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Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS)

OHERO:KON - UNDER THE HUSK which follows two Mohawk girls on their journey to become women. Together, they undertake a four-year rite of passage for adolescents, called Oheró:kon, or “under the husk.” (Women Make Movies) do they look like Man Eaters?

This blog continues the examination of the American Historical Review (AHR) Exchange on the topic of historians and Native American and Indigenous Studies. The exchange began due to the coincidence of AHR receiving two related books:

Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks
Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast by Christine M. DeLucia

AHR decided to use the serendipity to propose a “bundled ‘feature’ review” that addresses methodological developments in the NAIS field. The search for a reviewer led to David Silverman (George Washington University) for his expertise in violent conflicts, a seemingly sensible decision since the two books were about a single war.

The results surprised the AHR staff. They decided rather than just wait for angry letters to the editor in response to the review, they would reach out to some of the people likely to write such letters and give them a chance to participate in a formally designated exchange. The general comments related to methodology and the NAISA organization were covered in the first blog (Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode). Here I wish to focus on one aspect of the history of the war itself: violence.

Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks

David J. Silverman

Silverman comments on many facets of Brooks’s book in addition to violence. The purpose of the blog is not regurgitate everything he included in his review. Instead it is to focus on the specific points of contention meaning the treatment of violence.

1. Brooks also adopts a perspective common in descendant communities that Native people in the seventeenth-century New England were adverse to violence. 

Following this blanket assertion, Silverman provides some specifics.

2. She contends that Natives in seventeenth-century New England could not have conceived of the kind of large-scale, indiscriminate killing exhibited by the English in the Pequot War, even though the Haudenosaunees, with whom they were in regular contact, employed similarly bloody tactics against their Indigenous enemies in the eastern Great Lakes and in southern Ontario during the same period.

One thought which came to mind when reading this passage was did Silverman mean to suggest that Brooks was unaware of the Haudenosaunee actions or was she aware of them but didn’t think it applied to her New England Natives?

3. She suggests that Mohawk raids against the Nipmucs were for the purpose of “enforcing the protection and jurisdiction of their own Great Law.” She neglects to mention that New England Algonquians called these raiders “man eaters” and were terrified of them for good reason. [bold added]

Neglects because she didn’t know or neglects because she rejects the implication?

4. In Brooks’s telling, violent tribute-collecting raids by one community against another are not acts of extortion but expressions of love and kinship to restore balance to long-standing relationships.

I apologize but reading this phrase called to mind the recent “summer of love” that recently ended violently in Seattle. That experience skews the way I respond to these words.

5 For instance, she downplays a raid ordered by the Narragansett saunkskwa (or female sachem) Quaiapen against the Nipmuc community of Quantisset as little more than a fit by a “temperamental sister” made in a spirit of “love and kinship.” She disregards that the victims of these raids certainly did not see it that way, as their appeals for help to colonial authorities clearly demonstrate. She imagines the Wampanoag saunkskwa Weetamoo finding the presence of slaves in the English town of Newport to be strange, despite all we have learned over the last twenty years about the ubiquity of slavery and the debasement of captives in historic Native America. [Bold added]

These verbs paint a poor picture of the scholarship regardless of all the praises heaped on her for other parts of the book. It also raises the issue of what happens when one politically-correct people encounters another politically-correct people and the result is violence and/or slavery. Speaking as an outsider to this time period who has only this Exchange to rely on, it is easy for me to understand why someone would choose to downplay, disregard, and neglect it.

6. Brooks addresses how the Wampanoag Harvard scholar Joel Iacoomes died in a shipwreck on Nantucket while on his way back to Martha’s Vineyard, but her discussion neglects to mention that Nantucket Wampanoags murdered and robbed him and his English crewmates after they made it to shore. Brooks likewise interprets cases in which Native gunmen missing their English targets in battle during King Philip’s War were actually deliberate attempts to strike fear and sow chaos but not kill. She eschews that those same resistance fighters killed somewhere between eight hundred and three thousand English colonists during the war. In these cases and more, Brooks has abandoned basic standards for handling evidence to scrub the historical record and, I would contend, infantilize her historical subjects. [Bold added]

As Silverman describes it, he is accusing Brooks of systemic distortion presumably in preference of her political or cultural agenda.

