Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What I Saw of the 2012 Ethnohistory Conference

Your faithful working boy managed to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, which met last month in Springfield, Missouri.  Thanks to a full teaching schedule, several midweek professional obligations (including a breakfast meeting with my university's president), and a long drive from Indiana to southwestern Missouri, I was unable to attend any panels on the opening day of the conference, though I did register and pick up my convention swag bag, including this kick-ass coffee mug.  (The Mayan letters, included in honor of the forthcoming End of Days, either read "Here Comes the ASE" or "All Hail King Seven-Jaguar Snake-Person.")

On Friday (November 9) and Saturday (the 10th), I attended the following papers, which I summarize on behalf of those of my readers who'd like to know what North American ethnohistorians are up to this year:


David Buhl ("Water Out of Nowhere: Technological Solutions to a Legal Failure on Salt River Reservation") discussed the early 20th-century struggle for water rights on the Salt River Pima reserve, noting that despite a federal court decision (the Winters case of 1905) upholding Pima water rights, the Office of Indian Affairs let white farmers take most of the Salt River's water and sink new wells whenever there was a drought.

Brenda Child ("Healing and Renewal: Ojibwe Women, Nursing, and the Influenza of 1918") gave a brief biography of Lucient Levoy, an Ojibwa boarding-school student who worked as a volunteer nurse in Washington, DC, during the Spanish flu pandemic.  Child used this to start a brief discussion of the impact of the flu pandemic on the Anishinaabeg, who created a new "healing culture" (based on ceremonies like the jingle-dress dance) in the wake of the flu.

Regna Darnell ("The Transportability of 'Home' across First Nations Territory and Generation") discussed the concept of home for the formerly nomadic Algonkian peoples of Ontario.  She defined a homeland as a place with which a people have a personal and familial relationship, where they gather periodically to renew social relationships; it is not necessarily a long-term dwelling place nor a store for resources.  Darnell's paper would have nicely complemented Sami Lakömaki's argument (based on his work on the Shawnees) that a people's kin network, however far-flung, can serve as their homeland.  Indeed, Darnell and Lakömaki were scheduled to be on the same panel, but Sami wasn't able to make it.

Tom Fujii ("Cash, Gold Dust, and Credit: California Indian Economic Advancement") gave a wide-ranging paper on California Indians' economic strategies (to 1870), from which I learned that archaeologists have discovered glass trade beads in California dated to the early seventeenth century, and that the California Indians used glass and shell beads as currency into the mission era.

Mattie Harper ("White, Black, or Ojibwe?: The Bonga Family and Race in Minnesota") made the useful point that race was a fluid category in early Minnesota Territory.  Census takers were happy to classify mixed-race families like the Bongas as white in order to qualify Minnesota for a territorial legislature, while missionaries generally distinguished Indians from "half-breeds" by cultural markers like clothing and the "habiliments of civilization."

Clara Sue Kidwell ("Law and Order in the Choctaw Nation") talked about the 1826 Choctaw constitution, which she argues is (in part) a product of the 1825 diplomatic mission to Washington, DC that killed two of the Choctaws' traditionalist chiefs, Pushmataha and Puckshunubbe, and cleared the way for a more progressive faction to draft a new frame of government.  The paper was a preview for a book Clara Sue has coming out soon on this constitution.

Daniel Monteith ("A Story about the Taku Kwaan and a Tlingit Village on Douglas Island") presented on the Tlingit community of Douglas Island, Alaska, who were marginalized when the Treadwell Mining Company built a massive mining complex and refinery near their home in the 1880s.  Treadwell killed off most of the herring population, left toxic ore tailings on the beaches, and bulldozed one of the nearby Tlingit villages after it was partly destroyed in a fire.  From this paper I learned an interesting piece of climate history: the Alaska Gold Rush was partly a product of global warming, since glacial melting at the end of the Little Ice Age exposed surface quartzite deposits that indicated, to experienced miners, the presence of subsurface gold.

Jonathan Olsen ("Fur Trade Imports, Indigenous Spirituality, and the Conflation of Economic Performance") revisited Claude Schaeffer's 1965 Ethnohistory article about the Kutenai female berdache, Madame Boisverd, observing that she claimed to have had both her gender and her physical sex altered by British traders and to have received the power of prophecy from them.  Olsen argued that we need to remember the close connection between economic and spiritual power, and between trade and religion, in Native North America.  For my part, I was somewhat distracted by Olsen's statement that the Pacific Northwest was part of the "Atlantic World," an assertion supported by much of the audience.  Throw in the towel, would-be Pacific World scholars; you've lost.

Robert Przeklasa, Jr("One Flea-Bitten Grey Horse: Women, Horses and Economy on the Yakama Reservation") reported that among the early 20th-century Yakamas, the principal purchasers and owners of horses were women, who used the animals on their long-range gathering expeditions.  About 60 percent of the Yakamas' calories came from wild plants, and women traveled up to 80 kilometers from their winter camps to gather them.

Michael Witgen's paper ("Crime and Punishment on the Borderland of Anishinaabewaki and the United States") I could barely hear, but it apparently dealt with an 1837 murder case in western Wisconsin, in which territorial officials intervened by employing biracial American Fur Company employees as witnesses.  Witgen also brought up the distinction between colonialism (the subordination of an indigenous people to a settler/intruder population) and settler-colonialism (the extirpation and replacement of indigenes), but I didn't see the connection between this analysis and the rest of the paper.  One hopes he will publish this paper in the near future, so that I can figure out what the author was saying.


KO said...

Thanks for the succinct summary of the conference, David. I am sorry that I missed the last panels, but was glad to have my aging memory of the early ones refreshed. Sorry I missed the remark asserting that the Pacific Northwest was part of Atlantic World history. Is this a reflection of the general trend toward American’s geographic ignorance, or was the panelist just flinging all transoceanic trade into one pot?

I think, however, that your readers might also be interested in your spiritual journey as well as the intellectual content of the ASE meetings. I speak, of course, of the solemn pilgrimage to Branson, MO, holy site of the kitsch quest that brought me my lovely pink-feather boa trimmed cowgirl hat with the flashing light rhinestone crown. I am only sorry that we did not get a chance to attend the Dixie Stampede or Dolly Pardon's Christmas extravaganza. That would have been at least as enlightening as the notion that the Pacific Ocean is really just an extension of the Atlantic.

Happy Holidaze,


Dave Nichols said...

Our trip to Branson was, indeed, a great sacred journey of power, much like those discussed by Mary Helms in ULYSSES' SAIL.