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Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode

Earlier this year I became a member of the American Historical Association. I did so at the urging of a reader of my blog who is a member. After expressing some reluctance, I was finally persuaded to join. As part of the membership, I subsequently received The American Historical Review, the rather hefty journal of the organization.

While perusing the unexpected delivery, I came across a series of articles that was described in the “In the Review Session” as follows:

[T]he issue includes a vigorous “AHR Exchange” about the methodological presuppositions of historians working within the field of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS). In a review of two recent books, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks, and Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast, by Christine M. DeLucia, David J. Silverman (George Washington University) claims that these prizewinning historians, and NAIS historians in general, appear overly credulous in their reliance on indigenous sources and narratives, and overly skeptical or critical of those produced by the colonizers. Christine M. DeLucia (Williams College) and three eminent scholars of Native American history—Philip J. Deloria (Harvard University), Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (University at Buffalo [SUNY]), and Jean M. O’Brien (University of Minnesota)—respond to Silverman’s broadside and defend the field’s methods and governing assumptions, which they claim he has misconstrued. The hope is that readers, whatever their views on this question, the books under review, or the field of NAIS more generally, will find this a productive and illuminating exchange.

I can vouch for the exchange being very energetic and illuminating.


Before commenting on the articles I should explain their fascination to me. At the time I was reading them, I had just completed my contribution to a book entitled Five Views of the Exodus (to be published next spring). As the title suggests, five people were invited to contribute their understanding of the Exodus. Each contribution was up to 10,000 words. Upon the editing of our chapter, we then received the contributions of the other four participants. At that point, we wrote up to 2000 words on each for a total of 8000 words. Upon the editing of those comments, we received what the other four people had written about our own contribution. Then we wrote a 1000 word rejoinder. This was later modified so we each received all the comments and had up to 1500 words.

Let me simply say that there was some tension in the writings. So after going through this experience, I was interested to see how this apparently contentious exchange on a completely different subject would work out.

The second reason for my interest derived from my participation in The 400 Years Project:  A Countywide Collaborative here in Westchester, New York, where I live. This group was formed in 2019, the 400th anniversary of 1619. As part of the group I inquired about the origin of slavery in Westchester where we all lived. I never got a precise answer but I did learn about an event in 1685 in the Town of Rye where I live. Nine “Angolans” were brought ashore (I have a general idea where it probably occurred). Eight of them were marched across the county to help build the Upper Mills at Philipsburg Manor. This event was known to both the Rye Historical Society and Philipsburg Manor but is not widely known. In the course of investigating the event, I backtracked to modern Angola. I read about the Portuguese and also the Dutch and the English. I also read about the Kongo, Mbundu, and Imbangala. This action in 1685 was fairly close in time to King Phillip’s War and involved peoples of different races and conflicts. The AHR articles provided an opportunity to compare the European/African scholarship I had been reading with the European/Indian scholarship.

The issues raised in the articles were threefold.

1.The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) – its status and the quality of the scholarship it fosters
2. What actually happened in history?
3. Whether the use of the capitalized word “Indigenous” adds to or subtracts from the scholarship.

In the remainder of this blog, I will address only the first point.

David Silverman

Silverman opens his review with praise for NAISA: its scholars pose “a significant and productive challenge to the historical study of America’s Indigenous people.” It does so by urging scholars to understand that history from their point of view and to treat them as agents in their own history. That observation leads to a BUT over how it is done: this scholarship should be done “collaboratively” and not just “consultatively.”

According to Silverman, the results have been mixed. On the one hand, NAISA has reached out to new audiences such that “tribal knowledge keepers” now attend NAISA conferences. On the other hand, traditional scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in American history have tended to avoided attending those very conferences. [He did not mention limited budgets and time as factors.] The suggested explanation is that these scholars find NAIS (the scholars, not the Association) to be “too presentist and beholden to identity politics.” As a result, NAIS does not engage in honest study when such topics would “chafe against modern sensibilities” especially of the very people with whom the scholars are collaborating. Silverman questions whether or not these collaborations produce “more accurate histories” or are for “academic politics.” As I read these fighting words I thought of it as a conflict between an advocate of “real history” versus “politically-corrected history.”

Silverman questions the objectivity in the scholarship of the two books under review. He comments that Brooks, who is (part?) Abenaki,

…adopts a perspective commonly heard in New England native circles, that their people’s sachems (or chiefs) in the seventeenth century normally acted in accord with high-minded, community-based principles unless Europeans managed to corrupt them. Only then would they behave selfishly, violently, or vindictively. This idealistic notion of the Native past permeates Brooks’s telling.

