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Nicolas G. Rosenthal: Reimagining American Indian Culture in Hollywood and Beyond
Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

For decades, most American Indians have lived in cities, not on reservations or in rural areas. Still, scholars, policymakers, and popular culture often regard Indians first as reservation peoples, living apart from non-Native Americans. In Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, Nicolas Rosenthal reorients our understanding of the experience of American Indians by tracing their migration to cities, exploring the formation of urban Indian communities, and delving into the shifting relationships between reservations and urban areas from the early twentieth century to the present.

In this guest post for our partners at the University of North Carolina Press, Rosenthal discusses American Indians’ involvement in the Hollywood film industry and their attempts to challenge inauthentic and stereotypical depictions of Indian history.


Last January actress Drew Barrymore was photographed wearing an American Indian-style headdress while flashing a peace sign and exhibiting the smile that has captivated audiences since she was a child. The photo attracted many fans, but it also received criticism from other sectors of American society. Native Americans, for instance, read the image as an all too familiar display of ethnic stereotyping and cultural appropriation.

Indeed, Barrymore’s unabashed glee in “playing Indian” is nothing new. For hundreds of years Americans have claimed the right to don Indian dress and act out their fantasies—from the Boston Tea Party to the Boy Scouts of America to the sports mascots of the twenty-first century. American Indian people have long been conscious of such appropriation and ambivalent about their complicated relationship with American popular culture. In fact, American Indian actors and entertainers in the early twentieth century struggled to broker the American fascination with Indian culture through their participation in the Hollywood film industry.

From the 1910s through the 1930s, hundreds of American Indians settled in Los Angeles and worked in the motion picture industry as actors, extras, stunt performers, and technical advisers. Some were recruited from reservations to make films for a short period of time. They camped in the Santa Monica Mountains, shot films in its canyons during the day, and explored the city by night. Others, like Charles Bruner (Muscogee), moved to Los Angeles and became part of a group of Indian actors that worked steadily in western films.

Many American Indian actors were uncomfortable with Hollywood’s depictions of Indian history and culture and worked to change them. Most often the film studios were unsympathetic, but American Indian actors persisted and formed advocacy organizations like the Indian Actors Association that kept up the pressure for more authentic portrayals. Some especially prominent actors like Luther Standing Bear (Lakota Sioux) and Richard Davis Thunderbird (Northern Cheyenne) used their celebrity status to present their own versions of American Indian history and culture, through public appearances, performances, lectures, pamphlets, and books.

American Indian actors and their struggles in the early years of Hollywood are part of the history of the migration of American Indians to cities that I explore in Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In later years, urban American Indians continued to fight cultural stereotypes and define Native American culture through their performances in places like Disneyland’s Indian Village and city-wide and regional powwows.

Clearly, as illustrated by Barrymore’s photograph, these struggles continue. Americans still have work to do to cast off stereotypes of the “primitive” and understand Native Americans as modern peoples. American Indian actors began trying to convince non-Indians of this almost a century ago.

Nicolas G. Rosenthal is assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University.

Indigenous Conquistadors and Complex Identities in Guatemala: An Interview with Laura Matthew
Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

In her new book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, Laura E. Matthew sheds light on colonial alliances between Indigenous peoples and conquistadors that helped the Spanish gain a foothold in the Americas. Locating her research in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, she places the Nahua, Zapotec, and Mixtec conquistadors of Guatemala and their descendants within a deeply Mesoamerican historical context. She also sheds light on the ongoing legacies of this history, including the complexities surrounding race and identity in contemporary Guatemala. Here she discusses her research as well as new visual evidence of Indigenous conquistadors – the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan―and the historical importance of this discovery.

What are some of the kinds of evidence you found of Indigenous conquistadors and what did that evidence tell you about their motivations?

I didn’t originally intend to write about Mexicano “yndios conquistadores.” I ended up doing so because they left the biggest paper trail. The status of the Mexicanos — as the Nahua and Oaxacan conquistadors and their descendants came to be known in colonial Guatemala — was higher than that of the local Maya, and the Mexicanos also had a pretty exalted sense of themselves, so they asserted themselves more forcefully within the colonial bureaucracy.

Some of the records they left behind are unique — for instance, while most Maya were counseled by colonial advisors to write humble letters of petition to Spanish authorities, the Mexicanos adopted the Spanish probanza de méritos y servicios, which was the standard form that all conquistadors used to request recompense for their services. The Mexicanos considered themselves conquistadors, and expected to be treated as such.

Most of my documents, though, were typical of any study of community formation under colonial rule. The Catholic church oversaw Indigenous populations and produced important data especially on population and language use. Court records are great for the small details of everyday life embedded within all the legalese. Notarial records helped me track the Mexicanos’ bilingualism in their native Nahuatl and in Spanish.

These are all very traditional materials for a historian, but they dominate only the second half of the book. The first half relies much more on the work of archaeologists, linguists, epigraphers, and art historians. These disciplines have pieced together Mesoamerican history before the production of European-style written records. It was very important to me that my history of the Mexicanos not begin with the arrival of Europeans by default, simply because that is when the type of documentation with which historians are most comfortable also arrived.

