Land and Language Symposium: A Recap

Sequoyah_CharlesBirdKing1830On April 26, Columbia University’s American Studies and Early American History Seminars organized the symposium “Rethinking Land and Language: Dialogues in Early American and Indigenous Studies.” Divided into two roundtables dedicated to land and language, the symposium brought together an array of scholars to discuss how new perspectives in Native American studies might influence work being done across fields in early American history. This post will recap a few of the key themes that emerged from the symposium.*

In her introductory remarks, Zara Anishanslin noted that the Land and Language symposium sought to locate indigenous American studies at the heart of early American history; to displace New England as the primary site of indigeneity in early America; and to think trans-historically about the ways colonial and indigenous studies can influence one another. As the day’s discussions made clear, these are hot topics among scholars of early and indigenous America.

Throughout both segments, panel participants advocated moving outside Western concepts of land ownership and written communication to instead view the historical record through indigenous practices. For instance, Christian Crouch in her work on the French Atlantic World has begun to trace the presence and influence of indigenous persons in French military maps, while Céline Carayon’s research on indigenous language reveals that non-verbal communication can offer valuable insight into Native American culture. Kēhaulani Kauanui suggested that historians might also bridge the divide between land and language by reframing our understanding of early American land ownership as “sovereign” into one based on Native notions of “stewardship.” Overall, scholars agreed that there is much room for research and discovery when we place the indigenous perspective at the heart of early American history.

Material and visual culture were also at the forefront of the day’s discussions. Attempting to “rehabilitate the Indian portrait,” Elizabeth Hutchinson demonstrated how visual representations of Native Americans can be read not as stereotypes but rather as a cultural contract between the sitter and artist. Portraits like that of Sequoyah painted by Charles Bird King in 1830 represent a “hybrid cosmopolitanism” with gestures to European dress and deportment alongside key elements of Native American culture. Birgit Brander Rasmussen, in her examination of treaty negotiations between the French and Haudenosaunee, argued that wampum served the same purpose for Native Americans as writing and contracts did for Europeans. When viewed as a legally and historically binding document, wampum invites historians to reorient their studies of language and contract formation in a more material direction.  Coll Thrush, in his work on indigenous delegates who traveled to American and European cities, demonstrated how printed depictions of these visits provided an opportunity for urban residents to imagine the process of colonialism and to articulate their own ideas about identity, morality, and status. “Natives allow us to think about the city,” he said. “Not just the frontier.”

Presentations also varied in their geographic scope and attention to other factors such as gender.  John Gamber’s discussion of Native American film and literature in the American West argued for a postcolonial reading of Native Americans in contemporary society. Caroline Wigginton’s work on the communicative potential of Native American gestures reoriented language away from the gendered process that relies on physical cues from the speaker.

Participants stressed the importance of public engagement when conducting research. “You can effect a lot of change by talking to people,” Christian Crouch stated during open discussion. “Local interest in place appeals to people. People want to know about their heritage and their past.” Others emphasized the importance of exposing the public to the larger discussions emerging in the field as a way of combating stereotypes, debunking myths, and reframing Native American studies as an intellectual endeavor. Many panelists advocated for  paying homage to Native American tribes when doing research or holding conferences on land that was once theirs.

This post only skims the surface of the variety of engaging questions, presentations, and methodologies discussed at the Land and Language symposium. If you attended the symposium and were intrigued or inspired by the discussions, please feel free to offer up your thoughts in the Comments.

For a full description of the symposium, including a list of participants please see the posting on Columbia’s University Seminars page.

*Special thanks goes to Columbia doctoral student and Early American Seminar rapporteur Melissa Morris for providing notes from the Language segment of the symposium.

14 responses

  1. Sounds like a great set of talks. I’m assuming Rasmussen was actually talking about the Haudenosaunee, not the “Hodonoshone,” but am also wondering whether Anishanslin really wishes to “displace New England as the primary site of ingenuity in early America.”

    • Thank you for pointing that out. Not here, no…but now that you mention it, “ingenuity” in place of “indigeneity” is interesting to consider. Which goes to show that sometimes inadvertent and understandable (have we not all suffered the monstrous tyranny of autocorrect?) word switches can be illuminating. Using Native American history to “displace New England as the primary site of ingenuity in early America” is intriguing. Not just from the perspective of adding to the great work out there that quite properly pushes the standard early American narrative well beyond the confines of the Atlantic Coast. But especially in the context of the symposium’s goals, Native American history can/should be studied to upset that mythologized early American “Yankee ingenuity.” Said upset happens pretty easily, of course, when one considers the extent to which said “ingenuity” relied on help from/interaction with/dispossession of/violence against indigenous people. So Katy was on to something cool with that switch of words.

      • Can you elaborate on “to displace New England as the primary site of indigeneity in early America?” Thank you.

        • Before I answer that question:

          Can you elaborate on your identity, Anonymous?

          Just kidding.

          That was a reference to the need to engage the much wider continent beyond the northeasterly part of the Atlantic Coast. Both in general when discussing early American history and more specifically in discussing the pivotal place of Native Americans in it and our understanding of it. People like Alan Taylor, Kathleen Duval, Christina Snyder, and Claudio Sant (to name but a few) all do this; I was referencing their type of work and that fact that more of it needs to be done. (full disclosure: I’m a diehard Atlantic World historian, so I’m pretty bound to the coast, but I think it’s important that we as a field sojourn far beyond it).

          • Ha ha. Related question: do you think studies of the Native Northeast would benefit from moving beyond the “Northeast?” Thanks!

            • I’m going to offer the extremely helpful reply of “yes and no.” I don’t think being aware of larger connections outside of one’s region of study means they need to be studied each and every time that region is written about; just acknowledged and considered for context. I happen to think micro history and macro history can, and should, coexist quite comfortably in the field. For example, as an Atlantic World historian I’m put in mind of the call for Atlanticists to become more global. I’d argue that sometimes this is appropriate, but other times it’s really not. To speak metaphorically, sometimes the neighborhood really is all you want to study. This doesn’t mean you don’t know (and acknowledge) that it exists in a larger county, city, state, country, and world, but knowing/acknowledging doesn’t mean you have to study those extra regions yourself. We can’t all do everything, nor should we try. But I’m hardly the one to ask about this question as specific to Native American history–many others on this site far more qualified to do that than I.

              • I agree. Acknowledgment and consideration of global contexts, beyond the indigeneity of New England, may prove useful for studies of the Native Northeast.

                • Quick note: “beyond” refers to “displacement” in the context of the post and symposium remarks. No implication of linear (or nonlinear) generational turns, nonlinear usable pasts, Native space, etc., at least for my questions.

  2. Thank you, Lisa K. Hall for your observation regarding the egregious spelling error. Judicious editing (or basic familiarity with American Indian history) would have prevented this problem.

  3. Apologies for that error and any offense it may have caused. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. As you’ll see above, it has been fixed.

    • Can you elaborate on “hot topics” and “new perspectives” in the context of Native American Studies? Thank you.

    • Katy, to be clear: I’m not offended. The issue with the spelling error is that it doesn’t represent the sort of scholarly attention to detail that I think readers expect from a site like The Junto. I’m glad you were able to make the correction.

  4. Katy, to be clear: I’m not offended. The issue with the spelling error is that it doesn’t represent the sort of scholarly attention to detail that I think readers expect from a site like The Junto. I’m glad you were able to make the correction.


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