In this scenario, the motives of the Natives are pure while the English are not regardless of the “manufactured” written or documentary evidence. Silverman contends this approach “flattens the historical actors,” perhaps a polite way of saying it makes them two-dimensional. As a result, this scholarship ignores the decision-making process within the Indigenous communities. He then more strongly admonishes Brooks who “has abandoned basic standards for handling evidence to scrub the historical record and, I would contend, infantilize her historical subjects.” I think these qualify as fighting words whether true or not.

For Silverman, the problem noted here is repeated in other examples (to be addressed under Point 2). He concludes by stating that “Brooks avoidance of this difficult history is too bad… [but t]he book’s serious flaws should not eclipse such breakthrough findings” in her research.

Silverman then turns to DeLucia. His opening words are “DeLucia’s mishandling of evidence is much more subtle than Brook’s, but also consequential.” After noting some positive actions, Silverman writes: “my confidence in DeLucia’s otherwise vibrant account is shaken by her cherry picking of which Native memories to discuss in order to reduce subjecting some of the more provocative ones to academic scrutiny.”  The reason for this approach derives from the longstanding exploitation by white scholars of Native consultants who ridicule them. DeLucia’s is responding to such mistreatment in her “decolonizing methodology.”  Unfortunately that results in “the impossibility of reconciling our disciplinary and political commitments,” meaning  the obligation to be politically correct trumps good scholarship. For Silverman, DeLucia’s “mishandling” detracts from the informative discussion through the omission. “Herein lies the dilemma of the NAIS approach.”

In his wrap-up, Silverman more explicitly returns to the concept of “dimensions.” He observes what he perceives as the failure to examine the subjects “in three-dimensional form.” He suggests as a reason that “a decolonizing agenda does not permit such nuance because treating the darker sides of the Native past risks evoking tropes of savagery so powerful in American culture that they overwhelm all other themes.”  This observation serves as a reminder that scholarship does not occur in an ivory tower especially when the general public is involved. By that I mean, readers bring with them their own views including stereotypes so no matter what a scholar writes it is going to be filtered through the prisms of the readers.

Silverman concludes by elaborating on the famous saying of Jack Nicholson without mentioning it: “You can’t handle the truth!” His contention is that critical history has a tendency to upset people particularly if one wants to remember ancestors favorably. An historian who delves into history risks alienating the people with whom the historian is collaborating. Silverman has no answer for the problem. However, he opines that he “question[s] whether, in the long run, recasting history in the interest of modern sensibilities has much to offer Indigenous communities” meaning they can’t handle the truth.

Christine DeLucia

DeLucia fires back at Silverman from the start of her response. In effect, she identifies Silverman as part of the problem in the effort to decolonize the American Historical Review. Her faint praise for his selection as reviewer is because “[i]t clearly exposes the continuing resistance that NAIS scholars face in carrying out challenging forms of community-engaged historical work. Instead of a thoughtful review, Silverman has created “a polarizing attempt to delegitimize forms of inquiry.” She defines him as one of the self-appointed “gatekeepers over the means by which history is researched, interpreted and expressed.”

DeLucia takes umbrage at the accusation of “presentism.” His polarizing polemic is pejorative and “disengaged from decades of flourishing scholarship.” The oral traditions of a people about their own history are not fantasies. Just because Silverman prefers a different book is not grounds for casting this book as “mishandling of evidence.” She calls that comment “a serious scholarly accusation” and finds fault with the editors for letting that charge slide. It should be noted that Brooks, the other author under review and who is disparaged did not contribute to this exchange. Whether she was invited to or not, I do not know.

I turn now to the non-author responses.

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant

Mt. Pleasant begins by touting the recognition and awards received by Brooks and DeLucia for the two books under review. She recounts the history of the NAISA citing another article in the footnotes from a roundtable held by William and Mary Quarterly and Early American Literature that Silverman also had noted. In a full study of NAISA it would be appropriate to pursue this avenue further and do additional readings but that is beyond the scope of this blog and my interest. Mt. Pleasant’s intention seems to be to certify the academic bona fides of the executive leaders of the organization and its working relationship with scholars outside the organization. She expresses her “loss to explain why someone of his [Silverman’s] stature would compose a dishonest accounting of colleagues’ work.

