Thursday, November 21, 2013

What I Saw of the ASE Conference, 2013 Edition

When not eating seafood, drinking too little booze, and dodging the occasional downpour, your humble narrator spent most of the 2013 meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (September 11-14) attending panels and listening to about twenty different papers. These represented, I should say, only a narrow slice of the scholarship presented this year; there is no shortage of energy and innovation in the discipline, though at least one ASE officer observed that there was very little interaction between the different regional tracks (especially North America versus Latin America) in the program and their audiences. That is a problem easily redressed by future program committees.

Here are some of the common themes and threads your faithful working boy detected in the panels he attended and the conversations he held with other conferees:

  1. National identity and how one determines and regulates it remain hot topics in Native American historiography because they remain critical issues in Indian country, as Greg O'Brien observed when he reminded an audience of recent efforts by the Havasupai to control access to their own DNA samples. Rachel Purvis and Mikaela Adams discussed 19th- and early twentieth-century identity politics in their papers on the post-Removal Cherokees and Choctaws, while Cameron Shriver discussed how the different nations of the 18th-century Northwest Indian confederacy used residential separation and – an intriguing point – grew different species of maize in their fields to retain distinct national identities.
  2. Scholars are falling in love with social-network analysis and software (like UCINet or Visone) that allows one to identify complex bonds and degrees of connectivity between different individuals in a community. Robert Morrisey summarized the research on Kaskaskia that went into his recent ground-breaking William and Mary Quarterly article. Emilie Pigeon applied the same methodology to analysis of a prominent metis family in Michilimackinac, Jennifer Spear discussed a forthcoming project on social networks among Indian converts at Santa Clara mission, Jacob Lee mapped the individual connections that held together Pontiac's far-flung alliance, and Nicole Saint Onge noted the apparent isolation of metis families in the upper Mississippi Valley from those of the upper Great Lakes.
  3. Water and waterways were the declared themes of the conference and of many of its panels. Kasey Keeler discussed the importance of a single aqueous site, Coldwater Spring on the upper Mississippi, to the Dakotas and Ojibwas, and the difficulties they face in convincing the modern U.S. government of their claim to it. Kevin Motes studied motifs in Choctaw pottery and argued, I think persuasively, that they evoked the totemic serpents that inhabited Mississippian cultures' watery underworld. In the same panel, John Dyson presented his linguistic research on Chickasaw waterways, noting that the names of rivers and creeks demonstrated the Chickasaws' increasing exposure to European culture and lifeways. (For example, Chickasaws referred to one creek as “Yaakni'patafa',” or “slit-earth creek,” a reference to the plowed fields nearby.) Peter Wood gave a paper on southeastern Indians' use of dugout canoes, an essential technology if one wished to navigate the treacherous Mississippi River, and Michelle Cassidy noted Ojibwas' use of carved canoes to commemorate their military service in the War of 1812.
  4. The “southeastern mafia,” as Angela Hudson referred to students of Daniel Usner, Theda Perdue, the late Michael Green, and other doyens of the field, were out in force, which one might expect in New Orleans. One of the rising capos of this mafia was Christina Snyder, whose paper on Indian students at Choctaw Academy and their use of Classical history to critique American policy drew a large audience (in fairness, some of the audience members were also there to hear Natalie Inman's paper on civilization policy and to show their support for panel chair Robbie Ethridge) and electrified its listeners. The book from which the paper was drawn will almost certainly become one of the classics of the field when it is published.

    Well, except among the Latin Americanists. Heaven knows what they're up to.

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