Loren Michael Mortimer

Among academics, May brings a sense of optimism and excitement about the summer research season ahead. Summer break brings a welcome respite from bluebook exams and offers a chance to do some broken-field running on critical projects. Summer, we tell ourselves, will be the chance to atone for all of the things we did not get around to doing during the academic year: write an article or two, read the couple of dozen books gathering dust in our offices, conduct field work, and sample the vino in Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco while we’re at it. We have such big plans as we remind ourselves, “this is going to be the best summer ever.” And when late August catches up with us and only half of that article got written, we look ahead to next summer to get it right.

Summer is also the season of the “professional do-gooder,” as the late scholar Vine Deloria Jr. termed the veritable army of anthropologists, historians, public intellectuals, activists, social workers, missionaries, and short-term interns who descend on indigenous territories each year. These well-intentioned visitors engage tribal communities on a short-term basis, with little reciprocity or plans for a long-term outside the confines of the academic calendar. De-conflicting academic and community priorities remain a vexing dilemma of publically engaged scholars working with indigenous communities.

My strategy for combatting the twin specters of academic summer overreach and disengaged community involvement entails designing projects that can sustain longer-term relationships. Digital mapping of indigenous history requires community storytelling and historical research—two activities that take place at Akwesasne Mohawk territory in all seasons. By communicating with community partners early in the planning process and building realistic benchmarks for completing key tasks, the digital mapping project remains on target for completion in mid-September. The late spring and early summer have been set aside for conference calls to identify priorities for inclusion on the digital history map. The community decides time, place, and manner of storytelling—which sites should be included in a cultural tourism program and which knowledge should remain within the community.

As a researcher, I already have an intensive working knowledge of the four hundred year history of Akwesasne Mohawk territory. This historical knowledge is comprehensive insofar as an outsiders’ understanding of a place could ever be. Yet even this would be too much for a single map project. My work-plan revolves around communications with the community—timelines for them to provide me with my marching orders and opportunities for me to render those narratives with the highest attention to professional detail.

So rather than trafficking in pie-in-the-sky expectations for my summer, I have opted to dabble in the art of the possible. This means rigorous adherence to deadlines and maximizing every one of the twenty hours each week I can dedicate to this project. My hope is that the successful management and completion of one project can open new opportunities for greater and longer-term collaboration. After all, the production of a work of history (the dissertation) takes place on the order of years and decades. Our relationships and community partnerships should also be able to grow and renew themselves on a similar timeline.