Loren Michael Mortimer

During a research trip to Akwesasne Mohawk Territory in the autumn of 2014, I visited the Akwesasne Cultural Center. The facility is home to both the Akwesasne Museum and Library and serves as a hub for daily community life. On a typical weekday in September, the library pulses with human activity—the laughter and muted gossip from community members as they planned events intermingling with the syncopated keystrokes of public computers. Staff found a quiet corner in the stacks for me to review historical documents in their collection, conveniently located among the shelves reserved for Iroquois history. As I poured over the primary sources, I could not help noticing their extensive collection of titles from academic historians: Richter, Taylor, Parmenter, Fenton, and dozens more historians who specialize in the field. I realized that should I ever publish my dissertation, my work would one day be on that shelf for anyone in the community to read. That is where I had the paradigm shift about my role as a scholar and the public to whom I am accountable.

Until the 1970s, academic historians felt no obligation or compunction to make their world accessible and relevant to an indigenous public. Native Americans were research subjects, informants, and occasional hosts—certainly not a scholarly constituency. This landscape began to change as indigenous peoples mobilized to claim space in the academy in the late 1960s. As Roderick Ferguson explains in The Birth of the Interdisciplines, “the U.S. ethnic and women’s rights movements represent powerful confrontations with and evaluations of the figure of Western man as well as attempts to replace him with other characters, characters that represented the real existence and viability of other idioms and histories (31).” Marginalizing indigenous voices impoverished American historiography, but the hide-bound discipline was slow to recognize this critical paradigm disruption within its predominantly male, heteronormative guild–an insular scholarly network embodying what Walter Lippman described as a pseudo-environment. It took a generation to integrate indigenous faculty into the tenured ranks of history departments, and this inclusion of indigenous perspectives has revolutionized the way scholars approach the field of Native American historiography.

As a scholar working in the public university of the early twenty-first century, I hope my academic and public scholarship reflects a constant dialog with the indigenous communities I serve. As Native scholars offer alternative constructions of sovereignty, they offer non-native historians new lenses to interrogate the documentary record and fill critical historiographical gaps that had been previously ignored and intentionally erased by earlier generations of American historians. I situate both my public and academic scholarship into an emerging body of decolonized scholarship, which recovers that which earlier historians attempted to erase, and translates indigenous articulations of rights into ontologies legible to non-native public and political entities.

In practical terms at Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, that means making the community’s sovereign relationship with the United States and Canada visible to non-natives. My work is in the service of the Akwesasne Mohawks with an emphasis on “repatriating” the historical that earlier generations of scholars purposely denied the community. In addition to literally writing Akwesasne Mohawks out of the larger historical narrative of the United States, state and local governments inflicted multigenerational wounds on this community by denying the legitimacy of indigenous history in public schools. Students were forced to celebrate the “triumph” of Christopher Columbus rather than their own 10,000-year history in North America. Community engaged scholarship with the Akwesasne Mohawks builds the personal relationships required to redress these historic wrongs by forging alliances with the academy. Intellectual partnerships borne out of alliance with the academy are mutually reinforcing rather than the older, hegemonic suppression of indigenous knowledge. When a young student or elder pulls my book of the shelf at the library, I hope the knowledge contained within inspires and empower them to write the next chapter of their sovereign relationship with the United States and Canada—a relationship borne out of mutually reinforcing alliance rather than colonial dependence.