Q&A with Coll Thrush

coll-thrush.jpgToday Coll Thrush speaks with The Junto about his most recent book, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, which examines that city’s history through the experiences of Indigenous travelers—willing or otherwise—from territories that became the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A graduate of Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and the University of Washington, Coll Thrush is Professor of History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in unceded Coast Salish territories, and affiliate faculty at UBC’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. He is the author of Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place, which won the 2007 Washington State Book Award for History/Biography, and was re-released as a tenth-anniversary second edition in early 2017. He is also co-editor with Colleen Boyd of Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American History & Culture. His article “City of the Changers: Indigenous People and the Transformation of Seattle’s Watersheds” was named Best Article of 2006 by the Urban History Association, and his article “Vancouver the Cannibal: Cuisine, Encounter, and the Dilemma of Difference on the Northwest Coast, 1774-1808” won the Robert F. Heizer prize for best article of 2011 from the American Society for Ethnohistory. During the 2013-2014 academic year, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Historical Research of the University of London and an Eccles Centre Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library. After the completion of Indigenous London, Coll will return to writing about the Northwest Coast of North America with a book project entitled SlaughterTown, a history-memoir examining trauma, memory, silence, and landscape in Coast Salish territories and his hometown of Auburn, Washington—formerly known as Slaughter.

JUNTO: You say in your first chapter that you expected to discover an “invisible Indigenous version of the urban past,” and then admit your error and admission that the people you ended up writing about “did not need discovering. Indigenous people never do.”[1] This project seems like it required constant readjustment of what you knew, or thought you knew. What have you learned that you’d share with other historians keen to engage more deeply with Indigenous studies?

COLL THRUSH: You’re right that this project required constant readjustment. I think that’s true of any project, of course, but for me, for this particular piece of research and writing, the learning curve was quite steep. I was trained in the history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century American West, so in many ways I had no business writing a history of London that went back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. In addition to learning enough British history to be conversant, I also had to learn about Indigenous people and peoples I’d never worked on before—most notably individuals and nations from what are now Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai‘i. So the project involved a fairly constant tacking between multiple fields and subfields that were new to me—a humbling prospect indeed. I think the most challenging adjustment, though, was the one you signal in your question: the notion that the Indigenous history of London would be a hidden one. That’s simply not true. The people that appear in this book were in most cases highly visible during their time in the city; the notion that a history like this one might seem impossible—that there is no meaningful Indigenous history at the center of empire—is more a result of post-imperial amnesia and disavowal, combined with the trenchant estrangement that exists more broadly between urban and Indigenous histories, both in popular thought as well as scholarly practice. Such estrangement is premised on the idea that urban and Indigenous histories are mutually exclusive: when one begins, the other ends. Such approaches relegate Indigenous people/s to the past and foreclose both scholarly inquiry and lived experience. All of this speaks to what I think is one of the most important lessons for historians who wish to engage with Indigenous studies approaches: to always resist the past-tensing of Indigenous peoplehood. This is just as true for people working in earlier periods as it is for scholars of more contemporary subjects.

JUNTO: Kinship matters here, as it often has. Do you think that Victoria’s role as Queen “mother” diverged from previous Native relationships with British and French “fathers”?

THRUSH: I think there is an important through-line, in the sense that Indigenous and British participants in discussions involving kinship language were often speaking past each other. That’s not news, of course, but it continues to be a critical piece for our understanding of these encounters (and the legal regimes that emerged out of them). One important thing to remember, and this is something that more and more Indigenous studies scholars are asserting, is that kinship for Indigenous peoples is more capacious than it is for European peoples—it can include non-human entities, up to and including the land itself in many cases. It is (in general) a much less hierarchical and centralized system than its European counterpart(s). Second, I think it’s important to recognize that Victoria’s claims to motherhood took place in a radically different cultural moment than, say, that of the Georgian “fathers.” Hers was a more intimate and immediate kind of parenting, which we can see in the godmother relationships she established with children from throughout the Empire, including a Maori baby born in England in 1863. This is quite distinct from earlier periods and speaks to the ways in which London and its empire were also historically contingent: the London that Mohawk delegates experienced in 1710, for example, was not the same city or empire as the one Hawaiian royals or Australian Aboriginal cricketers encountered in the late nineteenth century.

