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Zoom and the 41st American Indian Workshop, RBE 38 – TD Jacobs

The 2020 American Indian Workshop was initially postponed as a result of the pandemic. The 41st edition of the AIW, it was to be hosted by the Ludwig Maximilians Universität München. Eventually, however, the organizers – Dr Henry Kammler, Dr Renate Bartl, Saskia Brill, and Friederike Nusko – decided to move the conference online. This year’s main topic was “Indigenous Shapes of Water,” and it was an important opportunity to present research considering the current struggles against colonial extraction capitalism. Nevertheless, I think that many of the regular attendees – and the organizers – were a bit apprehensive at the thought of a four-day long Zoom conference. Would there be low attendance? What about tech issues? Would there be chances to network and socialize? Could anyone stare at a screen that long?

In fact, the conference was quite successful. I was watching the ticker at the bottom of the Zoom screen, and attendance was just as high as it had been in previous years. Plus, having no more than two parallel sessions at a time meant that no one was in the unhappy position of delivering a paper to an audience of fellow panelists (something I’ve experienced at other conferences with too many sessions and not enough attendees!) There were a few minor glitches as people got used to the breakout rooms and screen sharing. But with one exception (bad microphone) the presentations went off without any major problems. Certainly no more so than in any other year. There were also plenty of chances to catch up with AIW friends and family during the breaks, using private chat, and taking advantage of the Gather Town space set up by one of the members. Moreover, the Zoom interface allowed the organizers to swiftly pull us out of our rambling discussions during the breaks – which struck me as much more efficient than attempting (and failing) to politely herd academics away from the coffee table.  Lastly, while my attention did start to wander on occasion, I simply turned off the camera and listened, keeping my notepad handy as did the dishes and folded my laundry. 

People may not have been as formal in previous years (I’m proud to say I wasn’t in my pj’s the entire time) but the presentations were as good as ever. The keynote speaker, Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, discussed the mining operations in Canada’s “Ring of Fire” and the resultant impact on the local First Nations peoples, including her own, the Attawapiskat. I found this highly informative given that I didn’t even know that diamond mining was a thing in North America. Additionally, the ecosystem in the region is a major, natural carbon sink, that is now being impacted by climate change. And as in so many other places, Canadian laws that intentionally break up Indigenous groups into artificial constructions that do not necessarily reflect identity or land relationships, are hindering unified resistance. Unfortunately, that is nothing new. 

However, the settler government has an additional weapon in its arsenal: the environmental impact review process itself. When a new company seeks a mining contract, it seems the process starts all over. And the information gathered earlier – including statements from elders who may have since passed on – is lost. People are being ground down fighting the same battles over and over, with increasingly scarce resources. I don’t know what the solution to these problems may be. However, I do think it good that more scrutiny is being brought to bear on the Canadian government, which is often given a pass on its genocidal practices because it borders the more openly violent United States. 

The presenters that followed Jackie Hookimaw-Witt the first day focused on DAPL. Ashly Hanna, an undergraduate and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, discussed the results of her research concerning the Bismarck Tribune. She succinctly and convincingly argued that the region’s most prominent newspaper – while covering peoples’ concerns regarding pipeline oil spills – was extremely biased in its coverage of the protests. For example, the paper reported on the littering in the protest camps, while conveniently forgetting to mention that the protestors were forcibly removed without being allowed to clean up the sites. The photographs in the paper were also carefully selected so as to avoid depicting protestors as the victims of state sponsored violence. Hanna’s presentation was an insightful examination of the ways in which the media can manipulate public perception concerning Indigenous resistance movements. 

Hanna was followed by Aurélie Journée-Duez, a doctoral student at the EHESS/Université Paris. She analyzed the art produced in the context of the DAPL protests. Space was set aside at the camps for the development of protest signs and posters in order to help raise awareness. I recall seeing many of the results spread through social media, often in the form of printable files for use elsewhere – and they were very successful in terms of the clarity of message. Journée-Duez’s examination led to a fruitful analysis of feminism in Indigenous protests. ‘Extractivism’ often compares environmental exploitation to rape culture. And this was reflected in much of the artwork produced. Considering the established links between the ‘man camps’ along pipeline projects and the rise in sexual assaults and murders committed against Indigenous women in the surrounding populations, I think that the comparison rises above the level of metaphor. Journée-Duez quite rightly – in my view – highlighted the difference between current, woman and queer led protest movements, and the hypermasculinity of AIM leadership in previous decades. Moreover, she made an important distinction between intersectional, Indigenous feminism and white feminism, the latter of which is facing growing criticism for its narrow scope. 

For me, Wednesday’s highlight was undoubtedly the panel discussion on “Native Americans and Museums: International Perspectives and Collaborative Prospects.” Dr Rob Collins from San Francisco State University moderated. He was one of the curators of the 2009 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas – a highly important project in light of the fierce controversy surrounding the Cherokee Freedmen at the time. Dr Markus Lindner of Goethe University presented his experiences in organizing exhibitions with students and in attempting to get source community participation. Dr Justin Richland of the University of California, Irvine, contributed his insights as both a lawyer and anthropologist in discussions about NAGPRA in particular. Finally, Dr Alaka Wali from the Field Museum in Chicago talked about the renovation of the Native American exhibits there. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was the difference between what Indigenous participants in exhibitions wish to present, and what the non-Indigenous audience may expect to see. Rather than focusing on the pain of the past, Native curators are centering their work on the vibrancy of the present. I found this especially relevant to Dr Wali’s presentation about the updates to the Field Museum. I visited that institution as a kid several times with my father during trips to Chicago. He loved the museum but he hated the Native American hall. I won’t repeat his commentary here because while pithy, it was obscenity laden. I, on the other hand – being too young to wonder why we were featured in a museum alongside dinosaurs – loved it. But on later trips, the weird mannequins and their dry, oddly non-descriptive labels began to remind me a bit too much of the stuffed animals elsewhere in the museum.

