Troubles Decolonizing a Colonial History now on the First Peoples/New Directions Publishing Initiative Website!
Thank you Abby Mogollon!
Much work in the the field of Native American history has centered on Indians’ relationships with European colonizers and the U.S. government, perhaps rightly so. As historians, we are trained to analyze primarily the written word, words written mostly by colonizers. And while some scholars have done remarkable oral histories and ethnographies of Native communities, a history based on oral sources or indigenous knowledge is not automatically more relevant to Indian communities, just because it avoids the colonizers’ words. Sources don’t by themselves make Indian history more relevant to Indian people. We have to put the information we gather to work, or history forever remains a telling about an other, rather than an authentic rendering of a truth about human nature and societies.
My book, Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South, has been called on to do several kinds of work since its release. Some of it, I feel, genuinely approaches a decolonizing purpose–an affirmation of inherent sovereignty–while some of it reinforces agendas set forth by the colonizer, thus yielding that sovereignty. To paraphrase scholar Kevin Bruyneel (The Third Space of Sovereignty), indigenous peoples claim a retained sovereignty while American law and policy possess a “colonial ambivalence” toward sovereignty that continually compromises our ability to express it. Colonialism thrives on the supposedly fixed boundaries between written and oral, indigenous and European, sovereign and dependent, colonized and colonizer. Indeed, our scholarship often resides within these boundaries as well and strengthens colonialism; but I hope that I can put this book to work in a way that will cross, expose, and disable those boundaries rather than strengthen them.
For example, people who are descended from Lumbees, or have Lumbee children, have contacted me after reading the book. They are rediscovering their ancestors or knowing them for the first time, and they typically express thanks that the book has taught them something new or explained an old question that has always lingered with them. I’ve heard, “Your book gave me such insight to my dad and understanding of his feelings and values,” and “Your book has made me angry, not at you but at the way that white attitudes and opinions have caused Indians to judge each other and distance themselves from Blacks, and even make Blacks hate themselves, wishing to be something else. History has been ugly at times. I have battled with these same questions of identity my entire life.” I feel blessed that the book evokes such strong reactions.
We have held two Lumbee community events around the book, one a conventional author lecture and the other a more dynamic roundtable discussion with other local historians and descendants of people depicted in the book. Rather than populate those forums with people who repeat the story printed on the tribal website, I prefer to bring people together who will speak plainly and offer insights that might be controversial but nevertheless should be heard. Lumbee and Tuscarora views were represented, with frank discussion about issues like race, blood, class, and recognition strategies–the sometimes “ugly” yet profound parts of our history, the ones that teach us the most about who we are. Indians and non-Indians have written me letters, sent me photographs, and shared with me oral history interviews which elaborate on the story the book tells and show me things I never knew. That exchange teaches me that while the printed word seems final, knowledge nonetheless continues to grow. Furthermore, accountability is an important part of community relevance; I have to share my new knowledge, even when I’ve been told I’m wrong (watch for that in another blog post).
When people use the book to take ownership of their history I am most proud of what I’ve accomplished. In fact, my proudest moments came one afternoon as my family sat in a vigil over my aunt’s last days. She was dying from pancreatic cancer, and her siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins, and friends gathered around her. My book was there too, passed from hand to hand as a diversion from the suffering before us. My teenage cousins looked at the photographs. My aunts and older cousins immediately flipped to the picture of my grandparents, read the passages about them, and smiled, talking over old memories. I wrote elaborate epistles to my cousins on the title page. Some who had started reading it teased me about how hard the vocabulary was; I told them that using words the reader doesn’t know is a sign of poor writing. Greater community relevance could certainly begin with a complete overhaul of our academic style of writing.
Even though I know what some individuals take away from the book, what impact it has on the larger community struggle to assert sovereignty is still a mystery. Even activities like our roundtable discussion that show greater ownership over our past bear witness to how history is used strategically. For example, a Tuscarora speaker, a descendant of the “Original 22″ Indians recognized by the BIA in 1938, validated the rightness of blood quantum determinations of identity (though it was firmly situated in his own history, and not intended to be a general rule applied to everyone). He spoke on behalf of a colonial agenda that many Indians from other tribes have embraced but the Lumbees have rejected. At the same time, he proposed an inclusive path to recognition that would revisit that past decision and have all of us, regardless of blood quantum, now receiving federal services. His interpretation of the past could easily serve a colonizing agenda one moment, and a decolonizing one the next.
Scholarship can serve colonial ambivalence as well. Recently a prominent, Indian-run, national organization requested clarification from me regarding an individual applying for their services who claimed descent from the federally-recognized Original 22. They wanted to know whether this individual was eligible for services provided only to federally-recognized Indians. Given the limited information I had about the case, I unfortunately had to conclude that the person was not eligible; in recognizing the 22, the BIA contravened the Indian Reorganization Act and prevented them from organizing as a tribe and placing land into trust. Nor did the BIA allow recognition of their descendants. At first I felt pleasure that I could answer the question, and that something I had written would be useful in explaining the context around such a situation. But then I developed mixed feelings–my knowledge was essentially used to enforce the rules of federal recognition which we all know to be arbitrary in that they have excluded this applicant who was undoubtedly a member of an Indian tribe. The story I told, though truthful, did nothing to help this applicant and in fact sustained a justification for his exclusion.
Indian people live and breathe colonialism every day. It influences not only our contemporary circumstances but our view of the past. And I’d venture to say that most of us don’t look at that past exclusively through the lens of one of the colonizer’s collaborators; rather, our relationship to colonialism is more complex. Some of us find that a reading of the past influenced by colonialism serves our interests at some points, while at other times we resist views of history that privilege European epistemologies. Most of us live our daily lives in some grey area in between. I still have a long way to go to put my book to work in a way that crosses and exposes the borders that strengthen colonial domination. The book may empower Lumbee and Tuscarora people to tell their own stories and know themselves better, but it can also further our colonized status.