Experiment in Online Book Discussion: Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time

I’m trying to renew a little experiment with online book discussion.  A couple of years ago I tried starting an online book group for people interested in reading New England Native American authors.  I used Goodreads.com, simply because it seems to be the most popular social reading site (as of this summer, they were saying they had over 20 million users, and over 620 million titles).

It’s probably heresy, but I confess I’ve never been a fan of face-to-face social book groups, or those brokered by libraries or state humanities councils and the like.  Most people seem to join them more for the “social” than for the actual “book,” and then there are personalities, which I already have to deal with in my day job.  So I figured a Web meeting would be kind of perfect: no driving in the snow, only to have half the group either not show, or show up having read only half the book.  Plenty of time to ponder your response, and respond thoughtfully to others.  A chance to talk with people who live so far away we couldn’t meet F2F anyway–an especial boon, given that “Indigenous New England” is a sort of specialized interest.

But the group hasn’t taken off.  I have a couple of ideas about that, ranging from the inelegance of the interface itself (which can make it difficult to figure out exactly where you are to write your response–on the discussion board, below the book itself, or as a response to another review) to people’s inhibitions about discussing Native literature with authors lurking in the group (which some do), or my own failure to really whip up excitement in the discussions.  But I’m not quite satisfied with these factors as explanations for the lack of uptake.  Really, the only people who have participated at all actively in this group have been my students, and they, of course, have done so under duress–and much less enthusiastically than they have participated in our class blogs.

So, two things:  first, I would love to hear any thoughts about this–and not necessarily just about the “Indigenous New England on Goodreads” book group, but about your experiences with online social reading in general.  How do you get, and share, recommendations for books these days?  Do you use social reading sites, or do you keep everything on Facebook?  If you don’t like to post your impressions of books online, why not?

Second, consider joining the Indigenous New England group to discuss Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time, edited by Trace DeMeyer and MariJo Moore.  It’s a collection of “indigenous thoughts concerning the universe”–an exploration of Native worldviews as contrasted with Western science.  It’s an anthology, so you don’t have to read the whole thing.  It contains writing from all across the country, not just New England.  I have a discussion board set up to run from October 1 to 15, in the hopes that having a window in which to read might encourage people not simply to put it on their “to-read” lists.  But even if you can’t weigh in during those two weeks, you can still weigh in!  And MariJo and Trace are both on goodreads, so maybe if we’re very engaged, and very lucky, they can field some questions!




More on Indigenizing Wikipedia. . .and Open Peer Review

I feel very lucky to have my short essay on “Indigenizing Wikipedia” included in a new book-in-progress:  Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. This is a collection of essays about using online writing in liberal arts education, and it was fun to write about what happened when my students wrote Wikipedia entries for contemporary Native New England authors.

The book is under contract with the University of Michigan Press, and will eventually be a “physical” book (print-on-demand, for a fee; or free, if you get it digitally). But meanwhile, the editors (a great team, led by Jack Dougherty, at Trinity College in Connecticut) are putting the whole collection up online for public review.  The publisher has commissioned four expert reviewers, in accordance with regular academic peer review, but in theory, anybody can comment.

If you’ve never seen this platform, PressForward, it is (IMHO) pretty exciting. It bills itself as “an experiment in sourcing, evaluating, publishing, and crediting scholarly communication from the open web.” The idea is that, when you take advantage of the online environment to make your work in progress more readily available, you get good developmental feedback from readers before revising for your final version, and you make the whole peer review process more transparent.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick used the process in her brilliant book, Planned Obsolence–which is apt, because that book is all about the academy’s unsustainable reliance on traditional print publishing and anonymous scholarly review.

So if you have a minute, please consider commenting!  Or, consider having your students read and comment, as an innovative writing assignment.  The essays will be available between September 15 and October 30.   See the current roster of essays and learn more about the here.

Can the Digital Humanities Be Decolonized?

I was recently party to a debate, conducted mainly on blogs and Twitter, about an online journal’s decision to put a cluster of essays through an extra round of editing.  If that sounds arcane, it is, kind of; but readers of this blog should care about it, because it points to some very old problems in academia, which are showing up in the hot new field known as Digital Humanities (DH).  And DH is playing a bigger and bigger role in Native American literature and heritage preservation, whether that comes through the creation of large online archives (as at Yale), collaborations between academics and tribal communities (as in the Gibagadinamaagoom project), or the study of indigenous people’s use of computing tools in language revitalization.