Philip J. Deloria

Deloria observes that Silverman has expanded the opportunity to review two books to offer a critical assessment of the entire field of Native American and Indigenous studies. He too, draws on the same roundtable Mt. Pleasant cites. Deloria asserts that NAISA was founded in part “to address the frequent tokenization and fragmentation of Native studies and topics and scholars in professional organizations.” To buttress that claim, he cites the founding documents of the organization, its presidential addresses, and some articles [not specified].

Deloria challenges Silverman’s criticism of NAISA for its flawed navigation of the scholarship, politics, and epistemologies by stating these issues extend beyond NAIS scholars into other fields as well. I wasn’t quite sure about the value of this argument. It seems to support the idea that Silverman is right about Brooks and DeLucia but that other scholars and in other fields succumb to the same shortcomings so why pick on these two people. By so doing, Deloria has raised a larger issue about the discipline of history itself which may not have been his intention.

Deloria differs on whether the guidelines laid out in the roundtable should be read as “prescriptions” although he recognizes that they could be. He then lists the “four fundamental promises” which I will not list here but which are useful for those of us who have not read the roundtable essays. He avers that they are not “particularly controversial.”

Deloria then proceeds into a gray area. First, scholarship has consequences for the Native peoples. Second scholars should anticipate those consequences. Third scholars should make such considerations visible in their scholarship. Fourth, Native peoples might not want veto power over the scholarship but simply may “want the recognition of some measure of authority over themselves.” Here Deloria means well but the devil is in the details. In any given instance, one person may conclude that the scholar has given the subject people veto power of the scholarship while another may interpret the scholarship differently. The practical application of Deloria’s points means all NAISA scholarship inevitably will be subject to scrutiny over whether the political trumped the scholarship. One can make the case that personal agendas affect all scholars. But the problem is magnified here due to the more intimate relationship between the scholar and the subject people due to ethnic affiliation, the “collaborative” approach, and the desire to right past mistreatments.

Another very constructive inclusion in the Deloria comment is the passage from a critical essay by Jace Weaver entitled “More Light Than Heat” written when NAISA was being formed.

“I write with affection as someone who loves NAS. Because I write out of that love, I may also express a few uncomfortable truths, to which some will no doubt objectnot because they are untrue but simply because the objectors perceive that in Indian circles they are politically incorrect.

Following that preface, Weaver began the pummeling:

Our field is a mess. There is much more poor and sloppy scholarship being produced than solid, thoughtful, and innovative work . . . There is careerism. There are silly rivalries and petty jealousies. What does this mean? That were a discipline like any other . . . We sometimes seem pushed into taking what is perceived to be the most Native-affirmativeposition on any issue . . . we take tantalizing skeins and insist that they are bolts of whole cloth, when more nuanced readings would be more in conformity with the data while being no less affirmative of Natives and their agency . . . Commitment to Native community does not mean wallowing in victimhood and guilt. Nor does it mean presenting the most Indianside of everything, in the face of contrary evidence. And it certainly does not mean surrendering our research to tribal councils. It means service to Native peoples. But it also means being committed to truth, accuracy, and academic freedom.        

Deloria concludes “while it might indeed be the case that NAIS needs another Weaverian drubbing about now, it is not clear that Silverman has earned the right to administer it.” Who has? Who does Deloria think should take the lead in performing the self-diagnostic that NAIS needs?

Deloria questions whether Silverman has sufficient number of examples from two books and one published roundtable of essays to make sweeping judgements. He expresses concern that “Silverman’s lightly sourced inductive conclusions about an entire field might too easily become an opening premise for other historians encountering work in Native American and Indigenous studies.” In his concluding sentence, Deloria calls for “a detailed historiographic state-of-the field essay” to be persuasive. Who will write it?

Jean O’Brien

O’Brien writes as a cofounder and past president of NAISA, a past co-editor of its journal, and as one who has praised the two books under review. In her brief comments she twice notes that the books were “prizewinning” and that the organization’s journal has been too. She provides some brief information on the organization and lists the six founding principles of the organization. O’Brien acknowledges that Silverman is correct that non-Native scholars generally avoid NAISA conferences. She seems to recognize that Silverman’s depiction of NAISA’s academic shortcomings may be shared by these other scholars thereby explaining why they do not attend.

Note: I am amazed that once again there is no mention of the cost of attending conferences, the time factor, or why scholars might prefer a larger more umbrella conference than a more narrowly-focused one. Better book vendors?