In what ways does your research enhance contemporary understandings of Indigenous agency during the colonial period? Can that agency be seen in a positive light even though it entailed the killing, displacement, and slavery of other Indigenous peoples?

Certainly, the Mexicano “yndios conquistadores” displayed a lot of agency! This has always been a problem for European narratives of the conquest, which may sympathize with Indigenous people as victims or may treat Native allies as dupes but have a harder time understanding the ways they saw themselves, in this case as conquistadors.

Nahuas, Otomi, Zapotecs, K’iche’, and other Mesoamericans were fundamentally involved in planning conquest expeditions, raising troops and supplies, instigating alliances, and colonizing outlying regions alongside the Spanish. In many cases, they did this not because the Spanish forced them to, but because they were pursuing their own goals in ways that made sense to them, based on their previous experiences of warfare and imperialism.

Researching this book transformed my own sense of Mesoamerican history. As I got deeper into the project, it became impossible to ignore the fundamental imprint of Mesoamerican history, culture, and relationships on the conquest period and beyond. So I had to work much harder than I anticipated to weave that preconquest history into my narrative, not just as background but as something integral to my analysis.

Sixteenth-century conquest wasn’t a fundamental break with the past — it was an important moment along a very long, deep historical timeline. That to me is an incredibly empowering idea and one that applies equally well to people who might more properly be labeled victims of this particular historical moment.

Why was the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan such an important discovery and how does it illustrate the arguments you make in the book?

Florine Asselberg’s identification of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan while I was researching this book was serendipitous. I received an email one day from my friend and mentor Christopher Lutz. Had I heard, he asked, that a Dutch ethnohistorian had found a painted depiction of the conquest of Guatemala by the Indian conquistadors themselves, at a museum in Puebla, Mexico? My first thought showed no appreciation for the magnitude of the discovery. I was simply thrilled that there may have been contact between the Guatemalan Mexicanos and their homelands, something I had wondered about but for which I had no evidence.

A detail of the eagle warrior from the digital reproduction of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan.

As it turned out, the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan was far more useful than that. On a painted cloth that covers an entire wall, it shows the Mexicanos’ view of themselves as conquistadors better than my linear prose ever could. In it we see the alliance with Hernán Cortés, the joint campaign with Jorge de Alvarado into Guatemala, various battles throughout the central and western highlands, and the foundation of Ciudad Vieja, all from the perspective of the Quauhquecholteca from central Mexico who later settled their own barrio in Ciudad Vieja. The Spaniards and Quauhquecholteca are portrayed as equals against the Maya. Indeed, the Spaniards are minor if important characters, while the Quauhquecholteca are clearly the main protagonists.

Collaborating with Florine was a real privilege, and the digital reproduction of the Lienzo by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City brings the details to life in Memories of Conquest. My cover art — of a Mexicano reenacting the conquest in fancy costume circa 1835 — visually brings home how important the Lienzo is for helping us understand the Mexicanos’ preservation of their heritage in Guatemala. It is a very Europeanized costume. But the tall feathered backrack directly echoes warrior costumes we see in the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan from three hundred years earlier.

In the book, you address the colonial measures used to assign identity and distinguish between Ladinos and Indians. How does that colonial framework continue to influence understandings of identity in contemporary Guatemala?

The term “ladino” has an interesting history in Guatemala. It initially meant a hispanized “Indian,” but over the colonial period became racialized to indicate someone of mixed Indigenous, African, and/or European heritage. In the nineteenth-century, “ladino” lost some, though not all, of its racial associations, and came to mean anyone who was not Indigenous. Today, Guatemala’s population is split between these two, somewhat ill-defined groups.

The colonial-era Mexicanos actively associated with the Hispanic world. They earned a reputation as “yndios ladinos” early by speaking Spanish, celebrating their identity as conquistadors, and generally cooperating with colonialism. But they always insisted on their Indian identity as well. In part, this was because they received privileges based on their identity as Indian conquistadors. They also enjoyed self-government as Indians, so there were incentives not to abandon that identity.

In the nineteenth century, though, all those incentives disappeared. Ladinos were favored by national policy, and tended to be affiliated with state projects. In some ways, this paralleled the Mexicanos’ role under Spanish colonial rule. So the Mexicanos may have not seen any reason to continue as Indians and a Ladino identity may have naturally fit them better.

Today the Mexicanos of Ciudad Vieja consider themselves Ladinos, but some outsiders still see them as Indians. I find this intriguing, and wonder if it doesn’t speak to persistent ideas about rural versus urban development and the foundational organization of the “Indian town,” both derived from the colonial experience.

Laura E. Matthew is assistant professor of history at Marquette University. Her book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.

The Power of Song in the Columbia Plateau
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

The book Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer by Chad Hamill explores the role of song as a transformative force in the lives of Indigenous peoples of the interior Northwest. In particular, it traces a cultural, spiritual, and musical encounter that began in the mid-nineteenth century when Catholic hymns introduced to Columbia Plateau tribes were reinterpreted and re-sung as expressions of an expanding Indigenous identity. Today we feature an excerpt from the new book, in which Hamill provides context for the twentieth century story of a Jesuit and his two Indian “grandfathers”—one a medicine man, the other a hymn singer—who together engaged in a collective search for the sacred through song.

