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The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented?

Founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) is the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. The mission of the organization is to promote excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and to encourage wide discussion of historical questions and the equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.

The OAH represents more than 7,000 historians working in the U.S. and abroad. Our members include college and university professors, precollegiate teachers, archivists, museum curators, public historians, students, and a variety of scholars employed in government and the private sector.

The OAH conference was scheduled for earlier this month in Washington, D.C. As you might expect it was cancelled. The abstracts for the conference are available online. I had worked out a schedule of sessions I would have liked to attend. Those sessions reflect my own interests and not necessarily those of anyone else. I am particularly drawn to topics related to what I understand as relevant to history organizations, teachers, and simply my own personal interests. This blog then is a continuation of a series of blogs on conferences attended and not attended. It addresses a reflection of the fact that even if you can attend a conference, you cannot attend all the sessions you might like to attend and secondly, even if there had been no Covid-19, not everyone can attend such conferences in the first place.

This blog will cover sessions on the American Indians. As it turns out, they are almost all about the Plains Indians with nothing on the Woodlands Indians.

Where is the Bonga Family in Immigration History? Recovering an African, Swedish, and Ojibwe Genealogy, 1820s–1860s

Jacob Fahlstrom is widely cited as the first Swede to live in Minnesota. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, he worked first for the Hudson’s Bay Company and then the American Fur Company and later became a Methodist preacher. In 1823 Fahlstrom married Margaret Bonga, an African Ojibwe woman from a prominent fur trade family. In countless narratives depicting Fahlstrom’s immigration first from Stockholm to Canada, and then from Canada into the region known today as Minnesota, the life of Fahlstrom’s wife has been astonishingly obscured in the shadows. Margaret Bonga Fahlstrom, who was married to Fahlstrom for over 35 years, has a fascinating story of her own that provides meaningful insight into regional and global history. In St. Paul–the capital of Minnesota–are public monuments memorializing Jacob Fahlstrom, signaling public remembrance of him. But how has his wife’s role and identity been remembered? What is the significance of publicly forgetting her? Margaret Bonga’s role in the narratives of local regional history is largely ignored while focus has been steadfastly maintained on Jacob. Without Margaret, however, it is unlikely that he would have secured the work or achieved the social positions that have drawn the attention of historians, scholars, and the general public. This paper looks at how settler colonial narratives shaped the historiography to marginalize Margaret Bonga’s story and to erase her as a woman of African ancestry. Using this couple as a focus point, I consider the intersections of the fields of early immigration history, Native American history, and public history and memory.

Presented By Mattie Harper DeCarlo, Minnesota Historical Society

My interest in this presentation derives from the efforts to classify people into set categories only to realize that human beings tend to cross the boundary lines and are difficult to pigeonhole. For example, here in New York where I live, my interest has been sparked by the recent 400-year anniversary of slavery in Virginia [although there was no legal classification of slavery there then]( see 1619: The New York Times versus USA Today [and Hamilton] and The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community). In 1613, Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-probably-Angolan free male arrived here and later married a local Lenape woman. He has not totally been obscured since part of Broadway in the Dominican section of Manhattan is named after him, but he is not that well known either. And suppose there is an demographic change in the neighborhood as there has been in nearby Harlem, will the newcomers even know why the street has the name it does. Generally, in local communities, it is people like this to make the local story unique to that locality.

Still Indian Country: The Indigenous Northern Plains in the Twentieth Century

The northern Great Plains have been home to diverse societies including Lakotas, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Mandan, as well as Euro-Americans. Many historical narratives about the northern plains recognize them as a crucial zone of interaction and conflict in the seventeenth through end of the nineteenth centuries. In the past decade however, historians have taken a renewed interest in this region and its importance to the history of the North American continent in more recent times. Historians have specifically emphasized the continued presence of Native peoples and their centrality to the culture, economics, and politics of the modern northern plains, combining their histories with scholarly subfields and methodologies such as urban history, public history, and the history of religion.

