“Allowing the Quiet to Become Heard”: Mennonites & Anthropology Conference Notes

Feature photo: Dr. Royden Loewen speaks at the close of the conference. 

Continued from previous posts! This’ll be the last in this series, by the way.

John D. Thiesen of Bethel College, Kansas, presenting. Chair Conrad Stoesz looks on.

It was magnificent to see how closely the Panel Chairs were able to keep the conference moving along on schedule. Considering how many papers and Q & A’s they were moving through, I believe everything was kept precisely on time. And so, at 2:00 the panel on Archaeologies began, with John D. Thiesen of Bethel College sharing his paper “H. R. Voth, the Hopi and a Contested Kansas Mennonite Anthropo-/Archeological Legacy”. Here are my incomplete and likely incomprehensible notes:

H.R. Voth collected Arapahoe  & Hopi artifacts and photographs

Was also a missionary… but left active mission work

Began working for the Field Museum in Chicago in 1898

Voth is reviled in contemporary Hopi communities

Assembled large artifact collections

Concluded with an addendum — the improbably large cluster of top level researchers came out of this same small Mennonite community — intriguing

A map of the East Reserve! I’m familiar with this, from the Historical Atlas of the East Reserve!

Next was Roland Sawatzky of the Manitoba Museum, speaking on “Earthly Remains:  Recovery, Analysis and Reburial of a Mennonite Skeleton at Kleefeld, Manitoba”.

“Mennonite skeleton material” (I found this term fascinating)

Gravel pit by Kleefeld

Coffins disturbed

Owner wanted to dump remains into a trench! Nor did he attend meetings

The female skeleton (found with head covering) was originally diagnosed with syphillis. Turns out it was probably actually Horse-Glanders. 

Showed us a lot of pictures of her bones, many lesions and indications of a painful life

Roland Sawatzky from the Manitoba Museum.

Mennonite housebarns may have contributed to this outbreak of Horse Glanders

“Our lady” (I like how he referred to her this way)

Rare infectious disease

Personal intimate account of one woman’s struggle

Contextualizing meaningful patterns transitioning to the afterlife

Roland Sawatzky, John D. Thiesen, and Conrad Stoesz listen as a conference attendee poses a question.

Q: How do we honour a cemetery that’s been plowed over?

A: Landowners may be thinking Mennonites are bad at taking care of the small humble ones so why is everybody interested now? Etc. From an American point of view there’s a legal basis for advocating for these but difficult to implement.

Observation by Kimberly Schmidt: Quilt in the ghost dance pic, intriguing (also girl in elk tooth dress — high ritual situation) 

Then it was coffee time. I spoke briefly with Conrad, in reference to Roland’s presentation, and Conrad said he was wondering what happened to the other graves that were uncovered. Great question. I should have asked this. I have never asked a question in a Q&A. It is my goal to become articulate enough to formulate and ask good questions after people share presentations. 

Next panel, on Bodies, with Joel Nofziger, Tomomi Naka, Kerry Fast, Timothy Epp, and Chair Robert Zacharias.

After coffee, was one of the presentations I was most excited for — Kerry Fast’s “Steinbach Pride: Becoming an Embodied Queer Mennonite Space”. When there’s a topic about the place I now live, being discussed at such an event of this, how could I not be excited? Kerry’s presentation was really very beautiful and exuberant, I thought. Here are my messy notes:

Alternative subtitle — “not your typical trip to a thrift store“

Multiplicity of spaces in Steinbach — the capacity of Steinbach

Space is political

July 9, 2016 was Steinbach’s first Pride

“It’s still Reimer Avenue… but Steinbach pride created new meaning for Reimer Avenue.“

Steinbach’s capacity for creating new and different space

Steinbach Pride is relevant as a stand-in for North America

Chris Plett — “take up our pens” — “write our own chapter”

Joyful chaos

Interviewed 28 people for this paper

“The complication is in the teachings “

Recognize aspects of faith

“I’ll be walking with you “


“Make yourself at home” — Chris Plett 

recreating what the city could be

Mennonite culture isn’t necessarily incompatible with being an inclusive space

Alternative narrative

Family events — “why am I here without my partner?”

“Overwhelmed by the idea I could walk those steps holding my partner’s hand“

Reclaiming space “you can’t take this from me… it’s okay, it’s safe today… I’m here, that’s empowering.“

Taking up space here

“Walking past the school where I’d been bullied!”