7. When Brooks does mention Native violence, she often resorts to the passive voice, the same method used by previous generations of white historians to conceal colonial violence against Indigenous people…. Such formulations distance Brooks’s historical subjects from their actions.

If there is such a change in authorial voice [and I have no choice but to reply on Silverman here since I have not and do not intend to read the book], then that would suggest that Brooks knew what she was doing, meaning she glossed over, minimized, ignored that which was detrimental to her view of her people.

Silverman’s next criticism drives home this point quite forcefully.

8. Equally problematic are her speculative demonizations of the English…. The English certainly played plenty of “deed games”—and Brooks traces a number of them in exquisite detail—but that fact does not preclude the likelihood that Native people were organizing to resist them militarily. Indeed, I would contend that the two developments were of a piece. Multitribal uprisings like King Philip’s War took place in nearly every other corner of colonial America, as in Kieft’s War, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Yamasee War, and Pontiac’s War. Yet Brooks concludes that New England Natives were uncommonly patient in their suffering while under even greater colonial pressure than their continental peers.

Silverman is fairly blunt in his criticisms of Brooks’s work. Paragraph after paragraph recounts one area after another where he claims her scholarship falls short.

9. Brooks’s understandable bile toward the English leads her to embellish and even misrepresent evidence.  He is referring to her account of the death of Weetamoo in 1676. It was thought to be a drowning whereas Brooks suggests foul play which was covered up. Silverman responds “It is one thing to pose questions to the evidence along these lines, but it is quite another to posit conclusions (however qualified) based on imagination, flawed evidence, and misrepresented evidence.” One shudders to think what would have happened if a grad student in Silverman’s seminar had chosen this incident for a term paper and handed this in. I suspect a student of his would know better.

10. Brooks also mischaracterizes the Native interpreter John Sassamon as part of an unwillingness to grapple with the complicated role of Christian Wampanoags in her story.

In his analysis, Silverman accuses Brooks of misunderstanding the meaning of the word “will” in this context, of the equivalent of blaming the mail deliverer for the bills a person receives, and failing to “grapple with scholarship that argues Wampanoags and Narragansetts sometimes sold land to acquire munitions and goods for diplomatic gifting as part of their organizing of a resistance movement to seize back that very land.” She has failed “to connect the dots” and as a result has concocted a bogus interpretation [my terms, not Silverman’s].

11. Downplaying Native violence, particularly intertribal violence, and emphasizing Native victimhood at the hands of unscrupulous colonists, points Brooks to a fundamentally new and, I would contend, unconvincing telling of the end of King Philip’s War.

Once again, Silverman is harshly critical of the way in which Brooks interprets the evidence. His depiction of her portrayal on the constant failure of Native peace entreaties rests on her false understanding of their actual traditions. The result is a characterization of “the Indigenous actors come off as guileless and remarkably slow to learn. Brooks pays little heed to the resistance fighters’ devastation of several colonial towns in the late spring and early summer of 1676 while they were supposedly waiting to negotiate.” One wonders why no one else in the review and award-granting process realized this or did they decide that the good points outweighed the bad.

12. Equally disappointing is that the historical context of intertribal violence is almost entirely missing from the end of the war.

Here Silverman contends that Brooks had difficulty dealing with the harsher aspects of intertribal violence. In effect, he poses the challenge of what scholars do when the option to demonize white people is removed. According to Silverman, “Brooks mentions in passing” a Mohawk strike force. “[S]he ignores ample documentary evidence” about the actions of the Mohawks raiders. She “downplays the numerous Wampanoags who switched sides late in the war and took up arms against their tribespeople.” Silverman concludes:

One of the uncomfortable, ugly truths about this period was that colonial victories in wars against Indigenous people almost always hinged on recruiting Native people to the colonial side against their beloved kin. Indeed, it was a basic feature of colonialism around the world.

The result is scholarship that produces significant achievements when Brooks “is more careful in handling evidence” than in these examples where she did not. Silverman ends his section of his review of Brooks’s book with: “The book’s serious flaws should not eclipse such breakthrough findings.”

My impression is that if Silverman had been one of the blind readers of Yale University Press, he would have called for revisions to address these 12 points. We will never know what would have happened if he had been. Similarly we will never know what the people who awarded prizes to the book thought about these points either.