JUNTO: Your interludes provide the reader with a bridge between a recovered past and an imagined one. Can you say which authors you found most influential in composing these sections of the book?

THRUSH: I’m not sure I see a distinction between a recovered past and an imagined one—both are products of the inquiry and writing processes that informed both the more traditional chapters and the less typical poetic interludes. My goal with the interludes was to draw attention to the material components of London’s empire: both the physical objects that emerged out of it (say, an obsidian mirror or a hat factory) and its human costs (for example, the experience of a child war captive or a lonely Aboriginal toy-seller). I wanted to do this in a way that got around the arm’s-length distancing that is common to most historical writing. One of the ways I did this was to write each of the interludes in the present-tense, making them more immediate and affective. As for inspirations, while I was certainly influenced by creative work like the “critical fabulation” of Saidiya Hartman and the cross-genre writing of Indigenous studies scholars such as Leanne Simpson, to be honest this was a return to a kind of writing I’ve been doing since I was an undergraduate: creating poetic material out of “found objects,” in this case a historical archive.

JUNTO: The chronology of the book doesn’t hew to traditional breaks in colonial and Revolutionary North American history. Could you say a bit more about how and why you chose to structure the time periods under consideration here?

THRUSH: I really wanted to allow the book’s chronology to emerge out of London’s Indigenous archive, and so I was less interested in subscribing to or amplifying established periodizations of colonial or North American (or other settler society) history. Instead, I was interested in outlining constellations of Indigenous experience in ways that tracked with changes in the city itself. I tried to identify important turning points in London’s urban story—e.g. the rise of the suburban city in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries—and see how those intersected with both ideas about Indigenous peoples and the lived experiences of Indigenous visitors. That means that some of the more typical breaks in colonial history—e.g. the independence of settler states such as the United States—are quite muted in the text.

JUNTO: In the later chapters, sport matters a great deal to your analysis; you describe it as a form of physical activity that allowed empire to be performed.[2] In these later periods, indigenous people played a more active role in the performance of empire, whereas during the earlier moments of the book indigenous people attended performances and only occasionally became them. How do you see performance changing over time?

THRUSH: I have a sense that performance was always at the center of Indigenous London’s history. The very presence of Indigenous people in the city was layered with so much meaning that it couldn’t help but be a performance. This is true of virtually every public appearance by Indigenous travelers, from Pocahontas watching a masque from a dais at the Banqueting House in 1617 to a Coast Salish delegation meeting with the King in 1906. I do think there’s a way in which Indigenous visitors quickly learned what their hosts were looking for in terms of “authentic” Indigeneity, and in some cases played with those expectations. See, for example, the way the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant terrified a room full of party-goers with a “war whoop” in the late eighteenth century: he knew full well the ideas Londoners had about his people, and actively toyed with his audience through a brief, ironic performance of “savagery” in a “civilized” urban space. Indigenous people have always been adept at reading non-Indigenous audiences’ desires.

JUNTO: Your appendix gives the reader a couple options for a walking tour of indigenous London. For the folks based close to London, how would you use this section of the book to structure your dream teaching assignment?

THRUSH: In the summer of 2016, I took eight students to London to explore Indigenous presence in the city. We went behind the scenes at the British Library, the British Museum, and elsewhere, and spent a lot of time making use of the city as a text or artifact in and of itself. On our first full day in London, we did two of the three self-guided tours that I’ve provided in the book. On our last full day there, students crafted their own six-hour walking tour by choosing sites across the city to interpret through Indigenous history, experience, and perspectives. These included sites as diverse as the Tower of London and the Canadian War Memorial near Buckingham Palace. It was an almost ideal way for students to do some direct research of their own while also engaging the urban landscape as a text in its own right, something that the book overall tries to do. When we see how the city itself is entangled in these histories, then I think we begin to see the ways in which “earlier” periods of history, which might seem “over,” are in fact still active in their imbrication with the palimpsests of urban space, particularly when revived through Indigenous lived experience and cultural practice.