To keep this as brief as possible: this past July, two up-and-coming young professors, Adeline Koh (Richard Stockton College) and Roopika Risam (Salem State University), hosted an online “dhpoco summer school”–a 4-week conversation about DH as it relates (or fails to relate) to the field known as postcolonial studies (or “poco,” which studies the relationships between nations and individuals—like Native nations and individuals—and the powers that have colonized them).  The summer school was fantastic; I learned a ton.  Koh and Risam invited a group of us (including me) to revise some of our commentary into short essays for the well-known Journal of Digital Humanities (JDH).  They had an agreement to work on the essays through August, so that JDH could publish them in early September.

After submitting the essays, Koh and Risam were told that, after all, JDH would not be publishing them in early September, but would instead send them out for what is known as “blind review.” [“Blind review” is used by most academic journals: it means you submit your essay to a journal’s editors, who then send your piece—anonymously—out to expert academic reviewers, who are also supposed to be anonymous.] This system has a lot of problems, and JDH is much admired (and quite brave) for using something else, which they call “post-publication peer review.”  In this system, JDH selects material that has already, in a sense, been “edited” on the internet, and gives it a more formal publication setting.

JDH admits that it is an “experimental” journal; but in this case, it changed course mid-stream.  Koh and Risam were furious, and you can see why: the change would be annoying for anyone, but JDH had suddenly raised the bar on two junior faculty (one recently tenured, one newly hired) who “just happen to be” women of color, and who “just happen to be” scholars who look critically at race, institutional power, and inequality. Koh was disgusted enough that she published a blog post about what happened. To be fair, she emailed the post to JDH before publishing.

Koh is already a widely-read blogger, and this post in particular got over 3000 views, though (curiously) only a handful of people posted comments, despite Koh’s express desire, in this and a follow-up post, to stimulate discussion. Unfortunately, LOTS of people weighed in, instead, on Twitter. Most of the conversation was thus hasty, heated, and sometimes just silly; and I suspect (or hope) that most of it will work itself out soon.  Still, I’m afraid that one thing will not work itself out so quickly, because it is all too familiar: Koh (and by extension Risam, and by extension other women of color who call out discrimination) was accused of over-sensitivity and even reverse racism.

I am not going to quote any of that discussion directly here, or mention any names: in the first place, if you really care to see it, you can look for @adelinekoh or @roopikarisam on Twitter around August 29-30 (or see a compilation here); in the second place, I saw what happened when Koh (knowing her account would be challenged if she didn’t give supporting “evidence”) published some of her correspondence with the JDH editor: she was attacked for being mean!  The JDH editors, it turns out, were also younger faculty, non-tenure track (sometimes called “alt-ac”), though not women of color. (This is another—probably riskier—departure from usual academic journal methods:  most are edited by senior, tenured faculty, people with longer publishing experience, and–more importantly—the power to take the heat when disagreements arise.) So people rushed to the defense of these young editors, sometimes failing to acknowledge the complex intersections of power between two non-tenure-track white women editors and two tenure-track women of color.  (These defenders included, interestingly, a few tenured white men; and, interestingly, this is more or less the only place they made themselves heard.  I will quote one amusing Tweet from @roopikarisam on August 29: “Discovery: want the vast majority of white DH men to fall silent? Mention #dhpoco.  True story.”)

Koh and Risam (and a few others) made the point over and over: that in telling her story on her blog, Koh was not making an ad hominem attack, but trying to point to a structural problem, and trying to make DH a more hospitable place for everybody. Eventually, I hope, she was heard by most reasonable people.

So.  Why should readers of this blog—or anyone outside of this small cohort of academics—care about this tempest in a teapot?

(A) The problem is not unique to DH; you can’t separate it from the larger American myth that we are now “post-racial” (and so-why-can’t-“these-people”-just-get-over-the-past-already). The #dhpoco flap shows that this way of thinking is unfortunately ingrained even in people you’d think ought to know better—trained humanities scholars. But while even professional humanities scholars might be well-trained in certain fields (e.g., history, literature, and—increasingly, in DH, in sophisticated computing), they might not necessarily be trained to think about racism, sexism and other forms of inequality as structural, as being embedded in entire systems and institutions, as opposed to being just character flaws of individual people.  Michelle Moravec nailed this in her response to the debate—in a blog post, by the way, not a tweet.  Even with a full 140 characters, the very idea that “racism is structural” just doesn’t compute with many people, who are still inclined see any such calling-out as a personal attack (or that ridiculous construct, “reverse racism”). (For some nice primers on key terms like “structural racism” and “intersectionality,” see here.) What happens then, of course (and what happened here) is that the burden falls on the person of color to explain to everyone, all over again, what structural violence is, and to reassure individuals that “no, I was not saying that you are a bad person.” This is the very definition of micro-aggression, and it’s incredibly debilitating for people to deal with on a daily (hourly) basis.

