Author Archive for Loren Michael Mortimer

Living his(Stories)

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.

Planning for a Season; Building for a Lifetime

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.

Alliance and the Academy

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.

Why I Am Here: Alliance, Engagement, and Scholarship

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.