June 02, 2021
9 min read
By Cameron B. Strang
Cameron B. Strang is an associate professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. His piece “Pursuing Knowledge, Surviving Empire: Indigenous Explorers in the Removal Era” appears in the April 2021 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly.
I’ve been thinking about writing a history of Indigenous explorers for about a decade. I can’t remember how I first came up with the idea, but by the time I was first on the job market in 2012, the idea had secured itself as my go-to answer for any interview questions about a second big project. I pondered this topic off and on over the next several years while tackling the much more immediate challenge of finishing my first book, but when I did finally turn to Indigenous explorers in earnest, the shocking quantity of source material blew me away. The usual question I’d heard when mentioning this topic had been something like “that sounds cool, but are there sources?,” to which I didn’t really have an answer. In retrospect, I think I became overly excited by the richness of the documentation I was finding, and my (misguided) instinct was to write a kind of sweeping thematic article, one that jumped across periods and places to include all of the most fascinating material I could cram in. The problem (well, one of the problems) with these first drafts was that I’d failed to account for that most basic of historical contexts: time.
After some humbling critiques, I narrowed down my time span to the era of Indian removal in the United States (roughly the late 1700s to mid 1800s) and sent it off to the WMQ. But the Quarterly’s readers made yet another point that should have already been obvious to me: that the history of Indigenous exploration and travel before the late eighteenth century was crucial to understanding events in that era. In other words, my struggles with adequately writing time into the essay continued.
I couldn’t help noticing a pattern. A few years earlier, I’d sent the first draft of my book manuscript to the then Omohundro Institute book editor, Fredrika Teute, who gently suggested I extend the starting point of the book back in time about 300 years. This took some doing, but it paid off: all of a sudden (by which I mean slowly and painfully), the research I’d already done on the era around 1800 started to make a lot more sense in light of the history that came before it. The book, I think, was much better as a result.
Maybe I’m a slow learner because there I was once again sending a temporally shallow manuscript to an OI editor (this time at the Quarterly) and getting the same sound advice: go back in time to make sense of the period you’re examining. I did so—doing extensive research on oral histories, archaeological records, and the earlier colonial era—and, surprise surprise, this deeper history once more proved transformative. It helped me recognize that the expeditions of the removal era were part of an older tradition of exploratory travel in which searching for new homelands and allies offered a means of escaping or ameliorating the most harmful aspects of destructive forces, including colonialism. Rethinking chronology—or rewriting time, if you will—had once more helped me figure out what was going on and why it mattered.
But the biggest challenge in completing this article was not writing historical time in the essay but finding time to write in the present. As many of you have probably found, the Covid-19 pandemic has made writing hard. To be clear, I recognize that I’m coming from a position of privilege and have avoided many of the challenges facing scholars who are neither white nor male: as Joshua Piker’s “Editor’s Note” in the April 2021 WMQ made clear, universities have made it particular difficult for scholars from underrepresented groups to make time for scholarship. Still, it was tough. Both of my young kids were out of preschool for most of last year, and my partner and I were both working from home.
I had, luckily, written and submitted the original draft of “Pursuing Knowledge, Surviving Empire” before Covid-19 hit. But responding to the eight(!) readers over two rounds of heavy revisions fell squarely in the thick of the pandemic. And, as I scrambled to research and write during the kids’ naptime or woke up at 4:30 in hopes of getting in a few hours of work before transforming into stay-at-home (literally) dad mode, I sometimes found myself asking if the effort was worth it. This question, too, came from a position of privilege: I got tenure last year, which was wonderful, but also came with a sense that maybe I didn’t need to be hustling as hard as I had been in the days when publishing felt like the difference between job or no job, tenure or no tenure. There is also no direct financial incentive for me to work on articles at this point: my university hasn’t given “merit raises” for publications since the 2008 recession. In short, I found myself tempted to throw up my hands, limit work to teaching and service, and catch up on some sleep.
But I kept going because writing this essay made me happier. During the long 2020—when the world seemed like an endlessly repeating Groundhog Day of disease, anxiety, political turmoil, and wildfire smoke—working to respond to the readers’ critiques and tell the history of Indigenous explorers as well as I could gave me a sense of directionality amid the year’s bleak redundancy. Researching and narrating the past, strangely, helped me feel like time still existed in the present.
For now, though, I’m taking a break from writing. Like a lot of us, the pandemic has left me intellectually and emotionally wiped out, and now that I’m starting to reenter a world that seems to once again operate along a linear timeline, stepping back from writing for a bit feels important to both letting my thinking on this project mature and enjoying some of the many aspects of life beyond my house that I had taken for granted. So, while I’m excited about continuing my research on exploration, writing time can wait.