(B) This daily “dealing-with” could be a disincentive for more diverse voices to get involved in DH.  In fact this is not the first time that DH has expressed some resistance to the idea of self-reflexive criticism: back in early 2012, there were some complaints about an earlier movement to elevate critical race (and gender) studies in DH, which went by #transformdh.  In a deft response to scholars who asked, “why can’t we all just get along?,” Natalia Cecire explained why most fields of inquiry need “the jolt of the oppositional”:  “A liberal, inclusive, always-collaborative, never-oppositional digital humanities is a digital humanities that can afford to be above the fray, a digital humanities for which theory is, well, theoretical, mere yack, and not a tool for activism or indeed survival.”

So it was dispiriting to see a Tweet like this one, from @mixosaurus on August 30: “Such discussions are not new. Things turning ugly in a place we thought was ours is not new.  It’s so wearying & sad & never stops. #DHpoco.”  Is this why—as of right now, at least—that indigenous involvement in DH is still so low?  I’m not saying indigenous people are not using digital tools or social media in their communities, which they most assuredly are.  But I am  saying that the academic  field of DH, with its access to university, funding resources, and prestige, does not have enough Native participation right now. (If anyone knows of Native scholars publishing articles in DH journals or presenting at DH conferences, or acting as PI’s on major DH projects, I would very much like to know about them.) Instead, indigenous representation in DH, at least in the U.S., appears when non-Native institutions (like Yale) make the decision to “digitally repatriate” some of their holdings, and are wise enough to involve Native elders and community members in the process.  This is important work.  But it’s not really enough.  If DH wants to be an experimental, “open” and “innovative” field, it needs to do better than its partnering fields of History, Literature, Anthropology and so on, not worse.

Days of DH at Northeastern University, March 18, 2013

Here are the slides and text for the “lightning talk” I’m to give tomorrow at Northeastern for their “Days of Digital Humanities” fest:

  1. I’m a literary historian by training, and as a scholar of Native American literature, I am most interested in creating accessibility to the kinds of writing that Native American people have historically produced—not just literature that achieves canonical or highbrow status, like the works of Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday, but also works by lesser-known writers (at the moment, I am especially concerned with writers from New England), and in lesser-appreciated forms (including non-alphabetic forms of literacy like pictographs and baskets, as well as more low-budget or edgy forms like tribal newsletters, and—increasingly—electronic forms like blogs, tweets and facebook pages).
  2. I spent the last 5 years compiling a ginormous anthology of writing by indigenous people from New England.  It is 600 pages in manuscript, and will be out next year with the University of Nebraska Press.  I enlisted the help of a dozen tribal editors—historians, elders and scholars who helped decide what should go in and what should not, and who provided invaluable contextual introductions and annotations for the selections.  We found much, much more than we could possibly include even in a 600-page book; and the conversations surrounding the whole anthology-making process turned out to be almost as interesting as the literature itself.
  3. So people in this audience will understand immediately why digital space is such an appealing prospect for a collection like this: new media give us new ways to create living documents.  In digital space, anthologies don’t need to be quite so authoritarian as anthologies have tended to be in the past: they can add literature, they can drop literature, they can allow for community feedback on literature.  I chose Omeka, the public history software designed by the brilliant folks at George Mason University, because I’m at a university that does not have a real digital humanities program or community, and I wanted the support.  Omeka is also quite easy to use, and in theory it will allow for contributions from tribal historians in remote locations, local historical societies, students, and others.
  4. It’s never been impossible for college students to talk with Native writers or tribal elders, exactly, but it sure is a lot easier these days, with blogs, emails, and Facebook.  In “crowdsourcing” the work of this online collection to my students, I have worked by pairing students with Native writers, so that they can run their work by tribal community members and authors.  They get much better sources (and a much better education, IMHO) than they would by simply relying on “peer-reviewed” articles from the library; in fact, their whole stance on literature changes—it’s no longer a thing to be studied and “mastered” from on high, but something demanding respectful questions and the occasional admission that interpretations might have blind spots.
  5. Omeka lets you curate your material in “exhibits,” and the first partnership we formed was with the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner, NH, which was looking to put an exhibit of regional Native baskets online.  The students visited the museum, learned a bit about documentary photography, and
  6. wrote historical essays to contextualize the images.  In the course of this exhibit they were making the case that it’s not enough to say, “there was no writing by Native people from New Hampshire in the 19th century”—they had to consider alternative, non-alphabetic forms of literacy, like baskets, as texts.
  7. Omeka also has a mapping plug-in that allows contributors to geolocate each item.  In a politically charged project like this one—one that tries to combat the myth that Indians have vanished from New England—the geolocation feature allows us to fill the map with Native presence.
  8. Our current project took a lead from the feminist takeover of Wikipedia initiated by Moya Bailey and others last Friday, if any of you participated.  We are beginning by building Wikipedia entries for Native authors who are not yet in there (which, in New England, is almost all of them).  We are learning a ton about open-source writing and editing; when our articles “stick” in Wikipedia, we will migrate them over to Omeka, where we can add literary texts and primary research, which Wikipedia doesn’t allow.  Omeka recently unveiled an exciting new tool (not yet available in the hosted version) called Scripto, for crowdsourcing transcriptions of pdf files; we are hoping to integrate this before too long, especially to help create a centralized, searchable database of tribal newspapers and newsletters.  There have been tons of these newsletters produced by Native people in New England over the past several decades, (and even earlier); they represent a vital literary tradition, vulnerable to loss and public forgetting.
  9. Senier-DayofDH(Northeastern)

