Loren Michael Mortimer

Despite my boisterous persona, I recoil when people describe me as “passionate” about history. As a scholar of the eighteenth century, the word “passion” carries negative connotations in a historical context. Its twenty-first century meanings are no less problematic, evoking the image of an overwrought reality show contestant spouting clichés about his or her “passion” to avoid elimination. “Passionate” simply cannot convey the intellectual and emotional complexities that describe my experience writing and studying Native American history. As a non-native scholar interrogating the history and legacy of American settler colonialism in the St. Lawrence River valley, I struggle to find a word that conveys a sense of humility and obligation that comes with studying the region’s indigenous history. As Mellon Public Scholars Fellow, I hope to find those words through community engagement in the capacity of an ally.

As an ally, I am working to bridge the divide between academic history and the indigenous “living history” enacted each day at Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, an Native community lying directly on the US-Canada Border. At Akwesasne, history does not merely reside silently between the pages of dense monographs. For Mohawks, history is as alive as the plants, animals, and people who have resided together at Akwesasne for thousands of years. One of the painful legacies of colonialism has been the wholesale theft and disavowal of the region’s Native American history from more than two hundred years. Working in collaboration with the Akwesasne Cultural Center and the cultural tourism-working group, I want use my academic training to help non-native visitors recognize this indigenous living history in place of tired colonial narratives of this land.

 

Akwesasne is sovereign, indigenous territory and so are its living histories. This means that some stories, places, and artifacts are not meant for non-natives. While the community will decide which stories and histories are appropriate to share with visitors, a good guiding principle is to treat Akwesasne with the same veneration and respect that one would show a sovereign and sacred territory like the Vatican. I hope my work helps other non-native visitors—tourists, scholars, artists, and neighbors—to respect the sanctity and ancient history of the place as well as the right of the people to narrate their own decolonized history according to standards they set for themselves. In conducting this work, I hope that this experience will light my dissertation with the sense and color of an indigenous living history rather than reproduce colonial historiographies of despair and decline.