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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · July 23, 2020

NAIS is Central to Early American Scholarship

NAIS 15 min read

By Joshua Piker and Karin Wulf

If Early American history had a traditional newspaper a number of events over the last months would have produced top-of-the-fold, all-caps headlines about Native American and Indigenous Studies. One of these was the April publication of an exchange in the American Historical Review entitled  “Historians and Native American and Indigenous Studies.”  Begun as a review of Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War and Christine DeLucia’s Memory Lands:  King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast,the exchange was framed in large part by reference to a forum in the William and Mary Quarterly.   The back and forth between the principal author, David Sillverman, and respondents DeLucia, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Philip Deloria, and Jean O’Brien has generated a great deal of discussion within the community of early American scholars.  We encourage readers who have not yet reviewed the AHR exchange to evaluate it for themselves 

Given its centrality to the AHR exchange, we thought it would be useful to share our perspective on the significance of the WMQ forum and our understanding of the ways that NAIS is informing and expanding early American scholarship.  Although Josh is a scholar of early Native American history, neither of us is a specialist in NAIS methods.  Rather, we come to NAIS as historians of early America, as readers and teachers of this vast field, and from our respective positions at the OI.

The April 2018 WMQ forum on “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies” was jointly published with Early American Literature.  The full forum consisted of an introductory essay, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies:  Completing the Turn,” jointly authored by Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, and seven articles.  “Materials and Methods” appeared in both the WMQ and EAL, along with four articles in the former journal and three in the latter.  Lisa Brooks, David Chang, Christian Crouch, and Alejandra Dubcovsky authored the articles in the WMQ.  

Though the AHR exchange directly cited only “Materials and Methods,” the conception and execution of the full forum is important.  As Mt. Pleasant, Wigginton, and Wisecup note, two sessions at the joint Society of Early Americanists-Omohundro Institute conference in Chicago in 2015 served as the immediate inspiration for the forum.  But critically these authors underline the long history of calls for fuller engagement with the Native American past, including in the nineteenth century from Haudenosuanee scholar David Cusick and Pequot writer and activist William Apess.  In the WMQ such calls include James Merrell’s 1989 “Some Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians” and 2012 “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.”  In other words, the forum was forthrightly positioned within the longer history of debates around how to incorporate not only Native American history as  a subject, but also Native American knowledge and perspectives.

“Materials and Methods” argues that scholars can “move beyond the cycle of calls…for change by engaging “in structural and substantial ways with the materials and methods of Native American and Indigenous Studies.”  In reviewing recent issues of the WMQ and EAL the authors conclude that “many scholars are eager to incorporate Native and Indigenous materials and methods but remain uncertain about whether or how to complete the turn” by, for example, moving beyond colonial archives and colonial representations of Native peoples.  With the explicit purpose of supporting such scholars, then, the authors lay out the potential and practice of NAIS, beginning with a working definition that acknowledges that NAIS methodology is by no means monolithic and has a long history.

We quote their working definition in full (albeit without two footnotes):

“For the purposes of this Forum, we take NAIS to be an established and evolving interdisciplinary field defined by key tenets: first, that Native people were and continue to be active presences who shape texts, political discourse, and historical events, none of which have predetermined forms or outcomes; second, that Native people have always communicated and expressed themselves in a variety of media, from speeches to images to inscribed materials; third, that Native communities and their knowledge bearers, past and present, possess expertise critical to our fields’ analytic and interpretive work; and fourth, that Native literatures and histories manifest tribally specific genres, languages, chronologies, and geographic boundaries, which often contrast with European phenomena. 

These four tenets in turn have implications for scholarly methodologies, with the result that NAIS analyzes Indigenous peoples’ intellectual traditions, literatures, histories, and sociopolitical formations; foregrounds Native perspectives and contexts as foundational to accurate and conscientious scholarship; and shows that scholars are responsible for knowing that what they say about the past and how they say it has an ethical obligation to and tangible impact upon descendant communities and polities. If early Americanists take up NAIS’s methods as delineated here, they can ask different questions, return to established topics from new perspectives, and find novel approaches to the materials—some that are quite familiar, some that will be less so—at the center of their research. Scholarship of this sort promises to transform intra- and interdisciplinary conversations with new methods and new orientations to our disciplinary expertise.” 