Indigenizing Wikipedia

Today there is an international feminist takeover of Wikipedia; you can follow it on Twitter using #tooFEW. It was a project proposed by
Moya Bailey, who notes a profound deficit of women’s history and perspectives on the encyclopedia, on which only about 12 percent of content producers are women. I’m still looking for an accounting of how many indigenous people might be contributing.

So I have written my very first, very rudimentary Wikipedia entry, on Cheryl Savageau. Writing for Wikipedia isn’t as easy as blogging, but once you invest a little time, it’s not rocket science, either. (It took me about 3 days to familiarize myself with the site’s basic protocols and markup conventions, just enough to make an article stick–though I obviously have a lot more to learn, and even to do, with this one little article.)

That is one thing I am really coming to admire about the site: that, for all its problems, it at least makes everything–from the authors of its content to its unfolding editorial squabbles–quite transparent. So far, I have also found its frankly stunning phalanx of volunteer editors to be incredibly engaged and welcoming. In less than 20 minutes after I’d posted, one editor had fixed a punctuation error in my title (while I was wrestling with name changes) and politely reminded me that authors’ own publishers aren’t necessarily the most “reliable sources” for information about them.  This is really good peer to peer teaching and collaborative knowledge production. And, as Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam have pointed out, there is a real window of opportunity here for ground-up, subaltern knowledge production and dissemination, on a website that is highly consulted, around the world.

Try just registering with Wikipedia and making some small edits to any articles that need them. Which is in fact most of them. This is a huge, crowd sourced project that understands itself as always incomplete, and always in progress. And that’s an admirable thing.

The Boston Children’s Museum as a Native Literary Hub

This is the paper I’ll present tomorrow at MLA in Boston.  You can see my slides here.

Sovereignty and Sustainability: The Boston Children’s Museum as Native Literary Hub

Today I’ll be discussing an unlikely but powerful hub of local Native literary production: the Boston Children’s Museum.  Children’s museums and “children’s literature” shelves can infantilize Native culture and Native people—or worse!; but between the 1970s and about 2000, the BCM empowered local Native people as consultants, interpreters, curators, and writers.  When I say empowered I mean paid: the BCM paid Wampanoag, Narragansett and other people to serve on a Native American Advisory Board (possibly the first of its kind), to participate in an internship program that taught them about museum business while bringing them into the space of the museum as interpreters and co-curators, and to write copy for its exhibits and educational kits.  Under the auspices of the BCM, Native writers produced a slate of interesting children’s books, anti-colonial historical essays, and manifestoes.  Though this program’s heyday seems to have passed, unfortunately, many of the participants continue to write autoethnographies, newspaper columns, traditional stories and other materials.