Song and Identity
By Chad Hamill

The first official Catholic emissary to the Columbia Plateau was a young Jesuit by the name of Pierre-Jean DeSmet. His initial trip west from St. Louis in 1840 was a response to numerous entreaties made by Indigenous Plateau people, who sent four delegations to St. Louis throughout the 1830s in a perilous but determined effort to bring “Blackrobes” to the Plateau region. After erecting the first mission among the Salish in 1841, Father DeSmet and his Jesuit recruits built a string of missions in the interior Northwest, erecting missions for the Coeur d’Alene in 1842, the Kalispel in 1844, and the Colville in 1845. As part of his vision to establish an “empire of Christian Indians” (Peterson and Peers 1993:23), DeSmet and his fellow Jesuits set about translating Catholic hymns into Interior Salish, a method by which they sought to indoctrinate Indigenous Columbia Plateau people. Rather than Catholicizing Indians, however, the hymns were themselves indigenized—absorbed, reconstructed, and re-sung as expressions of Native identity.

In his landmark work, Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Reservation, David Samuels explores seemingly contradictory expressions of Apache identity enacted through rock, reggae, and country music, challenging popular notions of Native American culture as staunch and steadfastly anachronistic. Speaking to expressive forms of culture, Samuels finds that “the relationships between cultures and identities are not fixed. Rather, identities are emergent, produced out of the practices and expressive forms of everyday life. Traditions are not simply handed along from one generation to the next. Part of their enduring power comes from the possibility of their strategic reinvention in order to speak strongly in new social and political contexts” (2004:5). While leading Catholic Indian hymns, Mitch Michael was doing more than expressing Christian sentiments, he was invoking over one hundred years of collective Indigenous identity within which the strands of Catholicism were woven into the fabric of an Indigenous Coeur d’Alene worldview. The Coeur D’Alene became Catholics, this is true, but they were and would always be Indian.

Tracing the historical interactions between Russian Orthodox missionaries and the Tlingit people at the turn of the twentieth century, Sergei Kan found that a “growing body of ethnohistorical research shows that North American Indians have often reinterpreted Christian ideas, rituals, and institutions, and that their approach to Christianity has been selective, creative, and synthesizing. Christianity, as a result, frequently became indigenized” (1985:196 [original italics]). This perspective paints a picture contrary to the one with which we are most familiar, of Indigenous people as beleaguered and helpless in the face of inexorable Christian forces. Instead, it acknowledges individual and collective Indigenous agency within a process of cultural and religious negotiation, whereby Indigenous identity, or indigeneity, remains firmly intact.

It might be said that the first Jesuits in the Columbia Plateau region were unwitting partners in this process of Catholic indigenization. Although their efforts to cultivate communities of good Indian Christians were more accommodating than those of their Protestant and Methodist counterparts, cultural repression, whether direct or indirect, was employed as a tool of conversion. When intractable “Indian” characteristics or objects stood in the way, attempts were made to dispose of them. At the early missions, Indigenous ceremonies were discouraged or simply banned, and medicines used in non-Christian spiritual contexts, including medicine bundles, were buried or destroyed. Quoting Father Nicholas Point, his Jesuit compatriot in the Rocky Mountain mission enterprise, DeSmet writes that “from Christmas to Candlemas, the missionary’s fire was kept up with all that remained of the ancient ‘medicine.’ It was a beautiful sight to behold the principal supporters of it, with their own hands destroy the wretched instruments which hell had employed, to deceive their ignorance or give credit to their impostures. And in the long winter evenings, how many birds feathers, wolves’ tails, feet of hinds, hoofs of deers, bits of cloth, wooded images, and other superstitious objects were sacrificed!” (1985:32).

What the Jesuits perhaps failed to anticipate was the ingenuity and resilience of the cultures they encountered, comprising Indigenous identities both fluid and “emergent.” Despite Point’s assertion, much “remained” of the old medicine ways during the process of Catholic indigenization. The Salish hymns, freely sung in the light of day, and Indigenous ceremonies, driven into the recesses of a dark and muted underground, both contributed to a sense of collective indigeneity. Ultimately, this process of indigenization—of cultural integration, negotiation, and reinterpretation—could not be quelled. Nevertheless, the Jesuits found success. Unlike missionaries of other faiths who had abandoned their efforts, were driven from the Plateau, or were killed (Josephy 1965:252), the measured tolerance employed by the Jesuits ensured longevity and allowed for evolution and growth. What DeSmet could not have known as he set out west on the Oregon Trail in 1840 was that the path to Catholic indigenization had been laid a century before, when the Blackrobes first arrived within the vision of a Coeur d’Alene prophet. Unlike so many Native American peoples ambushed by Christian crusaders, the Coeur d’Alene were waiting for DeSmet and his religion, the answer to a promise borne through prophecy.

From Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer by Chad S. Hamill. © 2012 Chad S. Hamill. Reprinted by permission of Oregon State University Press.

Chad S. Hamill is an assistant professor of Ethnomusicology at Northern Arizona University, where he serves as Co-Chair for the Commission for Native Americans. Of Spokan and non-Indian descent, he has also served as Associate Director of the Plateau Center of American Indian Studies at Washington State University. Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer is now available from Oregon State University Press.

