous discourse in the politics of identity and representation as a dangerous deference. Hence, his judgment of Rigoberta Menchú becomes a broader assertion about what standards are to be employed and who is to be believed when it comes to understanding the narratives about Indigenous communities. If individuals like Rigoberta Menchú are not authentic voices for oppressed communities, who can then speak for the Indigenous Other? Stolls’s favorite? The anthropologist, of course.