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Inside the President’s Studio: T.J. Ferguson

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Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month’s guest is archaeologist and AAA Executive Board member TJ Ferguson. He talks about growing up in a military family, his attraction to archaeology, his work with tribal groups in identifying and protecting heritage sites and historic places, the urgent need for anthropologists trained in preservation activities and the state of applied anthropology within the association, among other topics.

TJ’s written answers are copied below:

(1) What are you passionate about, and how long has this been a passion of yours?

I’ve been passionate about the Sonoran Desert for as long as I’ve lived in Arizona. I’m fortunate to live in an area adjacent to the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, and I love sitting on my porch and enjoying the colors and sounds of the desert as the sun rises or night falls.

(2) I noticed that your college degree is from the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.  Did you grow up in Hawai’i or somehow decide to go to college in Hilo?  Is that where you first became committed to matters of land claims, historic and cultural preservation, and the role of archaeology in all of them?

I came of age in Hawaii, and went to high school and college there. My father was a career military officer, and I moved to Oahu when I was a freshman in high school. When I was a junior in college, I transferred from the main campus of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu to the Hilo College on the Big Island. During my senior year I became interested in archaeology, and my plan was to attend the University of Arizona for professional training and then return to Polynesia. After earning a Masters Degree at the University of Arizona in 1976, however, I took my first job working for the Pueblo of Zuni, and it is there that I became interested in historic preservation, land claims, and cultural preservation. At Arizona, we were taught that archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing, and working for an Indian tribe enabled me to put all my anthropological training into practice. When I left Zuni, I returned to graduate school at the University of New Mexico, where I earned a Masters of Regional and Community Planning and Ph.D. in Anthropology. Then one project led to another, and I ended up staying in the Southwest where I’ve been privileged to work on a series of intellectually interesting and personally rewarding anthropological projects.

(3) When did you establish Anthropological Research LLC, your research company in Tucson, Arizona, and why?  Setting up a company always entails a good level of risk and many small businesses fail within the first year.  What made you incur the risk in the first place and would you do it again now knowing what you know that you didn’t at the time?

I established Anthropological Research, LLC, in 2001. Prior to that, I had a business partnership with Roger Anyon, and we operated a company called Heritage Resources Management Consultants, LLC. I’ve been working in the private sector since 1995. Until I accepted a half-time position as a Professor of Practice at the University of Arizona, I worked from a home office, which I find productive and which lowers the overhead of a business. There really wasn’t much risk in starting a business. We’ve never had to market our services; people have come to us to request our assistance with research projects. I organized Anthropological Research as a limited liability company, which means anyone who sues me can have the assets in my business bank account but they can’t take my wife’s house. I’m interested in doing full-time research, so I try to operate without employees so I don’t have to spend time on personnel management and other administrative tasks. The risks of being in business are reduced by maintaining adequate operating funds and only drawing money out of the company when I need to meet personal expenses or pay taxes.

(4) What makes you mad?

I get mad at myself when I do stupid things but we don’t need to get into that.

(5) Many of your clients are American Indian/Native American communities.  What kinds of projects do you do for them, and are there kinds of projects you would not take on or that they have explicitly asked you not to take on?

I primarily work for Indian tribes but my clients also include federal agencies and museums. My practice includes three research areas:  (1) collecting information about traditional cultural properties for historic preservation, (2) documenting cultural affiliation for the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and (3) researching historical questions related to land and water rights litigation. I practice a form of community based participatory research, and the only projects I won’t take on are those that won’t provide the funding and research opportunities needed to enable communities to accomplish their goals. None of the tribes I work for have ever asked me not to do a project. Instead they often ask me to assist them with developmental projects that are controversial—pipelines, coal mines, and such—because they want to collect the information needed to manage tribal heritage resources as effectively as possible.

(6) You strike me as a thoughtful, organized, and practical person.  Some people might say that those are the perfect attributes of a practicing anthropologist, while others might think that a practical person would prefer an anthropological career that is 100% in the academy (and includes the possibility of tenure).  Are these the perfect attributes of a practicing anthropologist?  Do you think this list of mine describes you at all, and does it have anything to do with why you chose to be a practicing anthropologist?

Along with thoughtful, organized, and practical, you need to add hard working and intellectually innovative to the list of attributes of successful practicing anthropologists. For most of my career I’ve wanted to do full-time research, and working in the private sector allowed me to do that. In contrast, university professors typically spend only 40% of their time doing % research, with the rest devoted to teaching and service. In 2007 I accepted a half-time appointment as a Professor of Practice at the University of Arizona, which is an untenured position designed to bring people who primarily work in the community into the university. I’m now enjoying teaching and sharing my knowledge of how to do archaeology as applied anthropology with the next generation of anthropologists. I’m still adjusting my work schedule in my private business with my responsibilities as a professor but I now enjoy best of both worlds.