“How could I be authentically Mennonite… and be a drag queen as well.” (Pieta in a persona named Taunte)

Others called it “held-back pride”

“The whole Mennonite world is talking about Steinbach Pride — “gossip is our strength — let’s own it and use it“

A bold voice for new ways to be queer in Steinbach.

Kerry Fast speaks on “Steinbach Pride: Becoming an Embodied Queer Mennonite Space”.

Next was Timothy Epp of Redeemer University College, Hamilton, speaking on “Encountering the Black Person in Canadian Mennonite Newspapers”.

Mennonites and whiteness — representations and encounters

Analysis of racism

Interrogation of whiteness


Frank Epp questions If Mennonites really were benefactors, “helpful”… but there were also other stories.

Assumed whiteness of the reader

Moral tales that reinforce structures of inequality / tropes

Western Children’s Mission weirdly saw an African-American community with a Church as being “spiritually destitute”

“This instilled some apprehension in me…”

Mennonite part of a dominant gang while claiming to be separate…

Timothy Epp of Redeemer University College, Hamilton.

And, concluding the presentations, were the two people we’d met at lunch that day!

First, Tomomi Naka of Tottori University, Japan, sharing her paper “Women’s Singlehood and Social Networks: Lived Experience in Conservative Mennonite Communities in the U.S.”

What does it mean to be single in a conservative Mennonite context?

Singlehood is not a popular topic — maybe just not much thought given to it.

So what can single conservative women do in these communities? Roles as helpers. Very few become managers or business owners.

Build themselves in singlehood.

Talked about her friend “Sara” — single until her 50’s — at hewedding it was emphasized that she’ll have to learn to submit to her husband. But other speakers at the wedding talked about her contributions to their community and how they’d miss her presence there (as a resource) as she moved into a wife role.

Limitation exists.

It’s not easy to explore singlehood — dynamics — and her interpretations of what she encounters and learns changes as she herself grows and accumulates experiences.

Q: Are single women in that society considered half a person?

A: Not half a person, but it’s difficult to be counted as a full person, either. An example of this is single women who would like to adopt, but since they’re single, it’s up for a church discussion.

Tomomi Naka of Tottori University, Japan.

And the very last paper of the conference was presented by Joel Nofziger of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. I have to say, he really stood out throughout the whole conference, first I guess because of his beard, but second because he radiated a joyful kind of amusement. His paper’s called “‘A Token of Love‘: A Cultural History of Hairwork among Pennsylvania German Mennonites”. My notes:

“Lancaster Mennonites are an inherently nostalgic people.”

Perpetually homesick…

Hair work as a folk art

White middle class middle class phenomenon

“Mourning art”

Art rooted in sentimentality

“Life interpretation because it’s literally the body reworked “

Culture of sentimentality

Hair wreaths meant as parlour decor 

Heirlooms (Hair looms! — resulted in a laugh!)

Hair “bouquet”

More hair wreaths! (btw, there’s one in the lobby at the MHV!)

Sentimental hair art/hair embroidery made in 1902

I’m struck by how earnest these efforts are!

Also what is embroidered reminds me of what you’ll find on headstones.

Hair books — like photo albums, but instead of photos, they contain plates of hair

Responses: Grotesque. Strange novelties.

Relationship between Mennonite women and their hair — intimate sense of self.

Joel Nofziger, Tomomi Naka, Kerry Fast, Timothy Epp.

And… that was the last paper presented!

Next were some concluding reflections from Dr. Philip Fountain of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, who had co-hosted this conference with Dr. Royden Loewen. Here the notes I jumbled together from Dr. Fountain’s review:


Singing 606

Being asked to greet each other

Daily Bonnet mentioned (ah!)

Diverse papers

“Attempts at compassion”

“inquires into the everyday“

“Analysis of the awkward and uncomfortable“

And then Dr. Royden Loewen concluded the conference with some words, which I also took notes throughout, because I am a weird nerd.

Anthropology asks what someone is doing when they are doing things.

Allowing the quiet to become heard.

Note: I just read Ernie Braun’s article, entitled Transnational Mennonite Studies Conference on Anthropology, in the latest issue of Heritage Posting, which is published by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society. I feel like he filled in a lot of the aspects I may have left blank, also it’s great to get his perspective of the conference. I highly recommend you check it out!