It’s the appearance of these tightly concentrated bursts of regional literary production that interests me today.  Some of you know that I recently finished compiling a large anthology of New England Native literature.  [The University of Nebraska Press says that this book will be out in Spring of 2014—it’s been a long time coming, and it’s big: 600 manuscript pages.] In the course of putting all that together I have become intrigued by these windows of opportunity that seem to arise for regional Native authors, especially in the 20th century, both before and after the so-called Native American Renaissance. I like one model proposed by Renya Ramirez, if you know her book Native Hubs: a hub is a place (like an urban Indian center, a school, a powwow arena) where Native people congregate, exchange knowledge, learn new skills (including activist tools), and can bring these back to their home communities.  The point of a hub is that it is a center among a number of disparate and far-flung communities, and that people travel back and forth between the hub and their homes.  I find this an appealing way of thinking about Native travel, communication and community building; and I’ve been realizing (slowly) that hubs aren’t just spatial: they have temporal and political dimensions, too.  In New England, we might say that Native authors have been fostered and promoted by a series of hubs (tribal newspapers and newsletters; tribal museums; a small handful of university programs; and, of course, publishers like the Greenfield Review Press, founded by Marge’s brother Joe and his wife Carol). We might say, moreover, that some of these hubs have a trajectory that closely parallels the rise and fall of local self-determination movements.  Some hubs were formed, specifically, in tribal communities galvanizing around federal recognition.  And some, unfortunately, have been subsequently weakened under neoliberal policies and economics.  (At the end of this paper, I have some questions for you all about sustainability in Native writing and publishing.)

The Boston Children’s Museum, in the last decades of the 20th century, provided one of these hubs.  The Museum is a beloved and recognizable feature of the Boston landscape, especially since 1979, when it moved downtown to the waterfront, next door to the giant Hood Milk bottle.  It is the second oldest children’s museum in the country (Brooklyn was founded in 1899, Boston in 1913).  The BCM started (in Jamaica Plain) as a small two-room enterprise, mainly for science teaching: they kept sample species (flowers, birds, minerals), books and other materials that they could send out to schools on request, and they could also train teachers.  The museum underwent something of a transformation in the 1960s, when Michael Spock became the director.  Son of Benjamin, Michael Spock is called “the father of the children’s museum movement,” and he brought a particular vision of children’s museums: that they should be “for someone” rather than “about something”—that they should be hands-on, interactive spaces where children could feel “in control” of their environment.

Well may you ask: “which children?”  In the 1960s and into the early 70s, the BCM was like a lot of museums in making a point of diversity and inclusiveness. This is still one of their selling points: they have built connections to local African-American activists around issues like school desegregation and science literacy; they have a full Japanese house, donated by the city of Kyoto.  But, in the 1960s, at least, they also had Native human remains, and they displayed them, as part of an exhibit called “What’s Inside?” (this had things like a cut-in-half baseball, a see-through telephone, a cross-section of a city street with a manhole kids could climb down. . .and, a “real Indian burial”).  The museum also had non-Native staff who re-enacted religious ceremonies using sacred objects like Kwatsi (or Kachina masks).

One of those interpreters, Joan Lester, got the shock of her life when she enrolled in a class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with 14 Native American students and section leaders, who basically reamed her out for the way the BCM was handling American Indian history and material culture.  Joan and Michael Spock have written about this experience, in a couple of brutally honest essays: Joan went back to Spock, told him they were doing “everything wrong,” and Spock said, “Fix it.” So the timing was good for an alliance between local Native activists and some allies who had access to some institutional power.  It was a time that Karen Coody Cooper (Cherokee museum scholar) has documented in her book Spirited Encounters, a fascinating history of Native American protest against museums from the 1970s onward.  Across the country, and indeed globally, indigenous people started calling museums and other cultural institutions to task for their unethical displays of human remains and sacred items, their hoarding of Native material culture, and for their contributions to mythologies about “national heroes” like Columbus or the Pilgrims.

The BCM did several immediate repatriations and reburials (this was pre-NAGPRA), and formed a Native American advisory board.  But the exciting shift, from the POV of literary production, came in 1973 when they were approached by a business called American Science and Engineering, which wanted to republish one of their earlier Algonquian educational “kits.”  The BCM said no, but you can pay Native people to help develop a new one, and you have to give Native people complete veto power over the content.  AS&E agreed, and the BCM’s published its first Native American writing.  Now, with only 15 minutes, we are not licensed for exegesis, but I want to point out just a couple of things.  It put in the hands of teachers and children large cards with personalized accounts of contemporary Wampanoag life—these also came with photographs of the artists and writers: this is Gladys Widdis, who was well known on Aquinnah (Martha’s Vineyard) for her stunning pottery made from the clay there.  Some of them are fairly radical: Cynthia Akins, inviting kids to think about what it’s like to have a place that you played in and felt was home gradually siphoned off—showing kids that colonization proceeds apace.  And it also invited kids into museology, asking them to think about how they would represent contemporary Wampanoag life.