Brooks did not participate in this AHR Exchange.

DeLucia’s response focuses on her own book.

Deloria and O’Brien respond to the comments about NAIS and not the specifics of Silverman’s review of the two books. In hindsight, this shows that the decision to combine the two books may have backfired. By so doing, Silverman detected a pattern which then led to a critique of NAIS. That automatically elevated the conflict from one about the scholarship of an individual to one about the scholarship of all people in the field. As a result, instead of addressing the specifics identified above, it became another episode in the culture wars.

Mt. Pleasant is the only one in the exchange who attempts to refute the accusations made by Silverman. This was not her first encounter with Silverman.

Since DeLucia offers an extended response to Silverman in this forum, I will limit my remarks to the review of Brooks’s study. While I do not bear responsibility for refuting the details of Silverman’s allegation that Brooks “abandoned basic standards for handling evidence to scrub the historical record and . . . infantilize her subjects,” given his misreading and misrepresentation of my own coauthored “Completing the Turn” essay, I spent an afternoon reviewing some of the serious allegations he makes about Our Beloved Kin.

So there is some history here among the participants.

One paragraph addresses the accusation of Brooks’s downplaying intertribal violence particularly involving the Mohawks.

Turning to the index, I quickly noted no less than five references to Mohawk raids.

She takes issue with Silverman’s understanding of Brook’s work.

Rather than downplaying the raid, as Silverman suggests, Brooks is interpreting missionaries’ goals for social, political, and economic transformation—goals that are highly gendered. Just as Brooks is attuned to Mohawk violence and its impact on tribal communities in New England, she is also careful to note and critique the gendered language used by missionaries (which is its own form of violence) in their descriptions of raids between tribal communities and Indian mission towns.

According to Mt. Pleasant, Silverman’s view is too limited and fails to encompass the broader perspective portrayed by Brooks.


In the case of Brooks, the greatest disadvantage is to fail to confront the depth of Indigenous violence and power politics in seventeenth-century New England. True enough, as Mt. Pleasant asserts, Brooks mentions Mohawk raids, but “raids” hardly conveys the terror and loss of life that those attacks inflicted on New England Algonquians. Brooks’s euphemistic framing of this violence as “spreading the Great Law” assuredly does not either….

To illustrate my criticism that Brooks downplays the violence of this attack, I should have used the full line in which Brooks writes that Quaiapen “sent warriors to reassert jurisdiction over them in ‘love’ and kinship, seeking to renew a longstanding commitment and demand the acknowledgement that ‘belonged’ to her within a framework of reciprocal relations.” These are but a few of several examples of Brooks softening or evading key historical issues that risk affronting modern Native people.


I have no additional information about King Philip’s War to add to this discussion. Also I have omitted the topic of Christianity. That is a topic of interest not for this instance alone but as part of a larger subject extending beyond the participants in this war to the broader question of religion such as with the Stockbridge Indians or the Haudenosaunee. As previously mentioned in the first blog, I have been exploring an event in 1685 in Town of Rye where I live. In backtracking the story to Angola, one becomes aware fairly quickly of the importance of Catholicism to the story. By the time of the 1685 incident, the King of Kongo had been Catholic for two centuries, a fairly long time. Thousands of people had been baptized and without any threat or gun held to their head by the Portuguese. It would be interesting to compare the developments in America and Africa during this time period on the role of western religion with Africans and Indians.

On the subject of violence, there is one quite dramatic point of convergence. When I read about the Mohawks as “man eaters” who terrified people, the Imbangala immediately came to mind. This African tribe literally did eat people. They were cannibals. The fierce warriors and their reputation as cannibals augmented their military prowess. As one scholar put it, the Imbangala’s  “reputation for carnage, cruelty, and cannibalism made enemies alike quake in terror.” Sometimes I think a novelist would be better suited to convey the feeling of terror that a people can generate than a scholar.

The Imbangala also provide an excellent way to broach the issue of intertribal violence. The Portuguese changed the game but they did not introduce violence into the Angolan world. In reading about the violence in Africa in the 1500s and 1600s, one also is reminded of the violence in Europe among white people at the same time. The Thirty Years War has an Angolan component as well which is easy to overlook. Despite the religious terminology of the combatants, there was a lot of good old-fashioned violence going on.

