March 22, 2018
On "slow history": Decolonizing methodologies and the importance of responsive editorial processes
14 min read
Christine DeLucia, author of “Fugitive Collections in New England Indian Country: Indigenous Material Culture and Early American History Making at Ezra Stiles’s Yale Museum” in the January 2018 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly reflects on the broader implications of making a “simple” change to her recent article.
by Christine DeLucia
It wasn’t quite a “stop the presses!” moment. But a series of happenings at the tail end of completing my article “Fugitive Collections in New England Indian Country” occasioned an important pause, and a reason to reflect on early Americanist scholarly production in relation to the intellectual and ethical challenges presented by Indigenous subjects, methods, and present-day communities.
By late fall 2017 I had been working with WMQ staff for several months on this article about Indigenous material culture items, their circulation into European and colonial North American collections (including a now-dissolved museum at early Yale College), and the protracted contestations over these objects and histories that ensued, especially in light of the disruptions that collecting itself caused among Native American communities. The piece had already been through many iterations over the years, beginning as a draft for the 2010 WMQ-Early Modern Studies Institute workshop on “Grounded Histories.” The essay then sat in a drawer, periodically resurfaced and recirculated, and became dramatically re-researched and rewritten, processes alternately slowed or hastened alongside my own transition from graduate school to a history faculty job. Seven years later, at the extremely busy start of December, I was certain that we were nearing completion. Copyediting was well underway and the WMQ had apprised me of impending deadlines with very quick turnaround times and little leeway for error. But in the midst of this flurry of editing, I found myself pausing when a news item—a wonderful, affirming one—surfaced on my Facebook newsfeed.
A number of friends and colleagues connected to the Mohegan Tribe as well as Yale University reported that a watershed agreement had been brokered between the Mohegans and Yale. It provided for the repatriation, or return home, of scores of important objects that had long been held at the university’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. This repatriation agreement constituted momentous news for the Mohegans, who have long pushed for restoration of vital heritage items from colonial repositories to their own tribal nation’s caretaking; and for others in the Northeast and who pay attention to dynamics around collecting and tribal exercises of sovereignty around their own heritage materials. As I read through several accounts of this repatriation agreement, my first response mingled admiration and respect for the Mohegans who have labored for so long, and in such careful ways, to effect these returns. The more I reflected on this turnabout, the more I saw a need to spotlight this development in my own article’s conclusion. Doing so would offer a potent twenty-first century counterpoint to much earlier histories of dispossessive collecting and of important Indigenous engagements with Yale—indeed, a multi-century history of Indigenous diplomacy in collegiate spaces—and would underscore the protracted transits of material culture items across time and space.
But doing so required more than simply inserting a new paragraph or two. It was important, in my view, to reach out to Mohegan contacts to check that incorporating this event was consonant with their own goals and approaches toward public attention around repatriation. I also wished to see whether the news account published by Yale media accurately reflected their experiences and understandings, and to ask whether I was using appropriate titles and terminology to describe it. Making these inquiries was going to push up against the WMQ deadlines that had been so stringently laid out for me. But I could see no other appropriate way to proceed.
It was heartening, then, to immediately get the go-ahead from the WMQ to pursue what was necessary. More important, I was able to be in conversation with Mohegan straight away (an email exchange that I referenced in the footnotes). I was deeply appreciative of that response, particularly since I would never assume it from a tribal community that oversees many responsibilities and has its own timelines by which it abides. It is important to mention that these were not contacts emerging out of the blue, but were instead part of years-long communications that have taken shape through a variety of settings and projects. All told, many things aligned in a positive way that enabled me to rewrite the article’s ending in a manner that much better reflects the longue durée quality of these object transits, and the critical importance of paying attention to communities’ own agency in the face of settler colonialist projects.