O’Brien expresses amazement at the depiction of NAISA by Silverman and wonders about its origin. She characterizes it as a “caricature”. She notes that NAIS scholars continue to attend annual conferences in their discipline in addition to the NAISA conference. She then makes a telling comment: “even in the face of our ongoing marginalization.”  Here one may observe the oral tradition behind the textual one of founding documents and principles. Since NAISA touts the importance of oral tradition and objects to the privileging of written sources over oral, it is appropriate to focus on this brief comment.

There is a personal factor to the formation of the organization that has not been mentioned amidst all the academic talk. Human beings felt that they were being treated as second class members and then decided to form their own organization where their voices could be heard. This comment provides the background to why she mentions “prizewinning” three times and Mt. Pleasant does once: we NAIS scholars are just as good as you traditional ones. Silverman has touched a raw nerve with his comments. He didn’t simply criticize the scholarship of people; he brought back all the memories of why NAISA was created in the first place – to be free of precisely that type of dismissal of their work.  The responses serve as a reminded that scholars are people too.

Silverman Rejoinder

After reading these responses to his review, Silverman expresses surprise. He does offer praise for the work of the respondents and avers that we are all “members of the same team.” He denies that his review was “a general attack on NAISA.” He considers it a “cautionary warning” about a dangerous trend in NAISA scholarship that can undermine the good that it has accomplished.

Speaking as an outsider, I can say that Silverman did launch a general attack on NAISA. It probably was not his original intent. What began as a review of two books morphed into an attack when he detected what he saw as common problems in the two books. He had not been asked to conduct “a detailed historiographic state-of-the field essay” as Deloria suggested was needed. Still despite the various good cheer he tried to dispense at various intervals, the underlying premise conveyed in his review is that there exists a systemic problem right now that needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets any worse. I am not saying such a problem exists; I am saying that is the message he delivered as I read review.

His rejoinder also acknowledges a failure to communicate.

“The respondents’ shared reaction tells me that even established NAISA scholars, despite the remarkable success of the organization and several of its champions, still believe that have to fight for recognition, respect, and job security.”

Yes, Silverman is dealing with people with bruised egos sensitive to criticism that attacks their efforts to cope with their marginalized status. Silverman draws on his own experiences in dealing with descendant communities.

“My exchanges with modern Indigenous people, though normally constructive, collegial, and frank, have included sometimes tense explorations about difficult issues in the people’s past and, for that matter, the failure of academic historians to treat Native American history and Native communities with respect.”

Silverman doesn’t give “tight-knit communities a pass. They “have suppressed, denied, and misunderstood certain uncomfortable or otherwise difficult historical truths.” When scholars discover something that is offensive or unfathomable to excise or sanitize the result is the support of “the progressive politics of decolonization” and flawed history. These comments remind me of the common claim that “land” had different meanings to the two parties of treaties: sold or right to use. I can’t help but wonder if something similar is happening with the term “history.” In these collaborations touted by NAIS scholars, are the subjects made aware that they might not like the results and that to “collaborate” does not equate with “to praise”? Do they understand that including a previously excluded voice does not equate with “accepting” that voice as true. I write this having no idea as to how NAIS scholars prepare the collaborating community for what historical research actually entails.

Silverman adds a practical point I hadn’t considered. He worries “about academics needlessly pestering small communities and overburdened tribal historic preservation offices to contribute to their esoteric research. If community collaboration is going to become a de facto requirement in NAISA, problems will result. Some descendant communities will say “no.” Some communities are not geographically readily accessible to distant scholars who don’t have the time or money to travel to such communities. When I think of the typically small municipal historical societies in the towns and villages, I realize how overwhelmed they would be if academics suddenly were perched at their doors on the days and hours when they are open because they want to write a history of the community.

Before turning to the history itself, I would like to make some general comments about the issues Silverman raised regarding the NAISA.

1. What happens when the people with whom you are collaborating turn out to be human beings and not idealized two-dimensional paragons of virtue?

Consider these excerpts about a similar issue in Egyptology.

Moreover, the negative, primitive associations of cannibalism do not fit well with the romanticized version of Egypt as a civilized ‘High Culture’. Such assessment, however reflects more of the preconceptions of traditional Western scholarship than the reality of ancient ideals or behavior….Egyptology has tended to idealise pharaonic Egypt as honorary ‘us’ rather than negative ‘them’…..Scholarship that sees Egypt as High Culture has no room for the wild and primitive, so that the theme of cannibalism is shocking to its cultural assumptions [Christopher Eyre, The Cannibal Hymn: A Cultural and Literary Study (Bolton: Liverpool University Press, 2002), 153-154].

