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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 23, 2018

Thoughts on writing for the WMQ-EAL forum

WMQ 7 min read

Today’s post is by Alejandra Dubcovsky, author of “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast” in the April 2018 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. The April issue is part of a forum, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies” published in collaboration with Early American Literature. 

by Alejandra Dubcovsky

I thought doing a forum would be easier. My article, surrounded by (dare I say hidden) the brilliant and important ideas of others, would quietly slip into The William and Mary Quarterly and that would be that. But my piece did not slip. It stumbled, tumbled, and hit several walls before finally getting into the journal. Participating in a forum automatically placed my piece in a larger conversation, which, on the one hand, gave my work a clearer “so-what” and a discernable intellectual stake, but on the other hand, it forced me to open-up my narrow story of Spanish Florida and reckon with larger methodological and bigger empirical frameworks. I had to ask my sources and myself some important, albeit difficult questions: how can I tell stories of loss, trauma, and damage without creating “damage narratives”? How can I introduce contingency to histories so deeply entrenched in narratives of declension? Does my training in and with Spanish archives add anything to existing narratives? If so, what? What are my obligations and responsibilities as a scholar to write ethical indigenous histories? How do I tell these stories?

Joining the “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies Forum” pushed me to rethink the tenor, scope, and implications of my work. My article, “Defying Indian Slavery: Apalachee Voices and Spanish Sources in the Eighteenth-Century Southeast,” evolved from a specific story about violence and archival erasure into an experimental construct that allowed me to test out NAIS’s theoretical framework. I wanted not only to show the “materials and methods” available for narrating ethical, historical narratives that centered indigenous voices, but I also wanted to model that approach. Emboldened by the works of the other writers in this forum, I took NAIS methodology to task by using it to reconsider the most traditional, colonial source I could find: a letter from a Spanish soldier to Florida’s governor during an imperial war. Manuel de Solana wrote to Governor José de Zúñiga y Cerda on June 10, 1704 describing the latest English-sponsored attacks on the Florida missions in Apalachee. Through an NAIS framework, this deeply colonial text began to read differently.

It was not as if the content of the epistle suddenly changed. The letter still discussed the violent and destructive slaving raids in eighteenth century Apalachee. But by not privileging the Spanish fears or fantasies within the document, I could create a new story for and about Apalachee. Rather than an unbending historical arc that led solely to loss, destruction, and death, I could use the letter to foreground enduring indigenous epistemologies, to center the varied, lived experiences of Apalachees, and to challenge the declension narratives of Indian slavery. Taking seriously Apalachee futures and contingencies within an essay built on a traditional, “meat and potatoes” historical source and approach allowed me to showcase the intellectual, narrative, and historical possibilities afforded by NAIS methodologies.

Unsurprisingly, the review process for the forum was arduous. As an author, I had a lot to say about the place, time, and people that I study. But as a forum participant, I had to engage with a broader discussion. The many reviewers of the original and revised piece offered a wide variety of suggestions about how to explain, expand, and improve the work. Taken all together, their comments proved longer than the original version of the essay I had submitted! I had initially thought that my focus on a single document would make the editing and revising processes simpler. But once again, I was wrong. After my initial reviews, I felt overwhelmed, as if I was in the trenches holding on to a single piece of evidence to diffuse any concern and address all the lengthy recommendations.

But thankfully I was not alone. I was part of a forum and its editors got in the trenches alongside me. They recommended new readings; made structural suggestions; and encouraged me to think deeper about the Spanish archive. Before I knew it, I was holding onto more than a single archival document; I had a whole theoretical framework in my arsenal. Writing was suddenly a collaborative and collegial endeavor. Forums are supposed to generate conversation and reaction. For me, that dialogue begun early in the process. It made me a sharper thinker. It made me a more informed and conscientious writer. In the end, participating in the forum did not make my essay get published easier or faster in the Quarterly, but it made me a better historian.


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