Carving Out Time and Asserting Your Voice: Writing Reflections and Advice from Jodi Byrd
Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Jodi Byrd’s book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism was published last fall by the University of Minnesota Press. Today Byrd, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers insightful advice for junior scholars revising their dissertations and illustrates the importance of writing and voice as a decolonial project.

By Jodi Byrd

Let’s be honest and upfront. For junior faculty, and especially for those of us in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, one of the most difficult challenges we face in the juggling of teaching and service commitments is how to prioritize our own writing and research. And yet, that is one of the most significant things we can do as scholars and it demands a large amount of flexibility, persistence, and no small number of obsessive-compulsive habits. Because—and this is another truth of academic writing—almost anything is preferable to overcoming that initial hurdle of staring once more into the yawning chasm of a bright, blank computer screen. Anything.

There is lots of advice out there on how to be a successful and prolific writer. Set aside time—minutes to hours—and set goals. Today I will write for fifteen minutes no matter what, even if I have to delete every other expletive on the way to that one sentence for the day. Once you fulfill that goal, you’re done until the next session and the reward is already built in with the sense of accomplishment for having finally sat down to write. Or, as other advice suggests, you might try stopping mid-sentence at the end of the session to Hansel and Gretel your way to a completed sentence, paragraph, page, article, chapter, and book. Have habits and create rituals. Wear your favorite sweatshirt, pour yourself a glass of water, listen to the same playlist over and over and over to condition your mind into the grooves of putting words on the page. Whatever it takes to enter the zone and stay there. It is, after all and as the conventional wisdom implies, a matter of priority and application.

I have tried almost every one of these suggestions at various stages as I stared down deadlines and writer’s block and just sheer exhaustion and boredom. And they work. To a point. For me, though, writing isn’t about the tricks and the rewards so much as it is about carving out stretches of time—usually in the early, early morning—to procrastinate, stare, scream, and finally, yes, write. My method, if you could call it that, is to beg and steal as much time as possible from the edges of other duties and shape it into workable hours. It sometimes means writing binges over the weekends and into breaks. I’m a writer that likes expanses of time.

Once you’ve found the time to draft and compose, the next hurdle is grappling with feedback and revisions. As academics, we often form writing circles and by the necessity of peer and blind review, not to mention copyediting, we are inundated with advice, expectations, and sometimes, deeply critical assessments of our work. It is all about the long game and staying in it, regardless of setbacks or the sheer daunting task of having to rewrite yet again an introduction to finally get it right. It’s about holding true to your own vision and learning to evaluate the feedback you receive. Sometimes it’s a matter of trying to read beyond the comments to figure out what the reader was really flagging in the work and then assessing the best way to revise the argument to maintain the coherency of your own idea. Words and grammar matter within Indigenous studies; language and structure affect meaning. Within the context of ongoing colonialism that reproduces itself discursively as well as militarily and juridically, how we write and argue our ideas is fundamentally a decolonial project that necessarily plays out in the words we choose and the sentences we write. How we shape the worlds of our arguments is worth all the time we can give it.

Continuity and Traditional Knowledge: A Conversation with Patrisia Gonzales
Thursday, April 5th, 2012

In her new book, Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing, Patrisia Gonzales addresses “Red Medicine” as a system of healing that includes birthing practices, dreaming, and purification rites to re-establish personal and social equilibrium. The book explores Indigenous medicine with a special emphasis on how Indigenous knowledge has endured and persisted among peoples with a legacy to Mexico. Writer Leslie Marmon Silko says of Red Medicine, “Beautifully written and researched, Professor Gonzales’s book is enriched by her accounts of personal experience with Red Medicine and the resurgence of Indigenous women in the role of healers.”

Today Gonzales answers our questions about Indigenous knowledge, personal connections, and links to Mesoamerican codices:

What does the term “Red Medicine” mean, as both the title of your new book but also something more?
I created this concept of Red Medicine to reflect a wide swath of experience regarding traditional Indigenous medicine and traditional knowledge. As I say in the book, I realized that as I was learning traditional medicine, that I was learning it from different kinds of people, not only from people in my family who were from different tribal traditions and Indigenous traditions, but also from Macehual or Nahua elders and Zapotec and Mixtec midwives and Indigenous people who were not part of a particular Native nation. I realized there were some things that were similar in a lot of the things that I was learning. At the ground of it was Indigenous knowledge. I wanted to take it out of these concepts that sometimes separate who we think is Indigenous and create a concept that a lot of different people could relate to.

Red has so much meaning for many Indigenous cultures. It has a power. It has its own kind of meaning in ceremony. It’s the color of blood. It’s the color of so many vital things that are important to life so I called this concept “Red Medicine.” Red is also referring to the pre-Columbian knowledge that is painted in red and black. To paint red and black also has a certain signification in the Nahuatl language because it’s really referring to this very deep knowledge contained within the codices. This book is expansive in that I’m dealing with traditional medicine, symbols, the codices, and different kinds of medicines.

