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By Dr. John Anderson

[Nov 15, 1998]

I maintain many webpages on the Chumash Indians, who were the largst cultrual group in California prior to the invasions of Europeans into the region. One of these webpages provides commentary on the rapid development of the California Spaceport, on the western lands of the ancient Chumash Indians. This spaceport is located west of Santa Barbara, near a remote Indian religious shrine called Point Conception.

One of my webpages features commentary on and emotional anthropological debate that is featured in the international journal called Current Anthropology. In a web review, I described a controversial article being discussed in the debate as "filled with academic jargon influenced by post-modern anthropological nihilism." This assessment generated a considerable amount of mail, mostly from from web users asking me to elaborate on the topic of academic nihilisim. Among the respondents was one of the authors of this article who assured me that, like myself, he was opposed to nihlism in modern anthropology.

The purpose of this webpage is therefore to provide a brief overview of the nihilism debate in contemporary anthropology, with a focus on the field of Chumash Studies. The 1997 Supreme Court ruling against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enters into discussion, as does the long-standing religious intolerance shown by fundamental Christians against native Traditional spirituality.

Lost? Can't figure how you found yourself in a discussion of nihilism, when you wanted to know more about environmental impacts of spaceports? Try: Back to Homepage


My webpage commentary on the presence of nihilism in contemporary anthropology was not drawn out of the air. It was meant, rather, to invite readers interested in Chumash Indians to explore an already rich international dialogue on the widely recognized 'problem' of anthropological nihilism.

A large number of websites address related topics, and readers can locate them by searching for the keywords "anthropology" "post-modern" "Pomo" and "nihilism." You will find tens of thousands of citations. And if you want to jump into one of the many anthropological overviews on the subject, I would suggest "Postmodernism and Its Critics" by S. Weiss and K. Wesley as a good place to start. See Weiss/Wesley (and look at their webpage called "Criticisms" for an interesting overview).


After a day or two of reading in this serious and often disconcerting topic, you might need some relief. Try the website called, Postmodern Humor by Professor Katz (Trent University, Canada). But no matter how often those of us interested in Chumash Studies try to break the tension with self-deprecating laughter, the topic of anthropological nihilism always remains before us as a sobering topic.

If you open a typical dictionary, it will define nihlism as the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge (or truth). This is the sense in which I used the term nihlism in my writings. Anthropologists who consider themselves postmodernists often criticize modernist colleagues for expressing nihilistic attitudes.

The term nihilism can also be used to imply rejection of custom, but this is NOT the connotation that I wished to convey. In fact, it is my contention that the negative impacts on the California Indians from nihilistic attitudes stems from the long-standing practice of American social scientists. Many who consider themselves Modernists (advocates of objectivity in the social sciences) have denegrated native Californians for deviating from the dominant Euro-Christian mainstream customs.

But the current debate over nihilism in anthropology is only secondarily focused on religious intolerance and ethnocentricism among self-proclaimed 'objective' social scientists. A growing concern is the philosophical nihilism among some professors in our graduate schools, whose cynicism towards ethics has influenced some of their graduates to take high paying jobs for developers and construct their findings according to the needs of their employers. Let us take the worst possible example, in the context of the Chumash Traditionalists who might chose to challenged the fabulously rich coalition promoting the development of a commericial spaceport near Point Conception. This coalition, like other development interests, needs to comply with state and federal laws regulating development. One aspect of these laws is the protection of hisorical sites, including those of native Americans. A truly nihilistic social scientist, lacking any deep seated convictions about truth, might be tempted to shade his or her findings to comply with the economic/political interests of the developer. As a result, economic self-interest (what Kitsepawit refers to as "greed") may taint the assessment.

I am not saying that greed influenced the researchers working for the Spaceport when they decided to release their divisive article on the Chumash and Point Conception. I do not know their motives, or the specifics of their relations with the Air Force, the commercial aerospace industry, or the pro-growth political coalition backing the California Spaceport. But I do believe that they made a mistake in releasing this particular article, with its findings against protecting the greater Point Conception area (and its extensive critique of Chumash Traditionalism) at a time when spaceport activities were intruding on the Point Conception region.

The non-reservation Chumash, especially those who consider themselves Traditionalists, were already generally distrustful of scholars hired to write salvage archaeology reports. The Traditionalists discredited many of their reports as overemphasizing material culture, and blamed government agencies for failing to address controversial historical issues dealing with the California Holocaust.