You get the idea: the Boston Children’s Museum shifted dramatically from presenting Indians as dead and gone to engaging children with living indigenous people, and in so doing, it also enabled some interesting writing.  Some of the interns produced children’s books as part of their work at BCM (Linda Coombs, who has also done a TON of writing for BCM and Plimoth Plantation—another story); at least one has since collected and self-published her work, which included newspaper columns, recipes, histories.

I need to wrap up soon, but I am interested in researching the circulation of these texts—it should be possible to find out where they were sent out, and possibly whether kids (Native and non-Native) wrote or created anything in response?  At the textual level, I see these pieces as both enabled and constrained by a trope of “we’re still here.” If there is one overarching trope in New England Native American writing, that’s the one.  “We’re Still Here” was in fact the title of the BCM’s first exhibit co-curated with regional Native people; then the title of a book; it is frequently invoked in regional Native-authored texts.  But “we’re still here” has limits.  I have been reading the provocative work of John Marsh, who writes about representations of poverty in American literature—particularly about what he calls the “nearly ubiquitous literary convention” of epistemological realism: “the poor really exist! And if [pick your author: Jacob Riis or Rebecca Harding Davis] just exposes poverty, people will do something about it!” But, Marsh says:

if you have to be reminded about poverty as frequently as Americans have needed to be reminded about poverty over the last two centuries, it is not because you are ignorant, innocent, or forgetful, but because you just don’t care. One more poverty-unveiled novel-or a whole class of them-will not likely change that indifference.

Insert “Indians” in place of “poverty”: “If you have to be told that Indians are still here as often as New Englanders (and others) have had to be told that Indians are still here, it might not be just ignorance; it might not even be that you don’t care, but that—as historian Jean O’Brien and others have shown—you actually wish Indians would really go away. In this vein, then, maybe we should not be surprised that “Native hubs” like the one at the Boston Children’s Museum have been among the predictable first victims of new economic austerity measures; the Museum no longer employs Native staff, the internship program is over, its children’s books are out of print, and a fantastic new curriculum tracing Native persistence through the centuries never got finished at all.

So I leave you with the question of what makes a Native hub (a literary Native hub) sustainable? Joe Bruchac seems to have managed partly by his own herculean effort, partly by adapting to new technologies: his Bowman Books imprint now uses lulu.com to publish new chapbooks and re-publish older Wabanaki texts at very low cost.  Is it okay, or inevitable, that most other hubs come and go?  What exactly can digital media offer here?  Is it too heretical to ask whether small runs of paper books may have outlived their usefulness when it comes to circulating and disseminating Native stories, especially stories about indigenous modernity, sustainability and survivance?  Does #idlenomore herald a new kind of hub, and what can we learn from it?

A Dawnland Voices Wordle

My colleague James Finley produced this word cloud by running the entire manuscript for Dawnland Voices–the 600-page anthology of regional Native writing I’ve just finished editing–through a tool called Voyant.  (Click “Voyant” for a clearer picture.)

Like the tag cloud at the left (which shows only how often I have tagged particular topics on this blog, myself), this little wordle represents the most frequently-used words appearing in the anthology.  Many people retain a healthy ambivalence about the usefulness of word clouds, but they’re at least an engaging prompt for conversation.

In the one above, the three largest terms come as little surprise.  I do enjoy seeing “land” and “print” in the same relatively large color and size, since one of the things I’ve learned while reading a lot of this literature is that Native literature and Native land are really inseparable (an argument brilliantly elaborated in Abenaki historian Lisa Brooks’s book, The Common Pot).  I also like seeing so many words that underscore the continuous presence of Native people in this region: “time,” “years,” “long,” “history,” and of course “children” and “today.”  Note, too, the presence of so many terms describing kinship and community.

At first I wondered why only four tribal nations seem to have made it onto this wordle.  It’s not that Mi’kmaq, Wampanoag, Passamaquoddy and Mohegan authors are necessarily better represented in the anthology, since each tribal nation gets more or less the same number of pages.  But it is the case that many of the Mi’kmaq and Wampanoag writers we selected are historians.  In these writings, then, they refer over and over to their people in the course of a single piece.  This is a little different in, say, some of the Abenaki writings; there are certainly a lot of talented Abenaki writers, but they include a good number of creative writers–in particular, poets, who don’t always invoke the term “Abenaki” quite so often.  Writers like Joseph Bruchac and Cheryl Savageau sometimes invoke their own term for homeland, “Ndakinna”; or they depict specific Abenaki places, like the Pemigewasset River.

