Over Memorial Day weekend 2016, the community of Akwesasne gathered with local dignitaries to honor the last surviving WWII code talker with the Silver Congressional Star. Levi Oakes, aged 94, received long overdue recognition for his service to the United States following years of bureaucratic delays. The ceremony served as a poignant reminder that history gets made every day at Akwesasne—even it takes outsiders decades to recognize its significance.
Historians should always recognize that they are the custodians of other people’s ancestors—professional respect and care for the living histories of others must accompany our inquiries into the past. When I leave Davis for Akwesasne in August, it will be with profound humility that I will help tell those stories to a wider public beyond the boundaries of the reservation. Through the medium of digital mapping, future visitors can travel to sites rich with centuries of history. By embedding images and video from Levi Oakes’s award ceremony, we can create living documentary history for heritage tourists accessible through their smartphones as they navigate indigenous space.
As an academic historian, I am trained in how to interrogate documentary records that intentionally silence indigenous voices. I am confident in my ability to use the ESRI Story Map app to help tell the story of the land and peoples of Akwesasne, but I am counting on the relationships born out of trust and mutual respect to transform this project into a meaningful scholarly intervention to diverse publics. Indeed, public scholarship requires accountability to the community as well as adherence to empirical evidence.
Public historians and public intellectuals typically do not emphasize historiography in the way that academically trained historians do. Historiography is the “history of history,” the way historians talk to one another across space and time. Every generation has important questions it asks of the past. Cold War era historians asked important questions about capitalism and democracy that changed the field forever. Scholars working after the 1960s asked important questions about race, gender, and sexuality that helped bring about a more inclusive society in the United States. My generation faces daunting challenges—climate change, income inequality, decolonization, just to name a few. We have different questions to ask of our ancestors and we have an obligation to learn from their mistakes. The status quo is unacceptable. We have to ask new questions about the past and present those stories in innovative ways. Otherwise, what will they say about us seven generations from now?
In the past, earlier generations of historians have muted and distorted Native voices to advance a particular agenda—usually of cultural, racial, or political superiority. What will happen when the US historian steps back and use his unique training and particular expertise to bring indigenous voices into conversation with the wider history of the United States? I believe that by working together, we can create a living, place-based archive to honor the community and educate the wider traveling public in the United States and Canada.
The history made at Akwesasne Mohawk Territory has changed the world–even if not many outside the reservation know it yet. By developing new ways to tell the incredible story of the land and people to the wider public, I hope to be a useful ally to the community’s cultural tourism initiative.