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.


Katherine Osburn said...

Hi David,

Not sure if this went through so I am sending it again.


Thanks for the summary of the Leiden Conference, David. I am going to have to get over there one of these days, despite how much I loathe the long-distance flights to get there. As to your assessments of historians, you are spot on. We incline towards dullness, one might say we can be catatonic. Anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to be much livelier. I recall once attending a talk at the Great Basin Anthropological Society meetings about the excavations at “Butthole Rock.” The presenter (in his archeologists’ conference uniform of hiking boots, faded jeans, and a button-down shirt with tie) showed us slides of a rock formation consisting of two slightly rounded pink-colored bluffs sitting side by side and resembling derriere cheeks. Sure enough the wind had sculpted out a sort of blowhole between them giving the impression of a giant sphincter. Now what do you suppose historians would have called that site?

Dave Nichols said...

Thank you, Katherine. I suspect most historians are too snooty to concern themselves with something so "vulgar" - and so entertaining.