JUNTO: You’re certainly not the first to make a case for considering Native American history in tandem with other regions of the world in this sweeping study of indigenous history. What advice would you offer to other scholars interested in similarly expansive projects?

THRUSH: One of the biggest challenges of this project had to do with its ethical dimensions. There is a model for ethical Indigenous research that argues for research being driven by community concerns, and even directed by the community in question where possible. That’s fine for community-specific projects, but I’m not sure it’s feasible for bigger, more global projects like this one. (Let me say here that by “bigger,” I don’t mean more important or significant; I’m simply referring to spatial and scalar issues.) So I think scholars interested in doing these sorts of projects need to make sure that they’re engaged in professional networks and collegial relationships where they can test their work against ethically-engaged scholarship. I’m also willing to accept that scholars working on or from particular Indigenous communities or nations will have critiques of some of the stories I’ve included in the book; I’ve certainly tried to lay out some terrain for the next set of researchers and writers to build on.

JUNTO: You say that silence is the opposite of history.[3] How would you describe the relationship between silence and revisionism in Native American history and studies?

THRUSH: Silence is of course about power. I think Indigenous history and Indigenous studies—which are not necessarily the same thing—are engaged with silence on multiple levels. First, there is the ongoing work to overcome the erasures of settler colonialism, which seek to render Indigenous peoples and polities invisible or absent. It’s more than just a matter of articulating that Indigenous people were actors in the past; it’s a matter of showing how Indigenous peoples and Indigeneity were critical to the most important aspects of colonial history, from their military and political influence to more subtle processes such as the formation of whiteness and ideas about “liberty.” It’s also a matter of expanding our notion of what constitutes an archive: material culture, ecological practices, non-human relations, and many other aspects of Indigenous life are starting to make their way into historical scholarship. At the same time, there is another kind of silence that is emerging in Indigenous studies in particular, that of ethnographic refusal: the notion that outsiders do not need to know everything. This obviously pushes back to some degree against the Enlightenment-derived and anthropological notion that all should be revealed, catalogued, and mastered by arguing that some knowledges are private and privileged. I made a handful of choices along those lines, particularly in terms of Indigenous mortuary practices that took place in London. We don’t need to know everything or make everything available to non-Indigenous eyes.

Thanks, Coll! To read Sara Georgini’s review of this book, hop on over to tomorrow’s post.


[1] Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 6

[2] Thrush, Indigenous London, 201.

[3] Thrush, Indigenous London, 59.

7 responses

  1. Really nice to see this discussion here. Thanks Coll and the JUNTO!

    I like that Coll says that he expects and understands that there will be criticisms of his scholarship from “ethically-engaged” scholars. I think that is to be expected, considering the violence of colonialism. It is good to be reminded that what we do should not necessarily be met with complacent acceptance. Yet, I also do NOT think that broad, synthetic works like this are inherently unethical. Of course they can be, They can reify the very things they purport to illuminate. But I also think there are different ethical wavelengths. Community-based ethics are one of those wavelengths, while another can be one based in an imagined space (the imperial city) from which the macro-structures of empire can be understood. Diaspora, dislocation, and fragmentation were and are imperial outcomes — and not just for Indigenous folk. The British empire thought of itself in macro terms, and had an interior dialog about the goals and results of its global imperial framework. There is an historiographical reason for structuring a book on this topic in this way. Critically analyzing those structures from the perspective of a place, London, and its diasporic Indigenous Peoples makes sense.

    • Thanks, Taylor (nice to see you!). I think you capture what I was trying to saying better than I did. I like the idea of “wavelengths.” I also feel it’s important for us to think of the discipline(s) as an ecosystem where we can all be doing really different kinds of things, along as we’re doing them in solidarity.

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