Dr Wali’s pictures demonstrated that little had changed in the thirty years since I had visited. Indeed, it looked (depressingly) exactly as I remembered it. However, Dr Wali has embarked on a major reform program. Following a collaboration with Bunky Echo-Hawk in 2013, she put in a confrontational installation by Kanza artist Chris Pappan in 2016-19, Drawing on Tradition. The stark contrast between contemporary Native perspectives and the drab display cases appears to have finally goaded the museum’s directors into committing to do better.  The new exhibit is set to open in 2021, and I may (pandemic permitting) make a special trip home to the States just to see it. Finally, the panel discussed the importance of establishing lasting relationships with source communities, the kind of relationships that were implied by the giving/taking of objects to start with. It is not enough to bring in the occasional Indigenous curator to boost attendance. That’s just another kind of exploitation. Instead, as Dr Collins put it, we should be seeking to transform museums into sites of Native agency. 

The first panel on Thursday centered on “Queer + Indigenous Perspectives on Fluid Identities,” and it was one that I had been highly anticipating. I was not disappointed. I was particularly intrigued by James Mackay’s analysis of works by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa poet, two-spirit and transgender educator, and PhD student at Trent University. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find his collection, you are enough: love poems for the end of the world, very moving. Dr Mackay’s presentation covered the theme of fluids and fluidity, in keeping with the theme of the conference, but even more interestingly, he zeroed in on the digital aspects of Sumac’s work. Something that I really had not paid a huge amount of attention to previously – likely because I’m old and use hashtags without actually having an active Twitter account. In any case, I look forward to re-reading Sumac with fresh eyes. 

Friday’s program brought with it several novel presentations. Among them, I was especially impressed by Daniel Dumas’s research on Canadian stamps. As an early modernist, I’m aware of the value of currency as an almost omnipresent representation of assertions of sovereignty. That stamps could fulfill a similar function in the modern era had never occurred to me. And while just as ubiquitous as money, they’re even more flexible in terms of their iconography. Moreover, Dumas – a PhD student at the Rachel Carson Center – pointed out that the post office as both service and physical place was the governmental office that people had the most continuous contact with, giving it additional representational power. Dumas’s work gave me much food for thought.    

Friday ended for me with a report on the results from a collaborative project presented by independent scholar Amy Ruckes on the “Exploitation of Indigenous Social Media for Political Propaganda.” As a specialist in disinformation and human-computer interactions, she analyzed mass data generated by social media such as Twitter and identified various non-Indigenous groups making use of Indigenous related imagery or wording for their own political purposes. In one instance, it became clear that hashtags associated with legitimate Native protests were being promoted by foreign actors with an interest in disrupting US energy supplies. Another such example of identity co-opting was the circulation of memes by far-right European political groups with messages depicting Native Americans as the victims of illegal immigration. Having seen similar posts on Facebook from predominantly non-Native, ‘pro-wall,’ conservatives, I cannot say that I was surprised. I’ve also noticed a proliferation of pro-NRA memes in which Native populations are cast as the victims of disarmament. Ruckes also reflected on the use of social media to directly target Indigenous voters with disinformation in the 2020 US presidential election and its possible impact. On the whole, the research findings are not encouraging. However, that research in this area is being conducted by anyone at all is.

On the face of it, it is hard to see what – if anything – Native people can do to prevent such use of Indigeneity for exploitative purposes, let alone fight carefully targeted political disinformation campaigns on social media. Or digital monoculture for that matter. However, discussion during the break highlighted the usage of social media as an organizational tool, as well as the proliferation of Indigenous spaces online in forms such as Native TikTok. I imagine we’re going to have to take the good with the bad to a certain extent – at least until platforms begin applying their Terms of Service policies in a less haphazard fashion. And there is increasing pressure for them to do so as minorities become more vocal about online discrimination. 

I’ll admit that by Saturday I was flagging a wee bit. But I’d be remiss if I did not mention that the presentations included two by recent graduates from Ghent University’s master’s in history program: Adeline Moons and Jeroen Petit. Moons presented the results of her MA thesis in a talk titled “’That all past injurys are buryd and forgotten’: Agency of Native Americans in seventeenth century intercultural diplomacy in New Netherland/New York.” In it, she covered the treaties and renewals engaged in by the little-known ‘Esopus.’ She convincingly demonstrated that these encounters were not dominated by the colonizers, and reflected Indigenous diplomatic practices and norms as well. Petit came to a similar conclusion in his presentation, “The Third Anglo-Dutch War and the Articles of Peace between Charles II and several Indian kings and queens,” again based on his MA thesis. In particular, he highlighted the political maneuvering of both the king of England and ‘Queen’ Cockacoeske of the Pamunkey that resulted in a treaty that promoted the political and representational ambitions of both parties.

I’m afraid that I missed most of Dr Kammler’s closing remarks. People were busy saying goodbye to one another in the chat window, exchanging email addresses, and (in my case) trying to source bottle gourd seeds. Four days of Zoom conferencing was tiring, and my concentration was gone by that point. However, having had so much else ruined or cancelled by the disaster of 2020, I appreciated this year’s AIW more than previous editions. And I am already looking forward to next year’s AIW, being hosted by Dr James Mackay of the European University of Cyprus, titled “The Sovereign Erotic.” It too is going to be held virtually, and hopefully we will all still be around to attend – in pj’s or otherwise. 

41st AIW program:
https://www.american-indian-workshop.org/AIW41/2020_AIW_Munich.pdf  

42nd AIW call for papers:
https://journals.kent.ac.uk/index.php/transmotion/conf


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