This panel highlights the presence and importance of Native actors to the region’s history during the twentieth century. As Americans colonized the northern plains, they enforced a settler colonial social and political regime that dispossessed Native Americans of their land and sacred spaces, built cities and towns, and substantially altered the region’s ecology. The papers presented here emphasize both the history of settler colonialism and inequality in the region, as well as the ways in which Indigenous people resisted the homogenizing efforts of American society and adapted to changing circumstances; in short, how they remade and retained Indian Country on the northern plains. Native people adopted new religions, maintained their older ceremonies and material cultures, and remained constantly in motion during the twentieth century. This panel showcases the newest scholarship on the northern plains region of North America and in doing so, makes the argument that the northern plains are a central part of the story of race, settler colonialism, religion, and Indigenous resistance in the modern American West.

In the early years of the United States, it was the New York Indians who tended to become the defining image of American Indians thanks in part to the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Later the Plains Indians in the land of the buffalo became the more dominant national image. Hollywood in the 20th century loved the Northern Plains Indians and their landscapes. I am not very familiar with the real people who lived there so this session would have been an opportunity to broaden my horizons. The relevance for historical museums in New York and New England is to be able to inform visitors that all American Indians are not alike, they are not just indigenous, they have their own names, customs, and histories that differentiate them from each other as well as Woodland Indians.

Reclaiming Noaha-vose (Bear Butte): Cheyenne Resistance to Settler Colonialism in a Sacred Place

Noaha-vose or Bear Butte is a vital landscape for Cheyenne religious belief and practice. Cheyenne people have visited this site to pray, fast, and conduct national ceremonies for centuries. After Lt. Col. Armstrong Custer’s expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, however, life changed dramatically for Cheyenne people. By 1877, federal officials had ended Cheyenne treaty rights to the Black Hills and began the process of removing the Cheyenne living in the northern plains to Oklahoma. While these actions affected every facet of Cheyenne lifeways, this paper focuses on the effects on Cheyenne people’s ability to maintain the primacy of their relationship to Bear Butte. The barriers Cheyenne people experienced when attempting to access this sacred space severely restricted full practice of Cheyenne religion. Yet over the past one hundred and fifty years, Cheyenne people continued to travel to Bear Butte for ceremonies despite removal and the restrictions of reservation life. Since the end of World War II, Cheyenne people have begun to use new tools in their efforts to reclaim the mountain as sacred space and to gain recognition of this connection by nonnatives. This paper delineates Cheyenne efforts to continue to travel to Bear Butte during the most restrictive moments of the reservation period. It then explores the relationships Cheyenne people built between land owners and later the park service to retain their connection to the land. It argues that Cheyenne have used methods as varied as building relationships with landowners and park rangers, protesting development, and purchasing land to retain, rejuvenate, and protect their relationship to their sacred mountain, Noaha-vose. It posits that by engaging on multiple levels with the settlers who now inhabit the area, Cheyenne people have continued to remake their relationship with the land, ensuring their presence in their sacred landscape by challenging the inequalities of settler colonialism that have tried to erase it.

Presented By Christina Gish Hill, Iowa State University

Recently, Jews around the world celebrated Passover. The annual feast was different this year due to Covid-19. In some cases it was cancelled or done online. One of the lines recited in the ceremony is “Next year in Jerusalem.” In general terms, that thought has been part of the Jewish heritage since Babylonians destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE and forcibly removed people from Judah as the Assyrians earlier had done from Israel. The Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE created a second loss. After 1948, Jews lost access to the wall of the platform on which the temple was built [it is not a wall of the temple]. After 1967, Jews regained access. The site of the temple continues to be both holy and contentious. These ruminations are not a digression but are meant as a reminder that we are all human beings and as human beings we do something unique on this earth: we have sacred sites that become part of our culture from generation to generation…even when such sites are destroyed or access is denied. In this session, I would have had the opportunity to learn about the Cheyenne story.

There are more sessions to be covered and I think the coverage of the OAH conference will require more blogs than I originally expected.