A Skunk and Potatoes Man

Repost from the old site.
When I was working as an anthropologist for a local Indian tribe, I had to go through all of the anthropological literature about the tribe. This took quite some time. There was quite a bit of hostility from the Indians towards the anthropologists, which is stupid, sad and mostly just ignorant.
The legend had grown up among many of the Indians that the anthropologists who had come through were the “enemies of the Indian people.” I researched the folks who had come through and it didn’t seem to fit.
We are talking some of the biggest names of all like Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber and his wife loved the Indians in a time at the turn of the century when Indians were not so popular. The legend continued that the crafty Indians, in order to fool the wicked White men, had concocted lies to tell the anthropologist.
Anthropological field work is hard enough without having to deal with this kind of crap, but it does come up at times. Fieldwork manuals will tell you, first of all, that you need to develop a strong sense of cultural relativity if you are going to do fieldwork.
You have to decide that pretty much whatever it is these folks do in terms of their culture and values, no matter how weird, stupid, horrible or noxious, it’s ok. You aren’t going to make any judgments about it. You want to chop off little girls’ clits? Ok, no big.
You put grandpa on an ice floe when he gets old? Understandable, I’d do the same with my own Dad.
You treat your women like shit? Hey, I can understand, in dating countless women over a lifetime, I’ve built up a nice boiling witches brew of hatreds and grievances myself. Keep them ball-breaking bitches down! You go, guys! Show them cunts who’s in charge! Damn right they better put out or else! They owe us! We rule!
I think you get the picture.
This sort of thing may prove difficult for many folks.
In fieldwork, you need to do this to get along properly with your subjects. If you don’t accept their lifestyle with “unconditional positive regard,” it’s probably not going to work very well. You get subjects lying to you, like they did with Margaret Mead, and all sorts of stuff.
I actually spent a lot of time on this agonizing question, and I called up famous anthropologists all over the country in trying to solve this empirical question. Had the evil White anthropologists really been had by these crafty noble savages, fresh out of Paleolithic?
Turns out they probably had not. Further, I uncovered a lot of data that suggested that all of the anthros had had a good relationship with their informants.
Another thing you can do is go through all of the old data and see how well it all lines up. Turns out that all of the data I had from 1873 through 1970 lined up very well.
There were times when I spotted some lying. Indians said that wild horses and buffalo used live in Central California, and they used to hunt them. The last wild horses lived here 10,000 years ago, and buffalo never did. The anthro himself wrote in his field notes that he thought they were lying to him.
There are several ways to test this. One thing you can do is to interview informants over a period of time, say weeks or months. You can work with a single informant any number of times over that period. You can ask the same question over and over a few times and see if the answers vary.
Another thing you can do is go around to different informants and ask the same question. If only one informant says, yeah, we ate vultures for breakfast and the others say, “Hell no, we did not, he’s lying,” then vulture-eater is probably lying.
You can interview informants alone and with others, changing the others around, and see if their stories change when they are with various others compared to what they say when they are alone. You can shoot questionable material to others and see if they back it up. In fact, you need to try to back up all of your data. One informant is pretty shaky.
It all rests on the sort of relationship you have with your informants. Bad relationship = possibility of poor data. Good relationship portends good data.
I decided that there was some tragic reason why the Indians harbored this hatred for the anthros. Obviously, the anthros just represented Whitey.
Plus many of them had this crazy idea that all the anthros had used the Indians, gone back to Berkeley or wherever and used this illustrious knowledge to write famous books about the Indians and got rich. The anthros got rich, and the Indians never saw a dime. It’s not true, but it felt good to them.
There was a sadder aspect to this anger. All of the great stuff on these Indians had been written by White people. Everything on the language, the culture, everything.
Why couldn’t the Indians write down about their language and culture themselves? The suggestion is that they are too stupid to do that, so they have to have the Smart White Man come and do it for them, and that’s totally humiliating. A reaction to humiliation is rage.
I went through Sylvia Broadbent’s Grammar of Southern Sierra Miwok as part of my work. One informant, who worked as some sort of “House Indian” in Yosemite National Park, was well-known for being a showman, liar, and teller of tales. He also knew a lot of language, but he threw in lots of other words that other informants had never heard before. She ended up rejecting a lot of his data as spurious.