Regardless of the author's motivations in the Current Anthropology article, its publication gave some Chumash Traditionalists the impression of accomodation to special interests. The author's questioning of Chumash Traditionalism understandabley caused much concern among the numerous Chumash bands, distracting them with issues of authenticity of membership just at the time that they needed to unite in common cause if they want to make an effective case against the Spaceport.


In The Chumash House of Fate (Anderson 1997), I address the ethical problem of greed in Chumash ethics.

"Chumash theologians believed in free will. This did not mean that they considered themselves indepenent of the strugges of the gods. Rather they felt that they had personal and social responsibility for deciding which of the gods to seek help from at any given time.

Kitsepawit, a Chumash islander, explained this situation to John Harrington, an ethnographer from the Smithsonian Institution. Traditional theologians taught Kitsepawit to believe that greed ruled the world. Harrington's field notes do not explain exactly what Kitsepawit meant by 'world.' But from other cosmological data we can guess that the power of greed was not active in the highest heavens and was manifested only in the lower levels of the cosmos such as in the 'world' occupied by humans.

Like other educted Chumash, Kitsepawit apparently believed that he had free will but was constantly suffering from the effects of selfishness. By himself, an individual human could never expect to escape suffering in the moral chaos around him. So he beseeched the gods to aid him in his struggles. He prayed for assistance, in a world overwhelmed with disease, death, and pain.

The Spanish and Mexican priest who ran the Chumash 'missions' (production centers) routinely sent reports to Mexico City condemning leaders of traditional families for supposedly practicing black magic. Chumash traditionalists considered such accusations to be both bizaare and ruthless, because they implied that the native Californians were guilty of seeking alliances with the demons of the Lower World (whom the Christians believed to be led by Satan). Such an alliance with the ruling powes of the lower world made no sense to the traditionalists who were trained to balance the powers of the upper and lower worlds" (page 10). See House of Fate for further discussion.


Ethical nihlism is the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence. Clearly, this is not the focus of my commentary. I believe that there is meaning in existence; I presume to most American anthropologist believe the same; and I am certain that Traditional Chumash believed in such (existential) meaning.

Ethical nihlism can lead an anthropologist, or any other social scientist, to reject what I consider basic ethical responsibilities to the peoples being studied. Lacking a deep-seated commitment to any mitigating professional ethical standards, ethical nihlists may be constantly tempted to sell their M.A. and Ph.D. credentials to the highest bidder.


Political nihilism is generally associated with violent revolutionary movements, typically associated with terrorism. Clearly, this is not the focus of my commentary.

MORE: Commentary from Chumash


This web page was drafted in 1998, in response to a rush of correspondences generated by the publication of Brian Haley and Larry Wilcoxon's article in Current Anthropology.

Since I wrote my first web page on the Spaceport controversy Brian Haley and I exchanged a number of emails. these were very helpful in better educating me on his perspective. In the emails, Haley objected to any implication that he embraced nihilism in any form. In fact he indicated that he is opposed to nihilistic tendencies in anthropology.

Unfortunately, rejection of nihilism does not necessarily lead to agreement on other matters. If I understand the situation correctly, the anthropological split[ described by Haley and Wilcoxon in their 1998 article] has not been healed in the many months that have gone by since publication. There is a strong need for including, ociologists, linguists, philosophers, historians, musicologists, and other scholars in the debate, as well as many more Chumash voices.

Chumash Traditionalists, especially those from non-reservation families who represent the majority of Chumash, still distrust academics working for government and privae development interests. There is much work to be done, to rebuild trust and it is my contention that the fundamental step to healing is federal recognition and a landbase for the Chumash groups living outside of the Santa Ynez valley.

The second step is for government and private interests to cooperate with Chumash Traditionalists when they ask for frank discussion of Spanish, Mexican, and American genocide in public history projects. The era of describing material culture on road signs and other public displays, and avoiding the harsh realities of the California Holocaust, should be ended. (John Anderson, April 2000). See October 2000 for additional commentary.

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The Haley & Wilcoxon Article
The Jonjonata Controversy
The California Spaceport Controversy
Modern Chumash Cultural Identity
Critics of Civilization?
Swedish Article & 'Laypersons'
Mike Khus' Commentary