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American Indian History State of the Field Session

Four people sit at a table and address a crowd that is only slightly visible in the image.

“State of the Field: American Indian History” session at the OAH 2018 conference in Sacramento, presenters (l to r) Kent Blansett, Cathleen Cahill, Andrew Needham, and Amy Lonetree.

A large and enthusiastic crowd showed up for the “State of the Field: American Indian History” roundtable on Friday afternoon April 13 at the Organization of American Historian’s 2018 Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California. Organizer and chair Kent Blansett (University of Nebraska at Omaha) opened with the acknowledgment that we were on Indigenous land; Miwok, Wintu, Pomo, Northern Maidu, Nisenan, Patwin, and other tribes trace sacred and political relationships to the lands that define the modern municipality of Sacramento. As panelists, we strove to highlight places of real growth in the field.

Andrew Needham (New York University) spoke about the flowering of urban Indigenous scholarship that has developed from early policy histories, especially Donald Fixico’s Termination and Relocation (1986), through the community studies of urban Indian communities including James LaGrand’s Indian Metropolis (2002), Nicolas Rosenthal’s Reimagining Indian Country (2012), and Rosalyn LaPier and David Beck’s City Indian (2015). He highlighted Coll Thrush’s important works—Native Seattle (2007) and Indigenous London (2016)—that challenge urban historians and indeed historians of imperial nations to recognize how Native people have shaped their histories. Looking ahead, he noted that in reading applications for an edited project on urban Indigenous history that he, Dr. Blansett, and I have organized, the field is only increasing in richness that is continental and that challenges urban historians to expand their definitions of what is urban beyond their traditional definitions and timelines. This scholarship should include many Indigenous communities from the pre-contact urban richness of the Americas to the expansive trading entrepôts of the Northern plains.

Amy Lonetree (University of California Santa Cruz) emphasized the way the field has changed the larger profession, noting that her new work on Ho-Chunk family photographs would have been inconceivable as a legitimate project when she started her career in the 1990s. The acceptance of oral history, affective analysis, and writing from home as a methodology emphasized by Indigenous scholars have all opened the doors to new and creative projects within tribal histories and community histories. She also indicated that such lenses and sources open up unexpected questions that connect those communities to wider changes, such as her family’s engagement in labor activism and subsequent move from rural to urban living in the mid-twentieth century.

I drew on my own research on women of color and suffrage—including how U.S. citizenship and the vote were debated in Indian country—emphasizing that my questions have been greatly influenced by scholars of Indigenous feminism. I also pointed to current events where women have led political activism as Water Protectors at Standing Rock and for Idle No More in Canada, as well as across the country where questions about Native voters’ access to polls, the issue of redistricting in counties that include reservations, and the growing number of Native women running for office suggest that we need a better history of Native voting rights. I also acknowledged that scholarship needs to address both Native engagement with the U.S. political system and the histories of self-governance within Native nations.

All three of the panelists emphasized that the field of Native history has been greatly influenced by the growth of critical Indigenous studies. However, we, along with the audience, also raised the question of whether settler colonialism as a structure not an event, in Patrick Wolfe’s formulation, was a useful theoretical model for history, a field that emphasizes change over time and the specificity of context. Indeed, this conversation carried over from the conference’s morning’s panel on California Indian History. That panel raised the point that while historians focus on change, looking for continuities, which Indigenous historians such as Susan Hill have called for, can also be important, especially when considering the histories of Indigenous survival. Indeed, there was emphasis on the fact that while there may be many settler colonial projects, those projects are not always successful and it is the role of the historian to look carefully at the individual circumstances to tell the stories. In the morning’s panel, a similar emphasis on a scholarly move toward specificity came up during discussions of the literature on genocide and California Indians. As scholars have moved from broad studies of genocide that use the state’s boundaries as the container of a study to thinking about the experiences of individual Indigenous communities in specific moments (the Modoc War or the Mendocino War, for example), the scope of the violence becomes even more horrific. This emphasis on specificity also led to some discussion about how we can synthesize “Indian” history given the myriad of Native nations and their stories. What threads are available to tell a common story, we pondered, but also acknowledged the importance of those individual national histories beyond their relationship to the United States.

The panel and the audience also discussed the protocol of place—the official acknowledgement of the people whose history is tied to the land one is on through treaty and/or tradition. Dr. Lonetree made an appeal to everyone to implement this protocol at their institutions and events. Dr. Needham pointed to recent historical discussions of slavery and capitalism and the growing acknowledgement of the complicity of universities in slavery as a model for how the dispossession of Native land also needs to be more clearly understood as part of those stories. One audience member noted that in Australia there is a “Welcome to Country” app that facilitates those protocols, that would be useful for North America, especially the United States where such protocols rarely occur.

In sum, the state of the field seems bright. It seems that scholars are listening to Indigenous theorists and there is an explosion of local studies. Even the concern raised in the question and answer session about how to synthesize these local and tribally specific studies points to a vibrant set of conversations that reveal the strength of the field.

Cathleen D. Cahill is an associate professor at Penn State University. Her first book was Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of The United States Indian Service, 1869-1933 (University of North Carolina, 2011). She is currently writing about the question of Native women’s suffrage rights in the era of the Nineteenth Amendment. She also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Check out our coverage of the OAH 2018 Annual Meeting including daily highlights and award winners.

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