On 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.