(7) Have you ever thought of running for public office (and I mean outside the national anthropological and archaeological associations)?   If so, which office might actually appeal to you and why?  Do recent political and legislative actions in your home state of Arizona make you consider running now?

I did run for public office when I lived at the Pueblo of Zuni, and I was elected to serve on the first School Board for a new public school district whose boundaries coincided with reservation. I was recruited to run for this position by the Zunis I worked with. I don’t have children so it was very illuminating to immerse myself in how schools operate, and the challenges of primary and secondary education. Right now I devote all the time I have to my research, and I’m not interested in running for public office. Given the current partisan politics that characterize both Arizona and the United States as a whole, I don’t think I’d make a very effective politician. I’m more interested in solving problems than trying to aggrandize political power for one party or another.

(8) What makes you smile?  Are these generally everyday things that give you pleasure or far rarer aspects of life?

I smile a lot watching the antics of our four cats as they play and run around our house. I also greatly enjoy the everyday pleasures of life, including good food, wine, and jazz.

(9) At this year’s Annual Meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, I discovered that you have been vegan for decades.  Is there any connection between the kind of archaeology you chose to do when you joined the profession and your decision years ago to be vegan?

I don’t think there is any relation between the archaeology I do and my diet. I don’t eat meat, and while I don’t do faunal analysis myself, I certainly appreciate what it can tell us about the lives peopled lived in the past. If anything, being a vegetarian creates challenges in working with indigenous communities in trying to explain one’s ethical choices about diet while being an appreciative guest at feasts.

(10) What is something that only your closest friends and loved ones know about you (but that you are now willing to share)?

I like to follow professional surfing now that the major surf contests are broadcast on the Internet. I surfed when I lived in Hawaii, and while I now live far from an ocean, I can still appreciate the flow of waves well ridden.

(11) What did you think you’d be doing in your 40-50s when you were 17?  Does it make you smile to remember that? Sad? Inspired? Amused?

When I was 17 I don’t think I ever thought about what I would be doing thirty years later. The philosophy at the time was “Be Here Now” – to live in the moment. Life for me just keeps getting better and better, so thinking back to my youth now amuses me and makes me smile. As Bob Dylan sang in the ‘60s, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

(12) You are an active member of the Society for American Archaelogy and the American Anthropological Association.  Does one feel more like an intellectual home and the other a professional home?  Or perhaps one more like family and the other more like one’s country? Does something else describe the difference?

The SAA and AAA are complementary organizations for me and they both serve my intellectual and professional interests. I love learning about things I know nothing about, so I enjoy going to the annual meeting of the AAA because I always learn something new given the diverse theory and content people discuss at the meeting. I enjoy the annual meetings of the SAA because it is a chance to interact with my friends among the 6,000 archaeologists who don’t belong to the AAA. Any organization is what the members make of it, and I do committee work in both the AAA and SAA to try and make the organizations more relevant to the needs of the growing number of people employed outside of universities.

(13) When was the last time you stood up at a concert, lecture hall, or public event and gave someone a standing ovation (or wanted to say BRAVO)?  What was the occasion, and what made you so satisfied, moved, inspired, or appreciative to elicit that reaction?

I was one of hundreds of archaeologists who stood and gave Patty Jo Watson a long, standing ovation when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Dr. Watson is a fine scholar, an outstanding anthropologist, and one of the nicest people you will ever meet. She is modest and unassuming for someone who has accomplished as much as she has in her lifetime. Dr. Watson provides a perfect model for a scholar, and it felt good to be able to cheer her for receiving the professional recognition she so justly deserves.

(14) Is there a question you wish I had asked but didn’t?

Yes. You are calling from Fort Apache. What are you doing there this summer?

Fort Apache is a heritage site maintained by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I was invited by the tribe’s museum director, Dr. Karl Hoerig, to be a faculty mentor at a three-year ethnographic field school funded as an NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) being run cooperatively by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the University of Arizona. We have five Apache college students and three non-Indian students spending six weeks this summer learning GIS software and working on pages for a cultural atlas the tribe wants to assemble. We’re off to a good start, and by the end of three years the museum should have a substantial amount of the cultural atlas assembled. It’s rewarding to watch undergraduates grapple with and put anthropology into practice in a community based participatory research project, and gratifying to see an indigenous community use anthropology as a tool to achieve their cultural goals.


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One Response

  1. Thank you!

    Most interesting.

Comments are closed.

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