Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beringia and Geopolitics

While in graduate school I learned, via the then-new H-AMINDIAN mailing list, that Europeans had begun developing the Beringian theory of Native American origins as early as the sixteenth century. Jose de Acosta and Daniel Gookin, among others, had posited a land bridge or narrow strait between Siberia and North America well before Vitus Bering's second voyage, and had asserted Siberio-Indian kinship based on linguistic similarities and other evidence. More recently, I was surprised to learn, from Claudio Saunt's intriguing new book West of the Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2014), that eighteenth-century Europeans used this hypothesis to advance geopolitical agendas. In the 1750s the Franciscan Jose Torrubia used “Aztec tradition” and colonial documents to argue that the Indians of Mexico came from Siberia, and that very little distance separated that chilly wasteland from the northwest coast of America. When he learned of Bering's discoveries (which the Russians had kept under wraps for twenty years), Torrubia wrote a long essay warning that the “Muscovites” would shortly move into California if not checked (pp. 52-53). In the early 1770s, Spanish Ambassador Antonio de Lacy noted that the Russians were using not only geography but the Beringian hypothesis to promote colonization: Russia, according to one of Catherine II's advisers, had a clear claim to North America “because that country was once peopled by Siberians” (73-74).

Such reports exaggerated Russia's intentions. It would take another quarter-century before Russian traders established a settlement east of Kodiak Island, and several decades before some built a small trading post in northern California, on the river that a younger Saunt thought must be the “Rushin' River” (12). Spanish officials of the 1760s and '70s did not have the benefit of this hindsight, and their alarm caused them to approve the colonization of California, with, as Saunt observes, devastating consequences for Native Californians. That fear of Russian expansion drove Spain's colonial venture in California is well-established. Saunt's new contribution to the history of that venture is to note how the Beringian-origins theory changed the way the Spanish thought about geography: it made Siberia, the putative homeland of Native Americans (with whom the Spanish were quite familiar), a much more immanent reality, and helped eliminate the mental distance between Russian Siberia and Spanish America, just as Bering's discoveries were erasing the physical distance between them. For all its ivory-tower trappings and pretenses, sometimes intellectual history has a very immediate impact on political history.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What I Learned at the Leiden AIW

Since the 1980s a consortium of European scholars has been running an annual conference on American Indian Studies, and your Humble Narrator was fortunate enough to attend the thirty-fifth meeting thereof, held last month in Leiden, Netherlands. Many Europeans are fascinated with Native Americans, or at least with stereotyped pop-culture versions of them, and Germany has a thriving “Indian hobbyist” culture, whose adherents dress up in Indian costumes and learn “real” Indian crafts and dances. The American Indian Workshop took pains to avoid or critique this kind of play-acting and stereotyping. The organizers invited numerous Native scholars, like keynote speaker Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College), to attend, and made this year's conference themes language and communication. Linguistics is a specialty of the University of Leiden, and language is a key determinant of how people really think and live. Language is also much harder to master than quasi-authentic craft skills, a point made by Avelino Esteban (Universidad Autonomica de Madrid). Esteban gave a presentation on behalf of the Honoxease Project, a group of European scholars trying to help preserve the Cheyenne language, which demonstrated to your narrator that Cheyenne, with its complicated verbs, multiple pitches, and other complexities, is not a language for the faint of heart.

Approximately one hundred people gave presentations at the workshop, and your narrator was only able to attend about 15-20 papers and addresses. From these I learned what I should probably already have known, which is that Native North Americans approach inter-cultural communication with different priorities than whites. Ukjese Van Kampen (Athabascan/Tutchone), whom I first had the pleasure to meet two years ago in Helsinki, noted that one of the most well-known forms of Indian communication, story-telling, can be hard for outsiders to follow because story-tellers use characters that they assume are already familiar to their audience. Judith Burch, curator of a visiting exhibit on Inuit cloth-making, noted that these stories could take the symbolic form of woven patterns and images, also potentially difficult for outsiders to understand. Anne Grob (Univ. of Leipzig), who has studied indigenous peoples in both New Zealand and Montana, observed that while Crows and Maoris are glad to discuss their cultures with outside scholars, those scholars must take the time to build a reciprocal relationship with their informants, and remember that to Native Americans the process of building and maintaining that relationship is more important than publishable results. Nadia Clerici (University of Genoa), in an extensive survey of American tribal websites, argued that modern Indians can and do make an effort to reach out to non-Indians, and that as part of that effort they challenge stereotypes of Indians as militaristic or hyper-spiritual, focusing instead on peace-making, democracy (an important issue for the Iroquois), women's rights, and sovereignty.*

Apropos of challenging stereotypes, several presenters proved that, contrary to what many Europeans and white Americans believe, Native Americans have a well-developed sense of humor. Sonja John (Humboldt University), in a paper on Lakota cartoonist Marty Two Bulls, argued that Indians used humor to critique their own society in a non-confrontational way. Bobby Wilson (Dakota), a member of the comedy group The 1491s, showed in video clips how he and his colleagues use humor to undermine white stereotypes, such as the ultra-spiritual Indians of kitsch artwork and the hyper-masculine Indian men (and uber-feminine Indian women) of romance novels like Lakota Surrender. Susan Livingston (Univ. of Illinois) analyzed the work of the Cree artist Kent Monkman, showing how he used humorous and shocking imagery to “re-appropriate” Indian images from popular artists like George Catlin and Frederic Remington, and to challenge both racial and sexual power dynamics. Audience members at John's, Livington's, and Tria Andrews's panel saw connections between humor and
Two-Spirited-ness - the assumption of a cross-gender identity by
some Native American men and women – insofar as comedians and Two-Spirited people both go “against the grain” of their societies and challenge apparently fixed rules and identities. One of those commenters, Henrietta Mann, pointed out that the Cheyennes regarded humor, like language itself, as sacred, and that clowning and joke-making were culturally similar to the practices of the Cheyenne Contraries, whose elaborate subversion of social norms gave them great prestige.

I should note that the audiences at the panels I attended were much livelier than their counterparts at American conferences; rare was the paper that did not generate at least several questions or comments from the audience. I am not sure of the reason for this, but perhaps it lay in the multi-disciplinary nature of the conference itself, and attendees' assumption that they would necessarily have to reach out to scholars from other nations and disciplines. Perhaps western Europeans are more intellectually assertive than Americans. Or perhaps historians, who dominated the stateside academic conferences I've attended, are just more naturally reticent and passive than cultural-studies scholars, linguists, and anthropologists. I suspect answer #3 is closest to the truth: we historians can be a pretty dreary lot, even when we're liquored up.      

* On the matter of sovereignty, Julie Reed (Univ. of Tennessee) argued that the post-Removal Cherokees used American-style institutions like prisons, schools, orphanages, insane asylums, and disability pensions to maintain their national sovereignty. If the nineteenth-century Cherokees could punish their own criminals or declare them criminally insane, they wouldn't have to turn them over to white authorities; if they could take care of their own orphans and disabled persons, they could turn away white reformers who wanted to do that job themselves.