This is a seemingly minor episode, I realize. Indeed, it might strike some as a simple kind of fact checking. But the type of connecting and communicating that I have described is in actuality many degrees different than looking up a date or quotation in a library book or archival document. It is a matter of relationships and respect; of recognizing that knowledge-keepers reside in tribal communities themselves; and of understanding academic scholarship as accountable to the Native nations whose histories it purports to tell. It takes up the call for decolonizing methodologies that Indigenous intellectuals and critics like Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Jean O’Brien, and so many others in Indigenous Studies have made—interventions about the very nature of scholarly practice that ought to be required reading in American history undergraduate and graduate programs (in my view), yet oftentimes are disregarded by Euro-colonialist practitioners.
As I have moved along in my academic career, I have come to insist upon the importance of creating time and space within scholarly processes for the types of responsiveness that ought to be integral to any work that pertains to Indigenous communities. Too often academia prioritizes and bestows accolades upon “fast” scholarship that is speedily churned out, with outsize claims to newness or originality to draw in readers and win over reviewers. The pressures only intensify on the tenure track or in other professional contexts as the perceived need to produce publications at regular intervals becomes tightly linked to advancement. Yet so much is lost in this approach. “Fast” history tends to detach from present-day communities’ extraordinarily complex knowledge systems, and from the slow, hard work of developing working relationships that can cast different light on seemingly familiar documents, objects, geographies, and interpretations. The resulting “fast” publications can be replete with partial or misleading conclusions, gaps, silences, and erasures—hardly the “rigorous” scholarship that so many venues purport to value.
I believe we need to push back—individually, collectively, and in the structural dimensions of academia, including the seemingly mundane yet actually influential arena of editorial processes. We need to reassess what it means to pursue scholarship in careful ways that prioritize accuracy, multivocal perspectives, and collaboration or consultation, even if these are “slow” processes. We, as scholars and writers, need allies in the form of editors who can understand and affirm the value of flexibility in publication processes, not to mention assist in calling for meaningful engagement with Indigenous critics, sources, and methods. I am glad that Joshua Piker at WMQ and other editorial staff members were on board with all that I have described. And I am heartened by a number of conversations, both public and behind-the-scenes, that are presently taking place through the Omohundro Institute to grapple with additional layers of these challenging issues.
Relationships between scholars and communities are always works in progress. I am figuring out these methodologies and ethical guidelines as I go, and I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by close friends and colleagues in Native American and Indigenous Studies who help me think through the complexities. The routes forward are often difficult to discern. At times I am sure I am doing it all wrong. Yet my mind constantly grapples with these challenges, partly because history cannot solely be my “day job.” As long as I remain a Euro-American settler within the Indigenous homelands of the Native Northeast and North America, I am part of these contested histories, and I have inherited an obligation to reckon with my responsibilities within Native spaces and in relation to Native sovereignties.
These are issues of enormous historical and contemporary significance, so a blog post can only touch the surface of their most salient contours. The conversations are ongoing, and they reverberate well beyond the walls of academia, across and within the multiple knowledge centers that exist across Indigenous North America. I would conclude here by noting that it is a commonplace gesture in Native American and Indigenous Studies to acknowledge and honor the networks of relations that have shaped one’s thinking and acting in the world. Some of these relations exist within academic networks, while others extend far into Native communities and nations. All of them take time, care, and interpersonal sensitivities to cultivate. In the all-too-brief acknowledgments of my article I gesture at a few of these relationships with tribal community members and knowledge-keepers, whose own researches and insights are immense and powerful. I am also indebted to museum curators and archivists who have sustained conversations and facilitated object interactions over more than a dozen years. And I am a different thinker, researcher, and writer because of my students, whose critical intellects and ethical compasses oftentimes lead them toward decolonizing practices and alternative futures. This, for me, is the web of relations that allowed this article to take form. The published piece reflects some exceedingly slow ways of “doing history,” which take long-term vantages on what it means to dwell within Native spaces, and to work toward different, more just and restorative relationships among people, places, and objects.