Letters from the field:

Some anthropologists, like Margaret Mead and archaeologist Frederica de Laguna, write detailed and interesting letters while they are in the field. Mine were not that detailed or that interesting but after I returned home from the field I made photocopies of letters I had sent my mother and children to include in my daily journal. Rather than write the same things twice, some days I would pour my heart and the details of everyday life into the letters and on other days into the journal. Once or twice a month I would pay someone to carry my letters down to Bundi where it would go out on the twice-weekly government plane. They would then bring back mail that had accumulated at the Bundi post office since the last mail run from Yandera. Freddy de Laguna, who did her first fieldwork in remote parts of Greenland back in 1929, had to wait longer between mail drops, often months at a time. First published in 1977 and then reissued in 1995, Freddy's letters to her family were written in the style of a journal with dated entries and much ethnographic detail. A few excerpts from that collection illustrate Freddy's excitement and growing commitment to archaeology (1995):

June 13 - "We are now off the coast of Greenland and have seen our first iceberg!" (41)

June 26 - "We attacked grave number six, first with the camera, then with our hands,heaving the boulders off the pile and rolling them down the hill. The crushed lichens gave off a musty smell. When the loose boulders had been taken off, we could see the inner chamber, a rough coffin or box made of large stones. This had to be photographed before we could lift off the top slabs and look inside. There were two complete skeletons,frozen in a solid lump of ice." (91)

June 27-July 12 - "We are at Inugsuk, camped on a desert island. It is wonderful to be shut away from the world, alone, and to feel self-reliant and self-sufficient, and the huband center of our own microscosmos." (101)

August 25-September 14 - "On August 28 we opened a new field near the trench.... It was the first time that I had attempted such a long job of shoveling. The shovel, of course, was too heavy for my size, and though I kept at the job until it was finished, by the end of the day I found myself so lame and exhausted that Mathiassen [the expedition leader] nobly did all the packing. This was the first time I ever shirked that job. That daywe celebrated the 4,000 specimen mark with apple cake." (230)

On board the Gertrude Rask, October 14-November 2 - "Dearest Family, Tonight we will pass Cape Farewell, and then nothing of my Greenland experience will be left to me but memories. I knew that I should have a good time when I sailed, but how could I realize the hold which this experience.... has obtained over me. I feel as if I could never be content with ordinary living again, unless it were to be broken by a return to the Arctic."(275)

Reflections on fieldwork:

Today, more and more anthropologists are reflecting on their impact and roles in the lives of their informants (as well as vice versa) and the effects of that involvement on the kinds and quality of knowledge they get out of fieldwork. The following letter, written on February 7, 1983, reveals some of my involvement with Ruge and Elizabeth. While it is not detailed or especially thoughtful, it is one I can reflect upon, particularly as it alludes to the dynamics of women's relationships with one another and with the female anthropologist. It also shows that although I am enmeshed in village life, I am preparing to leave the field in a few months' time and am already beginning to objectify my fieldwork experience as "my talk" in Port Moresby:

"Dear Mom, [It is] a cold, foggy morning after a night of rain, lightening, and thunder (as well as fighting!). Elizabeth has been sleeping in my house this week because of heavy rains and [rain] leaking in the house she's been sleeping in. My house is two feet away from the house where another of Gregor's [Ruge's Christian name] wives lives with her noisy children and pigs. Yesterday morning, Gregor's mother was brought back to Yandera on a litter. She is ill but I don't think she is quite ready to die. The old lady really knows how to generate excitement and turmoil. When no one went [to Mangie, a distant Gende village] to get her earlier in the week (Elizabeth tried desparately to get someone to go with her to Mangie which is several mountains away) she [old Amokai] sent word that she would rather die in Mangie with her daughters (they live there with their husbands) rather than in Yandera with her ungrateful son and daughters-in-law.Gregor cried at market on Saturday and finally six clan brothers [of Gregor's] went off to get her [Gregor's mother]. Last night Gregor slept next door and held a running argument [through the thin walls of his wife's house and mine] with Elizabeth for three hours - accusing her of committing sorcery against his mother, etc. etc. Elizabeth is no shrinking violet and was shouting back the whole time, although she was [also] in tears and hurt because Gregor is always fighting with her and doesn't appreciate all the things she's done for him. [At one point] I put my arm around her and whispered "it won't be long before you and I go". She will go [with me when I leave] to stay with her daughter in Port Moresby and look after her granddaughter whom she's very proud of. I guess that's what 'participant observation' is - living right in the middle of things - both good and bad. I heard from the University in Moresby and I'm tentatively scheduled to give my talk there on Monday afternoon, May 9. I'll be leaving Moresby on the 13th, homeward bound. I can hardly wait to see you all again at the airport - I'll probably be dead-tired from the long flight from Honolulu and the time change, but it will be so good to be home again. I'm glad to hear Aunt Sue is recovering well from her operation - what a horrible way to start the new year. Last year it was you, now this year Aunt Sue. I hope you all take good care of yourselves. I'm looking forward to many happy times and reunions when I get back. I love you and miss you all so much. Love, Jeanie [my family nickname]."

Copyright 1996 by Laura Tamakoshi and Brian Cross