Crashing The Mennonites & Anthropology Conference

Here I go again! Every year, I show up at this academic conference at the University of Winnipeg, which is put on by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies. This year I was especially intrigued with the theme: Mennonites and Anthropology: Ethnography, Religion, and Global Entanglements. (Also of note: I’m quite pleased with the title’s use of the Oxford Comma.)

So, even though I’m an unacademic schmuck, I booked a vacation day so I could attend the conference on Friday. Yep. I did that. And then, I was late and missed the welcome from UWinnipeg President Annette Trimbee, and the conference introduction from Royden Loewen. I had imagined I’d quietly show up and sneak in there and quietly claim a nice out-of-the-way seat well before the speaking began, but alas, it was not to be.

When I arrived, Dr. Philip Fountain (from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ) was already sharing his paper Fragments of a Mennonite Anthropology, and I commenced note-taking as quickly as possible. My notes don’t make much sense:
Mennonites don’t tend to study their own communities (where they themselves live)
The “conundrum of Mennonite identity” — (I liked this; I identify with it).
Urry was trying to answer the question: “What do you think the Mennonites are?”
“Germanic vs non-Germanic“… “who is a Christian?”… these are some ways to explore this question.
Surrounded by awkwardness and discomfort
Mennonites are too different (in and amongst themselves, the different interpretations etc) to easily be made sense of (Robbins).
Mennonites are perhaps then “exceptional exceptions” <— this elicited a chuckle from the audience.
The idea of “religion as heritage”.
Stretching, building, contradicting.

Going over the pictures I took, I’m first struck to realize I never took individual photos of Dr. Fountain or Dr. Janzen. I did however get this really great photo of both of them together:

John Janzen and Philip Fountain

Then, Doctor John Janzen from the University of Kansas shared his paper Confessions of a Mennonite Anthropologist. On the screen was this exchange:
“Are you really a Mennonite? Do you do all those things?”
This elicited a laugh from the audience. Dr. Janzen lamented that he actually never had a chance to ask this particular person what they meant by “all those things”. Ha!
In his career as an Anthropologist, Dr. Janzen had studied healing rituals in various parts throughout the continent of Africa. He showed a photo of himself, much younger, in the midst of one of these rituals. I was mesmerized by the photo. I kept staring at it; never took a pic.
He was answering the question: “How does being a Mennonite influence your anthropology?”
Ideally, I suppose, he wouldn’t have been influenced by anything in his study. But he was. You see, he’d written a paper many years ago, and he was criticized for what he wrote, and he realized his views had been framed by his understanding of religious symbolism. That is to say, his Mennonite-ism framed his view of everything. He hadn’t realized until it was pointed out. This was his confession in this paper which he was reading to us. I really liked that he based his entire paper on the fact that these criticisms were valid.
Okay, then there was the Q&A for Doctors Fountain and Janzen. I took random notes from this too:
Ethical problem of sharing people’s stories, revealing who they are. (I myself think about this a lot, as many of these ideas or questions are at the heart of why I’m wanting to learn about Mennonites, since it’s my entire family background but I don’t understand it.)
Dr. Loewen asked how do you take stories and hear them, respect, understand… and then share them? “How do you hold stories?” (Such good questions! I wrote the questions, not the answers.)
What is “Mennonite culture”? What unites Mennonites around the world? (Does anything unite Mennonites worldwide or even within, say, Steinbach? These are things I’m wondering.)

Then there was a coffee break. COFFEE! It was really good, too.

After the break, Abigail Carl-Klassen from El Paso, Texas shared her paper Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Mennonitas of Chihuahua.
I was excited to see her in person because I had interviewed her for Mennotoba in September 2018!
My notes:
Her oral history project is housed at the Mennonite Heritage Archives — 42 different interviews.
You can also find these stories and perspectives on her YouTube channel, called “Darp Stories”, which are punctuated by the gorgeous black and white photos of Marcella Enns.
She’s been exploring the history of “forbidden cross-cultural interactions” in this “3 cultures region”.
These stories highlight indigenous perspectives of Mennonites in this area.
Going against the idea that these interactions don’t happen. When really it’s gone from being a transgression to becoming now commonplace.
Some stories include: Mennonite Miss Chihuahua, Mennonite MasterChef, ex-communication, a variety of ages and experiences, how interacting with other communities has shaped their life path…
Also a story about how her interview subject’s grandfather was visited by Pancho Villa!