A big part of your book is examining and exploring these codices. How did you come to those connections?
I started dreaming symbols at a very young age. I would dream in different languages—the Kickapoo language, the Comanche language, the Nahuatl language—those are all my peoples. And then I was part of Kalpulli Izkalli, which had a women’s group. We had a medicine project and a Nahuatl language project. We brought in traditional teachers from Mexico to teach us the Nahuatl language to learn to pray in this language and within our group we had people who spoke the language. We would study the calendars on our own so I learned the calendar from within the community—not from a book. Although when I was in college as part of studying Chicano studies they would teach us about the codices. At Kalpulli Izkalli, we would meet and study the Nahuatl language, and we lived by the calendar. We would plant by them. We would do ceremonies by them. I learned to do treatments by them from elders in Mexico. As I was going to Nahuatl University, which I mention in the book, we were learning how to read the calendars and how they related to birth and healing. When I was given the opportunity to get my masters, I started to look at the codices and ask what do they tell us about birth and traditional medicine? We know that they are telling us about the environment because many of the surviving codices are symbol systems that are talking about processes in nature. A lot of the codices that survived the book burnings by Spanish priests and conquerors are almanacs or cosmological bundles of symbols that are important for ceremony, planting, or recording rulerships. At this time, I was already practicing traditional medicine as a promotora, or community health worker. So it all came together, contextualizing what I already knew from the elders within the academic setting. Dreaming, which was part of my medicinal knowledge, was also part of my method of understanding the symbols. Dreams that I had up to to five years prior to finding a citation helped me understand and recast the scholarly archive from my vantage point as an Indigenous thinker.

What started you in this work?
In 1992 there was a kind of shift that happened with Native people coming together across the continent. I was part of five key gatherings that really had an impact on my life in 1991, 1992 and 1993. So as people started to make these connections across the continent, what we call the coming together of the Eagle and the Condor, the North and the South parts of the continent, there was all this knowledge shared. The thing that kept coming up is that we needed to have knowledge to survive. What human beings were doing to the earth could have catastrophic consequences and that we needed to be prepared. We needed to be praying to strengthen the earth and to change how we treat this being that gives us life that we stand on. I was already learning how to use herbs and it was at that point I said, I have to catch babies, and I need to know about the plants wherever I live. I had a Kellogg fellowship that allowed me to learn alternative medicine so I could take classes that would be considered more like alternative medicine or holistic medicine, but underneath all that was this relationship I had with elders that was from my own childhood and with Nahua elders in the state of Morelos. I’ve been going to Morelos since 1990. I have been fortunate to be around these elders and receive their teachings. I talk about my learning as being a 20-year cycle. I started in 1990 and I pretty much finished the manuscript in 2010. It really was this beginning of working with Indigenous knowledge in a very planted way. I felt like I needed to know these things to take care of the future.

Throughout your work you acknowledge the elders who have shared their teaching with you. Why is this important?
I go every summer for up to a month to Mexico because I am apprenticing as a midwife, a traditional birth attendant. But in the 1990s, I lived in Mexico for two years and I interviewed many elders about social change when I was writing The Mud People. Social change wasn’t divorced from Nahua philosophy and Mesoamerican thought. So there are a lot of different elders, but there are a couple of key elders who are in Red Medicine that are named, and they and their communities are recognized as being the guardians of the knowledge. As I was writing, I would call them, or some of them don’t have phones or mail services, so I would get back every year and talk with them about what I was doing. Or if they had a phone, I would call them up and say, “Are you sure this is ok?” And they would tell me how to phrase things. And then in writing my acknowledgements, I thought, the first thing is to acknowledge that they have the right to their own ideas and words.

The other people that are in my book that are not named per se include my grandparents and great-grandparents. After my grandparents died, my aunts and my mom would share with me things to do, like how to pray the way my great- grandfather would do before a healing ceremony. I write about how I learned as a child the ways my grandfather and grandmother would pray with the four directions as I was by their side. All of these elders are authorities of Red Medicine.

What do you hope comes out of this work?
I wrote this book for the sake of people in the future who know that there’s something that their family did or does that they maybe don’t understand or for the people who want to reclaim that and don’t know where to start. And I’m thinking of people from Indigenous origin populations, and I say that because we say Mexican origin but what does that mean? Indigenous origin whether they’re from Bolivia or Mexico, Indigenous knowledge has prevailed so much but where do they begin? This is not a how-to book, but it is a book that presents Indigenous philosophies that can help them connect to the visible and unseen processes of life and maybe it will change their dreams. Maybe they’re going to read something and then they’ll talk to their grandma and she’ll start telling them things. And some original knowledge may unearth itself to help them understand another way for how life works.

One of the experiences that I had was that I would be reading a citation in graduate school about a ceremonial site where women had left ceremonial objects as offerings and I realized that I had been there three years before with Nahua women and Macehual or Nahua elders. Or I’d see them talking about a limpia or plant knowledge and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I know that remedy because I learned it from my mom…Or I know that type of limpia.” Part of my method is that I wanted to show that my lived experience—a contemporary experience—reflects what can be found in archives. It was continuing in my own life and experienced in my own life. Unless scholars go back to a community—and the community decides to what extent to reveal the knowledge—they may not know to what extent traditional practices exist because of the dramatic changes happening in numerous Indigenous populations. It may seem lost but it may be hidden. Many of the things I talk about in the book I experienced or I’d heard the elders talk about.

