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Anthropology Colloquium: Karlie Fox Knudtsen

Friday, April 26, 2024 at 3:00pm to 4:30pm

McGraw Hall, 165
141 Central Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850

 “ The Care and Feeding of Names: The Ritual Labor of Bejuni Priestesses and Cosmological Life in Autochthonous India”

Talk abstract: 

Bejuni are female ritual specialists whose rites repair and regenerate ecological, social, and cosmological relationships crucial for life in the densely jungled Niyam Donger mountains of present-day Southern Odisha state in India. Often elderly and widowed, bejuni women play key roles in a cosmologically expansive process that recycles the dead back into life. During ethnographic research, I came to understand that bejuni labor is built around the ethical and material maintenance and repair of name-lines, capacious forms of personhood that move across conventional boundaries between lives and deaths and carry with them rights in swidden gardens and in persons. Their practices enact forms of social reproduction beyond sexual conjugality, situating personhood's temporalities outside biological regimes of life. Rupina, life cycle rites for name-lines, are managed by bejuni to create stability across the vagaries of life and death, and to reproduce togetherness and solidarity between living humans, ancestral kin, and spirit beings who abide throughout the landscape. Cosmological lifeworlds centered on female bejuni priestesses face displacement due to ecological demands accompanying regional mountaintop bauxite mining and its severe impacts on water supply and flow. This talk expands directions in black and indigenous feminist theory (Tuck 2009; Lorde 1984) and feminist anthropology of religion (Apffel-Marglin 1983; Mahmood 2004; Ramberg 2013) to elaborate the implications of bejuni praxis within a cosmological framework of social reproduction. Bejuni modes of cosmo-social reproduction offer a deeper reckoning of what is lost when mountains are torn down for capitalist natural resource extraction, raising critical questions about what counts as environmental justice and who are its intended beneficiaries.


Scholar Bio:

I am a sociocultural anthropologist and ethnographic fieldworker,  having recently completed my Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University (Dec ’23). As a social scientist, I am interested in forging connections between complex global issues and locally situated experiences to render macro-level issues comprehensible in human-scale terms. My research sheds light on the shrouded social and ecological implications of the green energy economy by closely examining how communities in mountainous eastern India, affected by multinational corporate aluminum mining, endeavor to regenerate their social and ecological environments amidst climate change. I am interested in drawing upon ethnographic data and multi-species, ontological, and indigenous feminist analytic frameworks to ask: 1) what counts as environmental justice and for what types of lives and bodies; and 2) how do conventional distinctions between religion and secularism unevenly distribute the impacts of climate change, often concentrating the ecological effects of elite global consumerism within autochthonous communities at the peripheries of world economies. Based on long-term immersive ethnographic research conducted in Odia and Kui/Kubi languages and supported by Fulbright-Hays, my dissertation research explores the intricate material economies and multifaceted social and environmental displacements that Jharnia (“Dongria Kondho”) interlocutors experience to accompany regional natural resource development. Entitled “Keepers of Water: Religion, Ecology, and Ethics as Materiality along a Green Energy Frontier in Tribal Odisha, India,” my dissertation is set amidst India’s geologically ancient Eastern Ghats mountains, along the rapidly expanding aluminum-bauxite natural resource frontier. There, mountainous landscapes revered by Jharnia indigenous interlocutors as their originary ancestor, a sovereign deity, and a living landscape are also coveted by mining companies for the potential natural resource wealth hidden beneath their jungled surfaces in the form of bauxite. Bauxite ore is strip-mined, refined into alumina powder, and then smelted into lightweight, strong, and flexible aluminum metals to feed the global proliferation of aluminum-dependent electric vehicles, fuel cells, military drones, inter-stellar reusable rockets, and recyclable soda-pop cans. Amidst unprecedented ecological challenges characterized by droughts, flooding, and the persistent impacts of metallic dust and water pollution, my dissertation, supported by a grant from the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation, utilizes indigenous Jharnia water management practices to demonstrate that Jharnia social life, colonial categories of knowledge about religion, and the materialities of natural resources are intricately interconnected and entangled along the bauxite frontier in indigenous India.

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Anthropology, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, South Asia Program


cascal, anthro, cashum

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Contact Name

Liz Kirk


Karlie Fox Knudtsen

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Cornell University

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