None of that is terribly scientific, of course!  [If I had to guess how “university” made it in there, it would be that James included in this wordle the bibliography for the whole book, which includes a lot of university presses–academic publishers being often (though not always) more willing than commercial ones to take care of otherwise marginalized authors.]  If you’ve never tried a wordle, especially you writers: see what it flushes out of your poems or short stories.

Digitizing Tribal Newsletters

As I look forward to the third Indigenous New England Conference tomorrow at UNH, I’m especially interested in speaking with Paul Pouliot, Sagamo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki people, based in Alton, NH.  From 1993 until quite recently, the band was regularly (i.e., quarterly) publishing Aln8bak (Abenaki Indian) News.  Like many community newsletters, it includes notices of social events, obituaries, updates on tribal decisions, plus cultural features like book reviews, language lessons, and pieces written by tribal members.

In New England and beyond, tribal newsletters are an important source of history and literature.  When I was compiling Dawnland Voices: Writing of Indigenous New England (forthcoming from the U of Nebraska Press), many of the tribal editors mined their store of newsletters for poetry, creative nonfiction, letters, recipes, and more.  Cheryl Watching Crow Stedtler (Nipmuc), started Nipmucspohke in 1994, just a year after the first issue of Aln8bak News.  Many regional tribal publications are much older.  The first was probably the short-lived Narragansett Dawn, published in 1935-36 by Princess Red Wing.  In Maine, the Wabanaki people had a variety of newsletters and newspapers, from the Aroostook Indian, run off a mimeograph machine in Houlton, Maine, during the 1990s, to The Wabanaki Alliance, a full-sized newspaper that run during the 1970s and 80s.

Most of these are not yet digitized (an especial shame in the case of the Maine newspapers).  Even when they are available online, as in the case of the Narragansett Dawn or Nipmucspohke, they’re usually only scanned and uploaded in pdf, which means they’re not searchable, sometimes not very readable, and not really suited to long-term preservation and archiving.  In the case of the Aln8bak News, issues from 2003 to 2007 are posted on the band’s website.  They contain information on Abenaki history–including the band’s reorganization in the 1990s, its maintenance of connections to relatives outside of New England, its outreach to prisoners and activism within the state of New Hampshire–that are simply not readily found anywhere else.  As such, they’re great teaching tools and important historical documents.

If the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People–and other tribal entities–feel it is appropriate, the work of transcribing and indexing these kinds of newsletters would be an excellent, long-term project for university students.  Over time, we could build a large, visible archive of regional indigenous periodical history.

Mihku Paul’s first chapbook

It’s a beautiful thing that Bowman Books is now publishing regional Native titles faster than I can review them.  I had been eagerly awaiting Mihku Paul’s first book of poetry, and it’s now out: 20th Century PowWow Playland.  You can order it here.

Paul is Maliseet, an enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, though she grew up in Maine, near Penobscot homeland, and lives now in Portland.  She’s a visual artist as well as a poet, doing colorful medicine wheel paintings like the one on the cover of 20th Century PowWow.  She did an MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast, and an exhibit for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which is where I first heard of her.  “Look Twice: the Waponahki in Image and Verse” juxtaposed some of her most powerful poems with historic photographs of Wabanaki people from Maine and the Maritimes.

It was a pleasure to watch this book grow; if you have any opportunity to invite Mihku Paul to your school or library or other venue to give a reading, she’s a magnetic performer.  The poems from “Look Twice” are carefully amplified and revised in this sparkling volume (given extra gloss, I’d like to note, by a UNH PhD student, Michael LeBlanc, who is really a remarkable editor).  The ordering is striking.  The first poem, “Echo of Multitudes” begins in Maliseet homeland, the Wolastoq (St. John River) watershed:  “Picture this.  Great rivers snake through a forest; water road, traversed in season, straining and/swollen at ice out, moving endlessly to the sea.”  Paul returns again and again to the river motif; along the way, she moves between imaginative reconstructions of her ancestors’ lives, and grittier explorations of contemporary realities: racism, suicide, community trauma.

I love many things about these poems: their sheer music, their incandescent colors.  But I think one thing I love best, having seen “Look Twice,” is how Paul can seem to liberate the spirits within an image.  The old photos she has studied so lovingly can seem, as she says in the collection’s title poem, colonized and frozen by the “rigid lens of history, a dangerous weapon.”  But the poet has such imaginative empathy, such strong identifications, with those figures that she suggests a very strong sense of a Wabanaki “we.”

Mihku Paul maintains her own website where you can learn more; if you have any taste for academic reading, I published an essay on her poetry and Alice Azure’s  earlier this year in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S..