One of the arguments in the book is that Indigenous knowledge prevails even among people who are not identified with very specific kinds of markers. I think Indigenous knowledge is far more resilient in many of these populations. We’re going to start to see a whole new level of analysis on that experience. I grew up in an era when many of us knew that our grandparents were Native or where our parents or some of our kin would insist on our Indianess. Yet some of our family, because of the pressures of the 1940s and 1950s, some of us might identify as Native and Mexican or some tribal affiliation and Mexican or some as Mexican, Mexican American or Hispanic. I think that’s a whole new area of scholarship that is wide open. Traditional medicine provides a concrete way of looking at indigeneity. It’s not abstract theorizing about indigeniety. You can hold it and you can see it and it has implications because when some healing occurs in traditional medicine, then my argument is, that you undo time. You undo the effects of time.

Patrisia Gonzales is an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American Studies and is an affiliated faculty member in the American Indian Studies Programs and the Native American Research and Training Center at the University of Arizona. Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing is now available from the University of Arizona Press.

Fostering Foodways, Community, and a Sense of Place: An Interview with Enrique Salmón
Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Author Enrique Salmón

In his new book, Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience (University of Arizona Press 2012), ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón artfully weaves personal narrative with stories of people maintaining and revitalizing traditional agricultural practices. Despite the cultural and geographic diversity of the region he explores, Salmón reveals common themes: the importance of participation in a reciprocal relationship with the land, the connection between each group’s cultural identity and their ecosystems, and the indispensable correlation of land consciousness and food consciousness. Here, he talks about the ways in which traditional foodways can strengthen community, foster a sense of place, and perpetuate family stories.

What inspired the phrase “eating the landscape” in the title of your book?

The title came to me when I was deeply engaged in one of my many meditations over how to best translate an American Indian mental space regarding food into terms that might be understood by modern industrialized people. The land is a central component of American Indian worldview. It is constant and is the embodiment of our language, spirituality, identity, and history.  The land, therefore, is a reflection of us. We are the land and it is we. It is also a living entity from which we emerged and is the living being that provides all our traditional foods. When we eat our foods we are not only eating our origins, but also our history, our identity, and everything that we hold dear.

In the introduction to the book you talk about how your family and early life experiences shaped your interest in Indigenous foodways. Please share a bit about some of those early life experiences and how they drove you to do the work you do.

The opening chapter of the book explains this well, but I would add that each time I prepare and eat one of those dishes from my younger days, every time I catch a whiff of a tamale or a pot of beans cooking on a stove my mind becomes flooded with a sea of delightful memories all related to my family and our recipes. I recall parties, celebrations, and all sorts of events that called for special foods. But I also recall many uneventful moments colored by simple foods such as a rolled up warm corn tortilla dripping with real butter. These are positive enduring memories and they are based in community and in a fondness for place. Both of these things, community and a sense a place are becoming increasingly absent from the lives of modern humans and lead, I believe, to a lack of empathy for each other and for all other living things. A big part of my work, I hope, will help people to peer into what is possible between humanity and the natural world, and perhaps alter their lives so that they might re-experience or newly experience some of that as well.

You mention the Vandana Shiva dictum that eating is a political act and you add that eating is also a cultural act that reaffirms identity. Will you expand on both those thoughts and explain how the simple act of eating can carry so much cultural and political weight?

We all choose to eat and to not eat certain foods. And each one of those choices is a reflection of the complexity of things that people believe in and how they are trying to carry on their lives. However, most of us do not have the time or do not bother to consider the processes that our foods have undergone before they arrive before us in a bowl or on a plate. It is important to think about who raised this food. Under what conditions did they grow this? Do the people who grew and harvested this food love what they do? Next, it is important to consider how the food was prepared. Whose recipe was followed? What additional ingredients went into this dish? Finally, and most importantly I believe, it is crucial for people to ask, is there a story that the food I am choosing to eat can tell me or is there a story that, by eating this food, I am perpetuating? It is at this moment when we as food consumers must decide if we will continue to perpetuate a story that commits additional harm to our natural world and to ourselves, or if we will embark on a story that not only nourishes us and our families, but also nourishes our landscapes.

Would you talk more about the idea of food as story?

Story is all that we are. All people are living various forms of a story that they tell themselves or are told to them by others. Either way, our daily choices impact our ongoing stories. When family recipes are followed that is a way of continuing the story of the family and a cultural way of interacting with a landscape. A recipe can embody everything that is important to a family and even a culture. Just recently a friend and her husband had come over for dinner. My wife and I prepared among many things, some guacamole. Our friend was overwhelmed by how good the guacamole was and asked for the recipe. I realized at that moment that I really never followed any recipes when I prepared dishes such as guacamole. What I normally do is retell myself stories from family events of the past. In those stories I single out how particular family members prepared their versions of the dish. In this process I am performing a sort of cultural and familial re-membering. This re-membering is a form of re-living my own, my family’s, and my culture’s legacy of story.

