Meet the Fellows: 2019 Newcombe Fellow Hannah McElgunn

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2019 class of Fellows includes Hannah McElgunn, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and linguistics at the University of Chicago. Hannah shares a lesson from her field work:

Every time I pass a Burger King, I think of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. This is not because we often had Whoppers for lunch when I volunteered there as a research assistant; in fact, I don’t think there is even a Burger King within an hour’s drive of the office.  Rather, it’s because I am reminded of a sign, tacked up on a wall in the office, on which a staff member had drawn an X in thick red marker over a Burger King logo. The sign reads:  “This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way!”

When I first arrived at the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, this sign made me nervous because I knew it was addressed to me: an outside researcher with an agenda, goals, and a timeline. The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, as this sign reminds visitors like me, does not exist for our benefit but rather to advocate for different tribal members in relation to outside institutions and researchers. Over my 18 months at the Office, I witnessed the wide range of requests the staff there fields, from government agencies asking for consultation, to questions about historical events from tribal members, to the occasional urgent phone call from “wacky pahaanas (Anglos)” claiming to have sacred information that must be passed on to an elder. Through the inevitable ups and downs of fieldwork and dissertation writing, I am frequently reminded of this motto and the way my colleagues at the office approached their work: with seriousness and humour in equal doses.

Hannah’s dissertation, titled Language at the Center of the Universe, explores the relationships between knowledge, property, and the Hopi language. For more information on the 2019 Newcombe Fellows, click here.



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