A New Digital Anthology of Regional Native Writing

This is a fairly academic (but short!) piece I wrote for an NEH Institute of Digital Humanities, which I attended last summer at the University of Denver.  It serves as an introduction to the digital anthology that my students, some Native collaborators and I have started.  The anthology will always be a work in progress, but it’s especially fledgling now, so all comments are most welcome!

This project sits squarely within the new movement calling itself #transformDH. From the standpoint of what are often called “diversity” concerns, digital scholarship and projects have tended to follow fairly predictable patterns. In my own field, literature, the most visible and best-funded projects began with canonical (#deadwhite!) authors: the Rosetti Archive, the Blake Archive, the Whitman Archive. Close on the heels of these, to be sure, have come new projects informed by critical ethnic and gender studies, including some pursued in our IDH workshop: Angel Nieves’s Virtual Freedom Trail, Leo Flores’s work digitizing Puerto Rican collections, Charles Foy’s history of eighteenth-century African-American mariners.

Still, only very recently have scholars working in critical ethnic and gender studies started to coalesce within DH, to articulate how this work challenges or confronts the field’s establish(ing) parameters. Alexis Lothian (English, Indiana University of Pennsylvania) described the rise of #transformDH in a Winter 2011 essay for the Journal of Digital Humanities, just months after the American Studies Association hosted panels devoted to diversity and DH. Some scholars, like Lothian, were concerned that DH has ignored the “many politicized queers and people of color engaged in scholarly work in and out of the academy [who] do use digital tools and think critically about them and even create them.” Others, like Moya Bailey,(Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Emory University) worried about deeper, “implicit assumptions about what and who counts in digital humanities as well as. . .structural limitations that are the inevitable result of an unexamined identity politics of whiteness, masculinity, and ablebodiness.” Since then, Adeline Koh (Literature, Richard Stockton College) has been cyber-rallying #transformDH scholars who want to interrogate these politics.

Writing of Indigenous New England started with a conventional print anthology: Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Writing from Indigenous New England, forthcoming (2013) from the University of Nebraska Press. I edited this tome, which runs 600 pages long, with 12 tribal community consultants: elders, scholars and historians who selected, annotated and contextualized a wide range of indigenous-authored texts, from early petroglyphs to contemporary blogs. Long before we submitted the final manuscript, we started feeling the limitations of print: we wanted a living document able to expand (in response to both new historical findings and new literary production), to change (in response, again, to new findings about historical accuracy, or new community-driven questions about texts), and to stimulate (and include) new debate and conversation. It seemed obvious that a digital platform, and the crowdsourcing made possible by such platforms, would only enhance our work of literary collection, editing and interpretation.

With few resources immediately available, we have started with Omeka.net, tailor-made for this kind of project. Tribal collaborators have chosen texts they would like to see included, and UNH students have done the work of uploading these items, describing them, curating them, and then re-submitting them to the consultants for approval. Our first full “exhibit,” a partnership with some local historical societies, basketmakers, and the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, focuses on Abenaki baskets, and asks readers and viewers to consider nonalphabetic forms of literacy as part of indigenous literary traditions. Future exhibits will be initiated by external partners, not (top-down) by me or my classes. If future funding appeals pan out, I hope to offer training for tribal historians and writers to use Omeka so they can load their own documents remotely and independently. For this phase, we’ll form an advisory board and develop an explicit, indigenous-centered protocol for intellectual property rights, using, for instance, a licensing system like the one attached to the wonderful new Mukurtu platform.

As I teach at a public institution that ranks among the lowest in the nation for state support, and that is experiencing cutbacks that are nothing short of frightening, I have been thinking a good deal about the unfortunate tensions that seem to be arising between digital humanities and ethnic studies. When programs are on the chopping block, ethnic studies and related programs are always the first to go. Meanwhile, the very word “digital” brings the dollar signs to university administrators’ eyes. Some of their support might be for genuine DH; more seems to be driven by some bizarre fantasy that as the e-courses flow, so will the cash (Coursera’s attrition rates be damned). But either way, all parties concern will need to be newly attuned to issues of social and economic injustice. Our “own” Angel Nieves has insisted that when it comes to diversity in DH, access and inclusion aren’t enough. How can DH projects help build capacity in disenfranchised communities? How can they create closer promixities between people with privilege (including some university students and professors) and people without (including un- or under-employed community members with historic knowledge and skills)? Can DH pull against, or offer creative responses to, the radical upward re-distribution of resources we are currently witnessing in the academy?