As another Egyptologist notes:

…the more a topic touches on the scholars’ religious and political viewpoints, the less they are able or willing to evaluate the evidence as objectively as possible. The same is true of topics that touch on subjects to which we have strong emotional reactions. [Kerry Muhlestein, “Death by Water: The Role of Water in Ancient Egypt’s Treatment of Enemies and Juridical Process,” Alessa Amenta, Maria Michele Luiselli, Maria Novella Sordi, ed., in L’Acqua Nell’antico Egitto: vita, rigenerazione, incantesimo, medicamento (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2005), 173-179].

This Egyptologist is referring to the perception among scholars that they, the cultured educated intellectuals of Western Civilization are the “cultural inheritors of Egypt” who therefore put on “intellectual blinders” so as not to see their cultural ancestors engage in such repellent behavior (page 5).

The repellent behavior is human sacrifice.

“[The discoveries of retainer sacrifice] are embarrassing for Egyptologists who like to stress how relatively humane the ancient Egyptians were” [Emily Teeter in  John Noble, Wilford “With Escorts to the Afterlife, Pharaohs Proved Their Power,” New York Times, March 16, 2004, Section F, Page 3].

These Egyptologists are not biologically connected to the ancient Egyptians. They are not in direct physical contact with any living ones either. Their collaboration with the subject community is through archaeology, not oral tradition. Yet the personal ties with the ancient Egyptians still can skew scholarship. The ancient Egyptians had human sacrifice and did so for millennia. Egyptologists have had to learn to deal with that unpleasant fact.

I wonder if NAIS scholars have had a similar epiphany with their living collaborators and if so, how they communicate this knowledge to them. The issue here is one of human nature. My reading of the AHR articles leads to me doubt that NAIS scholars can have this personal discussion when their mission to let the previously excluded voices be heard.

2. Prizewinning Books and Journals

Now consider a political example. Suppose you had the resumes listing the prizes, awards, and honors achieved by the white male Mitch McConnell judicial nominations. What effect would it have on you? The answer is “none.” If you supported those nominees you would simply say, “See! Our conservative judges are just as smart as the elitist liberal ones. They even went to the same schools!” If you opposed the nominees you would be dismissive of the awards except maybe to fear how effective the nominees might be in imposing their backward agenda if they were appointed.

What these awards show is membership in the club. In the case of the McConnell nominations, the club is the Federalist Society; in the case of scholars, it is academic organizations. For me, as a defense against the accusations of Silverman, the brandishing of trophies is weak. Yes, the prizewinning authors and journal are part of the forces of light. That is not a meaningful response for me.

What is does show, as I noted above, is the sensitivity of NAISA to charge that its scholarship is second rate. No matter how many times Silverman praises the work of NAIS scholars and states he has learned from it and use it in his classes, what comes across is the “cut to the chase” part, the huge BUT that follows. Despite all Silverman’s attempts at sugarcoating his accusations by surrounding them with praise, ultimately it is the denunciations that shine through and are remembered. Deloria’s concern that Silverman’s criticisms will become the premise for other historians encountering NAIS scholarship probably misses the point. I suspect more likely Silverman is expressing a view that already exists out there among the scholars who do not attend NAISA conferences or subscribe to its collaborative “requirements.”

To conclude this portion of the review focusing on NAISA:

1. there is a need for a “detailed historiographic state-of-the field essay”
2. there is a need for a “Weaverian” drubbing or self-diagnostic
3. there is a need for guidelines on how to prepare subject people that they may not like the results of the research
4. there is a need for guidelines to remind the scholar that the goal of the research is not to be the cheerleader for a previously silenced or abused voice
5. there is a need to recognize that changing from two dimensional Indian savages to two dimensional Native American kumbaya is still two-dimensional
6. there needs for better communication between NAISA and the organization(s) it broke away from (joint panels at each other’s conferences?) or else just an acceptance of a permanent division.

There is a difference between carving out a niche from a large organization by creating a smaller organization (for example, SHEAR) and creating an alternate organization. If NAISA’s preference is the latter then it should expect reviews like Silverman’s.

The next blog will examine the historical accusations made by Silverman especially related to violence.