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Kurt Vonnegut’s quintessential anthropological romp, Cat’s Cradle. However, I trusted that then, unlike in the aforementioned novel, my “joining the natives” would not cause the world around me to come crashing down, or in that story’s particular case, freezing up. I had lighted upon a society with bizarre customs based on what most would call a primitive mentality, and was strangely comfortable, free from the professional restraints of “proper investigation,” a euphemism for appropriate distance. It was truly absurd that, in a time one and a quarter centuries removed from the staid Victorian Era, such a restrictive mentality could still exist in a science that was both devoted to the past and always on the cutting edge. Innovative ignorance.
Nevertheless, I was in absolute defiance of it when I joined the Jenginian natives in their political embroilment, which began soon after I settled in. In those days, the UN had not yet reassumed all its previous clout, and so some political leeway still existed for nascent industrial powers to assume an imperial streak and claim title to neighboring, newly separate nations. Whether it were for resources, labor, or land was irrelevant. The forces that be were absent, nor would they reemerge for some time, and so, in the absence of disciplinary means, it was the responsibility of the civilized world to do what was right: ostensibly pick a side, and then promptly ignore the conflict and allow the media to attend to the rest. As an anthropologist, I was supposed to remain politically uninvolved in the culture. I was there to understand the culture, experience it for a time, but certainly never to join it outright. At most, I should quietly promote the viewpoint of my origin nation, America, but otherwise just stay clear of the strife.
In my deliberation, I was reminded of Major T.E. Lawrence, who nearly became an enemy to his own people as he became the ultimate military ally of those whom he was to keep from muddling up Europe. The white man of the wilderness. An anthropologist does not understand a culture simply by reading its literature, talking to its people, examining its garbage, or tracking its migratory movements. An anthropologist is a gatekeeper, who stands in the doorway from one world to the next. Just as one is limited as he examines a far away body in the heavens, so too is a culture scientist: both can know no more than the most mechanical, superficial details, until he visits the very earth, and breathes the very air of that at which he gazes. I had to join the world of the Jenginian natives, not forsaking my own, but remaining perched on the tiny piece of land that connected the two.
Unfortunately, that earth was not American soil. When I ascended to a leadership position, I became an anomaly of sorts, focused on and grilled by the press. Who was this American, and what was he doing fighting on the wrong side? In my adherence to the Jenginian cause, I defied the American statement on the issue, which was to cede the land back to Chile. The natives had demonstrated their self-sufficiency; they had even the inklings of industry, in their rudimentary resource management. However, most important, they had necessity on their side: the Chilean government was in upheaval. A year, maybe two, and it would be far worse than at any time under General Augusto Pinochet fifty years before. This of course was why the Chilean military council had decided on the invasion of Jengini, as an essential repository of resources for the coming war machine. America was wrong this time.
For three months I attended tribal councils, and assisted in coordinating intertribal communication. One does not study disparate cultures of the last ten thousand years, and not ascertain that unity is the core of any successful society. Of course, with my turncoat ways, I had lost any capability of help from academic America. They had funding to worry about, a precious commodity besides, but one made very scarce once you have been identified as associating with subversives. Needless to say, mine had long since dried up, and my wife and I had taken up residence under the auspices of Jefe Jengui Catin, which proved advantageous compared to Calama for its accessibility to the chief, a major player in the tribal movement and…
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