Those tenets and implications produce scholarship that the OI seeks to support and publish.  A recognition that Native peoples have been and remain central to their histories and those of their neighbors; an attention to contingency, context, and the influence of people who some assume are marginal; a commitment to consulting a wide range of sources and experts and producing nuanced and far-reaching accounts; a willingness to foreground and learn from diverse perspective; and an acknowledgment that our histories are connected to our presents, with all the ethical obligations that entails — we endorse all of that.  In fact, we applaud it.

Resistance to NAIS often focuses on that last point in a way that can, depending on the critic, range from perplexing to insidious.  There is an assertion that NAIS insistence that Native peoples have knowledge and knowledge practices that would better inform our histories might constitute a veto power by Native communities (should they find a scholar’s conclusions problematic).  While it is true that the consequences of scholars’ research and writing for Native communities are a serious matter, we have never found any evidence in our work at the OI or the WMQ that NAIS methods produce this outcome.  What we have found instead is that taking the time to attend to the concerns and interests of descendent communities produces scholarship that manages to be at once superb and ethical.  

The WMQ forum is an obvious example, having won ‘best article’ prizes from both NAIS and the WMQ’s Editorial Board.  (As Editor, Josh is in the room for prize-related conversation, but OI bylaws prohibit him from either taking part in the discussion–except to answer questions–or voting.)  Another example would be Christine DeLucia herself.  Just two weeks ago, the WMQ’s Editorial Board awarded her the 2020 Adair Prize, given to the best article published in the WMQ over the last six years, for “Fugitive Collections in New England Indian Country: Indigenous Material Culture and Early American History Making at Ezra Stiles’s Yale Museum” (2018).  As her blog post about the piece makes clear, the journal’s copyediting process was wrapping up when a late-breaking, all but ‘stop the presses’ agreement between the Mohegan Tribe and Yale necessitated both a full rewrite of the article’s conclusion and a series of consultations with friends and colleagues among the Mohegans.  Doing so was, in DeLucia’s words, “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.”     

We know that scholarship can be shaped by pressures of many kinds.  Scholars may pursue particular projects or refrain from pursuing others, or praise or critique scholarship for a host of reasons–including those that may be opaque to themselves and to others until the passage of time offers a fresh vantage.  Just as importantly, scholars have always recognized that their work would have implications within the world in which they live.  Many have hoped that their work would be informative to the project of American democracy, explaining the origins of the nation and advancing its more admirable ideals.  Others have looked to the roots of Black liberation, or Indigenous nationhood, or gendered forms of power and privilege, or…. the list, of course, is endless, which is exactly as it should be given that the implications of early American history for the world we live in are also endless.  Our colleagues who seek to enact NAIS methods and ethics are thus hardly alone in their concern for the implications of the histories that we publish and teach.  But they have been particularly forthright about the stakes of their scholarship, and they have worked to shape their methodologies to account for imperatives that are at once scholarly and ethical.  

It is still, as ever, the scholar’s task to marshall evidence to inform an argument that they hope will have an impact on their peers and their world, and it is ever the reader’s task to assess the relationship between evidence and argument and to evaluate the work that a particular piece of scholarship does — within the reader’s own understanding of the issues at hand, within the field’s ongoing conversations, and within the world at large.  Although you may be unpersuaded by a scholar’s work, that doesn’t make the history wrong.  

It is the position of the OI that the complex and diverse early American past is best served by a diverse community of scholars representing multiple kinds of expertise.  Seeking new ways to understand that past and its relevance for the present through challenging methodology, fresh theoretical perspectives, and different kinds of sources has been a hallmark of the early American field.  We encourage all of our readers to consider and to engage with the NAIS tenets and implications outlined in the WMQ forum.

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