By coincidence, after I read the AHR Exchange, an item on one of the history lists I belong to lead to this news article:

Controversial Mohawk statue in Victor has new home

The monument honoring Chief Athasata, who took part in an attack against the Senecas, is now at Ganondagan where it will be displayed with historical context

VICTOR —A controversial metal and stone monument exalting the role of Mohawk Chief Athasata in a punitive 1657 attack against the Seneca nation has been toppled. Ganondagan State Historic Site representatives, and possible descendants of those who lost homes, lives and crops in the attack, were on hand to help bring the memorial down with the help of village public works employees. “The monument which honors Athasata, a Mohawk chief, who joined forces with the French General Denonville to destroy the Seneca village of Ganondagan, is certainly a controversial piece,” said Victor Historian Babette Huber.

“It has always been an affront to me, as a historian, because of its nature,” she said. “It is honoring an enemy of the Seneca Nation in the same place where New York State pays tribute to the capital of the Seneca Nation, Ganondagan, by being the only state historic site devoted to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and its message of peace.”

On one hand, this item demonstrates the longevity of oral tradition. On the other hand, it shows both intertribal violence and continuing animosity. The nearby bloody battle at Oriskany during the American Revolution with the Oneida and Seneca on opposite sites is another example.

The Imbangala also substantiate a comment made by Silverman which I repeat here.

One of the uncomfortable, ugly truths about this period was that colonial victories in wars against Indigenous people almost always hinged on recruiting Native people to the colonial side against their beloved kin. Indeed, it was a basic feature of colonialism around the world.

Without the cooperation of the African tribes themselves the Middle Passage at the scale that it occurred would not have been possible. The Imbangala rounded up people for sale from deep in the hinterlands where no white person had ever been. It was the equivalent of bringing people from Buffalo to New York for sale to the British to bring to Barbados. The truth of “sold from Africa” can be jarring to people who prefer “stolen from Africa.”

I have three final conclusions/observations

1. the difference between the scholarship on Africans versus Indians
2. the minimizing of human nature as a factor in scholarship
3. the unbridgeable divisions within the academic community.

In regard to the final point, I refer to the two published letters to the journal in response to this exchange.

[Silverman’s] statement reveals to me an astonishing lack of understanding of how colonialism works and hence a clear absence of empathy for the colonized. Silverman is asserting that whites and Native Americans engaged in violence. Further, he claims, Native people both committed acts of violence and were victimized by violence. In making these assertions, Silverman chooses to completely ignore who the invaders and aggressors were….

This letter-writer then attacks the legitimacy of the “purported” scholar Silverman.

The violence of the white settlers in King Philip’s War was the violence of the white colonizers, the exploiters of the land and the Native peoples. The violent responses by Natives were qualitatively different. They were seeking to defend their lands, their way of life, their very lives. If Silverman does not recognize this distinction, then he is refusing to confront the difference between the colonizer and the colonized. That is an enormous problem for someone who purports to be a scholar of Native American history in colonial New England.

The second letter directs its ire against both the AHR and Silverman, the latter for his ‘hostile polemic” and the former for its decision to publish it. Most of the letter addresses the issues about the NAIS covered in the first blog and I should have included it there. It does not directly address the charges made by Silverman against Brooks. Instead it focuses on the culture wars being waged today (without using that term) where Silverman is on the wrong side. One line was particularly intriguing:

[B]y giving such a prominent place to Silverman’s review, the AHR continued, perhaps unwittingly, to endorse the privileged and elitist conception of history that is driving the discipline’s decline.

One could also make the case that it is identity politics that is driving the discipline’s decline (ignoring the issue of the perceived lack of financial payoff for a history degree). In the present world where everyone is entitled to their own truth and people congregate with people of shared values including in the organizations they join, why would people, meaning students, want to take courses that marginalized or condemned them? The letter-writer claims that

Silverman’s review…serves only to short-circuit meaningful conversations with the diverse communities that the AHA and AHR claim to prioritize reaching.

By contrast, I would say we already are past the point when such conversations are possible. The AHR Exchange exposes that truth in scholarship just as the coronavirus has in politics. It doesn’t matter if Brooks or Silverman is right since they live in two different realities.

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.