There has been recent media coverage of an epidemic of starvation among the Raramuri, which seems to be an incredibly bitter irony for a culture so rich with knowledge of the land and food. What historical and contemporary circumstances have brought this about and is there hope for reclaiming the foodways that have sustained them for centuries?

The Raramuri have been able to lead a resilient lifestyle on their landscape in the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua, Mexico for centuries. That resilience has been marked largely by their ability to absorb, learn from, and then adapt to the many shocks to their way of life. In the past, however, those shocks were temporally singular. There was the Spanish Entrada they were able to retreat from as a result of the rugged mountains and canyons of the Sierra Madre. Due to their isolation the Raramuri were able to withstand the disease episodes of the 17th and 18th centuries. They permitted only those European food plants that were adaptable to their agricultural system and ignored the ones that were not.  In a similar fashion my people survived the Mexican revolution, increased colonization, the ejido system, and even modern tourism. However, recently there have been too many shocks arriving at once and they are proving to be insurmountable. Ongoing drought coupled with over-deforestation on the part of lumber companies is making it increasingly difficult to grow food. Then there is the additional threat of narco-traffickers who are forcing Raramuri off their agricultural areas and milpas that they have husbanded for centuries in order to make way for marijuana and opium growing. Under these conditions not even the most knowledgeable and experienced farmer can survive. If given the opportunity to return to their fields and milpas and to have time to understand the situation, I imagine the many Raramuri families would be able to survive. Unfortunately, this will not happen until the narco-traffickers and loggers have a reason to abandon the Sierra. And even then the damage to the land might be too much to overcome.

Who are some of the people you’ve met or organizations you’ve encountered over the years that make you feel hopeful about the resurgence of traditional agricultural and culinary practices?

Pretty much each individual and every organization that I mention in the book offers a story of hope. If they are given the opportunity to reach out and affect someone with their story that hope will multiply adding to the resurgence in traditional and decolonized foods that we are experiencing today. Of course, in my work I have had opportunities to come in contact with like-minded peoples in various parts of the world. I have met tribal people in Ethiopia working hard to hang onto and revitalize traditional foods such as teff. They do this in the face of economic hardship and government efforts to stifle their ancestral foodways. I am encouraged by the Maori educational program in New Zealand where a child can move from preschool all the way through a four year college degree all in their Maori language, customs, and food traditions. In northern California the Yurok and Kurok are embarking on a revitalization of their ancestral fishing practices as a result of changing water regulations that finally recognize the importance of free flowing rivers and salmon runs. I am encouraged by The Christensen Fund’s grant making practices that assume that what is good for Indigenous people who are maintaining centuries-old land management practices is good for the land. The Indigenous Peoples Restoration Network (IPRN) is working in conjunction with the Society for Ecological Restoration to maintain a dialogue between Indigenous and western scientific ecologists. I could continue, as there are myriad projects, organizations, community gardens, CSAs, co-ops, and individual food providers who have decided that chemicals and GMOS are not the answer and that we need to rediscover sustainable agricultural methods. These people are only a small part of a larger collection of activists, dreamers, and change makers who together are rebelling against corporate foodways and are offering new ways to eat.

Enrique Salmón is an assistant professor in California State University East Bay’s Department of Ethnic Studies. His book, Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience, is now available from the University of Arizona Press.


Research in the Aftermath of Peru’s Shining Path Insurgency: An Interview with Miguel La Serna
Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Author Miguel La Serna

From the 1980s through the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Shining Path — a Maoist guerrilla group in Peru — promoted its radical political agenda through a bloody insurgency. During the peak of the violence, from 1980 through 2000, 69,000 people, many of them Indigenous peasants, lost their lives. Between 2005 and 2008, Miguel La Serna, author of The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency (UNC Press 2012), conducted ethnographic and archival research in Peru, concentrating on the Andean communities of Chuschi and Huaychao. His research highlights the vastly different responses that Quechua-speaking villagers had to the insurgency and contributes to a deeper understanding of the long-term internal dynamics that shaped the civil war histories of these communities. Moving beyond traditional theories of social movements, La Serna weds individual voices, local histories, and cultural understandings. Here, he discusses state and local responses to the insurgency and its aftermath and also reflects on the dynamics of conducting fieldwork in the highly politicized context of very recent conflict.

Your book introduces a twist to the common narrative about the Shining Path insurgency and why people chose to support or resist it. Could you briefly explain some of the community responses you uncovered through your research?

The Peruvian highland department of Ayacucho has gained a good deal of notoriety in recent years as the wellspring of the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency. Yet, not all Ayacuchanos walked the Shining Path, and in fact many formed counterinsurgency militias to combat the rebels. I entered this project trying to understand how it was that people from similar racial, social, and geographic backgrounds could have such divergent responses to the Shining Path insurgency. With this in mind, I compared the long-term histories of two Ayacuchano communities—Chuschi, whose local populace initially supported the Shining Path guerrillas, and Huaychao, whose peasants mobilized against the rebels. Chuschi and Huaychao played an important role in the history of the armed conflict. It was in Chuschi in May of 1980 that the rebels launched their national guerrilla campaign. Not three years later, the Indigenous peasants of Huaychao were the first villagers to take up arms against the insurgents. It turns out that the local experiences—both historical and cultural—of these two Indigenous communities had a profound impact on their responses to the insurgency.

