This Q&A is part of an ongoing series with Arts and Letters graduate students. Read more Q&As with graduate students and faculty members here.
Patrícia Rodrigues-Niu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology and a fellow in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies focusing her research on the historical and anthropological bases for Indigenous claims to territory and legal protection of archaeological sites and ecological resources in Brazil. She has a master’s degree in archaeology and territory and a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and history from the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation in support of her research.
Talk about your research interests. What are you working on right now?
My project investigates how Amerindian people in Amazonia marshal the past to secure sustainable futures. Specifically, I work with the Wauja people, an Arawak-speaking native community of around 700 members living in the southern portion of the Xingu Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso, Brazil, to study how they attribute historical and ecological values and meanings to millennia-old anthropogenic landscapes (that is, forests that have been managed by past human populations). I wish to understand how they signify their ancestral territory while simultaneously building an understanding of themselves as a native ethnic group within a complex set of rapidly changing social, political, and ecological relations in one of the most impacted and threatened Indigenous borders in southern Amazonia.
What inspired you to do this research?
I have always been interested in how science can provide us with tools to systematically question our own assumptions about how the world is or how it should be. I started as an archaeologist, eager to learn how people in different times and places had inhabited the world. I began to work with Wauja people on issues surrounding archaeological heritage and territory in 2014 and soon realized they shared different conceptions of history. Wauja ancestors take the form of animals and plants and are deemed responsible for the regeneration of life in the forest, so the past is very actual in the present. I decided I wanted to learn not just from archeological evidence, but also from the Wauja’s theories and perspectives about time and space.
Why is this research especially relevant today?
The anthropology of native people provides very productive new perspectives from which to look at contemporary social phenomena globally. The current distrust of science by some sectors of society can’t be dissociated from a trend towards polarization and fundamentalist positions connected to the fear of not being right about how the world should be. People are afraid of not knowing, but anthropology shows you that you can only ever know so much, that your perspective is always partial, positioned. As Abu-Lughod puts it, “every view is a view from somewhere.” When you are put into close, immersive contact with people that see the world in radically different ways, that makes you look back reflexively into yourself and understand that what you were once certain about is one possible perspective amongst many. I think the anthropology of Indigenous Amazonians is immensely relevant in current times, not just because of native populations’ ongoing struggle for cultural self-determination and the future of Amazonia as a global resource in the fight against climate change, but also because it can teach people to look at real, radical differences in a more tolerant way.
“The anthropology of Indigenous Amazonians is immensely relevant in current times, not just because of native populations’ ongoing struggle for cultural self-determination and the future of Amazonia as a global resource in the fight against climate change, but also because it can teach people to look at real, radical differences in a more tolerant way.”
How did you choose Notre Dame?
I’m a Portuguese-Brazilian researcher. I have been trained in graduate programs in Portugal and in Brazil, so I had experience in different schools of thought and approaches to the social sciences. When I first moved to a different continent, I felt my perspectives expanding a lot, so I knew that for my Ph.D. I wanted to experience academia in an Anglo-Saxon country, either in the U.S. or the UK. I chose Notre Dame because the Ph.D. in anthropology is focused on integrative approaches and trains us to utilize and combine methods and perspectives from archaeology, social-cultural, linguistic, and biological anthropology. In addition, one of the main experts in my specific field, Christopher Ball, is a professor here, and he is now advising my research.
What makes the Ph.D. in Anthropology program distinctive, and why is it the best fit for you?
The program incentivizes you to experiment in combining perspectives from all four fields of anthropology, so you have a lot of support for that, especially from the faculty. In this sense, the program is a great fit for me, because one of my research’s main objectives is to integrate archaeological, social cultural, and linguistic anthropological perspectives. When I first started working in Amazonia, I realized that I didn’t have the tools I needed to really learn from my interlocutors. I lacked deeper analytical sensitivity to social-cultural and linguistic aspects to understand what my Indigenous teachers are trying to communicate about their relationships with the land and all the past and present beings that inhabit it. Notre Dame’s program allows me to expand my methodological and conceptual toolbox beyond subdisciplinary boxes.
What do you hope to do after Notre Dame? And how do you feel the program is preparing you for the job market?
The program has given me both the ability to engage multiple theoretical perspectives within each scientific subfield of research as well a focus on transdisciplinary and integrative approaches. This integration of different perspectives and methodological tools provides me with solid foundations to work as a scholar and an anthropologist basically anywhere. I may consider going back to Brazil, where I’m also originally from, or to Europe, where I grew up, staying in the U.S., or even exploring other countries around the world. So, Notre Dame has opened up the world to me in some respects. This program also incentivizes students to envision the impact of their work beyond academia. I believe transdisciplinarity is crucial in preparing graduate students to deal with real-world problems in any career path they might choose.
“The program's integration of different perspectives and methodological tools provides me with solid foundations to work as a scholar and an anthropologist basically anywhere ... So, Notre Dame has opened up the world to me in some respects.”
How has your experience as an international student impacted your research experience?
Before the Ph.D. I had been living in Southern Amazonia for five years. Ironically, coming to the U.S. and doing a Ph.D. here felt like I had left a “field” that had become my home to start a new, even stranger one. Anthropology and doing this kind of immersive long-term fieldwork among communities with a very different way of life puts you in this place where you start looking at everything as foreign but at the same time strangely familiar. It creates this sensation that nowhere really ever feels like home anymore. But I guess all anthropologists feel like they never really leave “the field,” and, in a way, all international students possibly feel like outsiders doing ethnographic participant observation to understand the community around them, while awkwardly trying to fit in. I came looking to challenge myself, and the experience superseded expectations, helping me to become a better anthropologist in the (sometimes-painful) process of embracing the non-familiar.
How have the grants you’ve received from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation enabled you to pursue your research interests?
The grants I’ve received have allowed me to do extensive fieldwork in Amazonia, where I spend periods of time living amongst the Wauja people. I go every year and I spend around three to four months in Wauja villages, in the tropical forest. I’m also learning their native language, so the grants are allowing me to take my time to do the Ph.D. program while both perfecting my English and learning a whole new language. I wouldn’t be able to do that without external funding. The NSF grant that I received in my first year covered two trips to Amazonia, and the Wenner-Gren grant will allow me to spend an entire year in Wauja villages but I’m delaying that visit because of the pandemic. Instead, I am doing data processing and translation work, while also working as a logistics coordinator on relief aid in the region. Together with local Indigenous associations, we’ve set up a campaign that provides basic assistance and sends medical equipment to Wauja communities. The campaign is currently accepting donations from the U.S. with the support of the Pennywise Foundation.