Abigail Carl-Klassen

Next was Pablo Hyung Jin Kim Sun from the University of Toronto, on Making an Intercultural Mennonite Ethnoreligion in a Global Context.
His paper made a significant impression on me. I was very moved. First I was fascinated by his perspective as a Paraguayan-Korean. He opened with “how I became a Mennonite”. The words “once I became a Mennonite” arrested my attention. Earnest. Sincere. Honest. Perhaps all these words mean the same thing… but perhaps collected together they convey the sense that I got from his presentation… alongside a heavy dose of hurt. Non-judgemental, yet wondering a few things. He felt uneasy returning from gatherings of Mennonites… reminded many were white, playing the Mennonite game, from which he was excluded.
“I’d never be Mennonite enough.”
Do North American Mennonites view the ethnic aspect as crucial? It excludes people like him. Makes him feel like a second-class church member. “Half-Mennonite.”
The Mennonite community should be an inter-cultural community, listening to people from outside our limited culture and thought patterns.
Is it fundamentally a faith community? A global church?
Why are other backgrounds not incorporated into our understanding of Mennonite ethnicity?
Our view of “ethnic Mennonite” should be expanded.
”Do I need to give up my Korean and Paraguayan culture to be a Mennonite?”

Pablo Hyung Jin Kim Sun, with panel chair Debbi DiGennaro looking on.

Next, Ursula Regehr’s paper was read, it was entitled Coexistence Revisited: Mennonite Settlers and Indigenous People in the Gran Chaco.
(She was not in attendance, she is from the University of Bern and Museum der Kulturen Basel.)
My scratchy notes:
Settlers were convinced God sent them on a mission to the Chaco
where people were “caught in the claws of Satan” (Peter Klassen)
Mennonite missionaries —> convert indigenous people
exclusive membership and collective land ownership
”mixed” marriages could live on the collective land but not have church membership
in-group ethos prevents the social integration of converts
this paper provides a window into this racist ideology
there are fewer Mennonites, more indigenous people, but Mennonites own most of the land
local converts not of Germanic-Mennonite culture are excluded from Mennonite institutions
in order to become part of the settler culture, must renounce their own culture, called “guided social change” but actually is ethnocide and forced assimilation

Miriam Rudolph

Next was Miriam Rudolph from the University of Manitoba. Her paper’s called disPOSESSION: Exploring Mennonite and Indigenous Land Usage in Paraguay through Art.
My notes:
Complicated narratives
it’s about accumulation of wealth of a few and the displacement of many
deforestation — highest rate in the world
Mennonites — tame the hostile wilderness… by bulldozing it.
Settler myth — “there was nothing here, we made something of it”
socially complex setting
cultural destruction they are causing
a lot of this is eerily familiar —> blaming indigenous people for their challenges
Mennonites in the Chaco are now into the prosperity gospel
Paraguay was fighting a war over land with Bolivia in the 1920’s & 1930’s
Idea of enclosures — separation — disappearance of the dry forests to make room for soy plantations
Illegal land grabs and poor governance
she showed photos of nature that she loves — this was moving, I was sitting at the front and saw her eyes light up and her voice catch as she related what she loves about the dry forests of Paraguay, showing us photos
her wrenching, epic piece colonization by cattle
When people lose access to their land, when they’re pushed off their land
Mennonite settlers “paved the way to poverty for indigenous people”
Loss of seed-saving tradition
she says much of her work is “critical and melancholy” so she created “seeds of hope” — conveying knowledge to future generations

“Miriam Rudolph in collaboration with Terry Hildebrand, ‘Broken Seed Jar’, Porcelain, Digital Decals, 2017”

During the Q&A, a gentleman from Brandon shared his feedback, which was a reflection: he was a heavy equipment operator at a time Manitoba was building many roads. He had one specific memory —> one more row of trees to bulldoze, he was advancing on them… and he saw a flying squirrel racing from one tree to another… to another… to another… until the trees were gone… he saw the squirrel, at a loss for trees, falling, disappearing.
(He regrets his time spent bulldozing these trees.)

Brain full, but stomach empty — it was now time for lunch. I figured I’d head upstairs and see what that faculty pub was like. I found a table and dug out my book which I’d brought along for just such an occasion, but I was soon joined by Dr. Janzen and his extremely classy wife Reinhild (whose style I’d been coveting from afar all morning). I tried not to be too dazzled so as to be rendered mute. It was very exciting to share a few moments around a table with this fascinating couple. Just another reason attending this conference is so COOL.

Stay tuned, there’s LOTS more coming up on the blog. Cheers!