As you can see, this is not exactly hard science. Where do you think “physics envy” comes from? It gets hard to get mathematical proofs of much of anything in the social sciences, which is why the physicists sneer that we our sciences are “soft sciences”.
So much of our judgments in these tough cases in fieldwork is play it by ear, seat of the pants, I know it when I see it, intuitive stuff.
Unfortunately my project floundered over some of the Indians’ rage at the anthropologists. I had gathered all this damned data and was all set to write it up, and the whole thing got shot down.
Because elders said that the Indians had lied to the anthros, every word of the notes was up for grabs. There were known knowns, known unknowns and worst of all, unknown unknowns, the last category being what the otherwise non-empirical Indians deemed the notes.
I was on a salary anyway, so it really didn’t matter.
One of the amusing things was the sort of stuff that they disputed. They were livid about the notes where the Indians said that they used to eat skunks, rattlesnakes and gopher snakes.
Their rejection of this food, of which the rattlesnakes at least are proven to taste precisely like chicken (of course), is based on a primitive but common mode of thinking. Rattlesnakes are poisonous, so they are evil, so they should not be eaten. The suggestion is that the meat is poison too. Only an idiot would eat poison meat.
Skunks smell horrible when you piss them off, so obviously their meat must taste like their horrid odor. Someone else opined that their meat is “probably pretty oily.”
Turns out, according to the New York Times in 1913, skunk is one of the delicacies of the woods, right up there with possum, deer and bear. The main obstacle in the way of proper enjoyment are the speed bumps of human psychology. As long as you associate the meat with skunk-stink, it might taste pretty bad. Convince yourself it’s really Fillet Mignon and dig in for a hearty meal.
Tender eating , skunk meat tastes like either chicken (obviously), goose, duck or rabbit, depending on your powers of dissociation. You really need to figure out how to dress skunk meat properly so you keep the stink away from the choice cuts.
Baked skunk recipe here.
As I feel I’ve been figuratively eating skunk most of my life anyway, I may as well take the plunge some day.
If it’s really as good as they say it is, I assume it will be coming to Chez Panisse or Spago anytime now.
The gopher snake was also rejected as food, but I have often wondered what they tasted like. A while back, I was catching them by the side of the road a lot. If they were near dead, I’d bring them home and throw them on the lawn for my cats to play with, or drag them around on the lawn and let the cats chase them.
Of course I washed the snake blood off my hands and my car. People who saw me doing that still think I’m a really fucking weird person.
After the gopher snake died, I brought it inside and seriously thought about figuring how to cook the sucker. I finally gave up and threw it out in the woods in back. One cool thing about living in the woods is any small dead animal you toss into the woods will always vanish within 1-2 days max. Carrion doesn’t stick around long in nature; it’s the feral equivalent of dumpster-diving.
I later asked some people how to slice up and cook a gopher snake, and everyone I asked thought it was one of the most outrageous things they had ever heard. I guess they still think I’m weird too.
Anyway, the Indians insisted that they never ate gopher snake. “Ugh!” One Indian said, “They taste like dirt. It lives in the ground!” He curled up his nose.
I’m told this is more erroneous thinking, and the guy’s probably never chowed down one anyway. This cognitive error states that a thing tastes like what it lives in. Gopher snakes spent a lot of time in subterranean mode pushing up daisies but living to tell about it, so therefore, they must taste like dirt. It lives in dirt; it tastes like dirt. Probably not. By this logic, pork tenderloin ought to taste like mudpies, and it doesn’t.
Of course, inquiring minds the world over (Well, at least me anyway) are dying to know the ins and outs of how to hunt, kill, and skin skunks. Forget the kitchen for now. Procurement and dressing are tough enough.
Try here. Turns out skunks may be trapped, shot, killed by bow and arrow, drowned or asphyxiated with car exhaust. Clearly the trick is to kill em without getting sprayed. This ends up being quite the challenge. Skunk dressing is so involved that colleges ought to offer six-month courses for certificates in it.
The first story here is quite amusing. It’s pretty much skunk-skinning gone wrong about every way it could. I got a kick.

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