You write that many Peruvians were originally convinced that Indigenous peasants couldn’t have acted alone in the counterinsurgency against the Shining Path. Why do you think it was so difficult for people to believe that Indigenous communities could have actively supported the counterinsurgency against the Shining Path group?

I think it’s important to consider the historical context in which the Shining Path and the counterinsurgency militias emerged. In the early 1980s, Peru was on the heels of a 12-year military dictatorship. The political future of the country was still uncertain. The economy was spiraling out of control, and conditions for many Quechua-speaking highlanders were deplorable. These circumstances set the stage for the emergence of an armed insurgency like the one carried out by the Shining Path in Ayacucho. Peruvians and non-Peruvians alike had trouble believing that Indigenous peasants would take up arms against a guerrilla group that was ostensibly fighting on their behalf. At the time, people didn’t quite understand the kind of threat that the Shining Path posed in some communities. This threat was as much cultural as it was physical, and some Andean peasants risked life and limb to defend their way of life.

Your presence and research so close on the heels of the period you were studying must have meant that your research itself became a part of how the events were remembered and talked about within the communities. What are some of the ethical considerations of a researcher becoming part of the historical moment itself – especially when that period was highly political and violent?

Any kind of research dealing with living human subjects is sensitive, even more so when it involves recent political violence. One thing I was reminded of constantly was that my very presence in the field stirred up a host of issues and anxieties that villagers had either suppressed or were still dealing with. I never asked anyone to disclose information that they weren’t comfortable sharing.  Even so, I had my share of doors slammed in my face, interviews cut short, and appointments broken. This is why I find ethnographic research so valuable. People are simply more comfortable sharing intimate information with those whom they know and trust. At the same time, a researcher is more inclined to respect the privacy and character of people with whom she has established intimate personal bonds. Ethnographic field work enables researchers to earn the trust of the people in their host communities while also producing more culturally sensitive scholarship. This isn’t exactly a news flash for anthropologists, but it’s something that historians and other researchers can learn from.

In research on a multi-dimensional history of conflict, I imagine you encountered various and sometimes competing narratives. How did you handle different versions of the story in the book and still manage a cohesive and comprehensible narrative?

Having the ability to dialogue with the people one writes about is a luxury that most historians simply do not have. I was lucky in this regard, and it allowed me to collect a wide variety of perspectives on the period leading up to and including the Shining Path insurgency. At the same time, this variation in perspective provided challenges when it came to constructing a smooth narrative about any given historical event. This is where prolonged archival research came in handy. I typically brought photocopies of archival documents with me to my field sites. These documents not only helped me to jog my informants’ memory, but the texts also prompted them to address any discrepancies between the written record and their own recollection. Even so, there were still some cases of contradictory narratives, either between different informants or between them and the written sources. In the book, I try to acknowledge these instances and discuss their implications for local memory and culture rather than offer an authoritative narrative voice.

What are your thoughts on how the conflict is being commemorated in Peru today and what the state is doing to help its citizens recover from trauma, specifically through either the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Museo de la Memoria?

To its credit, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the recording of Indigenous voices a top priority for the national healing process, as thousands of Indigenous peoples testified before the commission in their native language. To this effect, the Truth Commission sought to open up a fruitful conversation between Indigenous peoples, the state, and civil society in Peru. Still, this process has been incomplete and there remains much work to be done. As anthropologist Caroline Yezer notes, some Quechua-speaking highlanders greeted the Truth Commission with suspicion, keeping their most haunting secrets to themselves[i]. Given the Peruvian state’s track record of deception, corruption, human rights violations, and incomplete reforms, this reaction is understandable. The problem here is one of trust. A citizenry cannot enter into any kind of meaningful dialogue with a state that it cannot trust. In order to earn that trust, the Peruvian state must address the economic, political, educational, and racial injustices that gave rise to the political violence.

Miguel La Serna is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.


[i] Yezer, Caroline. “Who Wants to Know? Rumors, Suspicions, and Opposition to Truth-telling in Ayacucho.” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 3:3 (November 2008): 271-289.


Sharing Ways of Knowing in Northwest Canada
Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

For almost twenty years, anthropologist Allice Legat has worked alongside Tłı̨chǫ  Dene elders in the Northwest Territories of Canada as they shared with her ways of knowing the world. The hope for this collaborative process was a book that accurately reflected Tłı̨chǫ Dene knowledge for both the world and, more importantly, for Dene youth. Legat’s new book Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire: Knowledge and Stewardship among the Tłı̨chǫ Dene (University of Arizona Press, 2012) introduces Tłı̨chǫ Dene perspective of relationships, land, and culture, all of which are intertwined as the roots of Dene knowledge. Of Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire, scholar Amy Den Ouden writes, “This book offers important ethnographic detail and analysis of how elders’ articulation and dissemination of knowledge is connected to specific places in the land. Even more importantly, Legat’s ethnography shows readers the possibilities of an ethnographic methodology that is not predetermined by conventional Western academic standards.”

In this excerpt, Legat reflects on how elders shared information with her and, in particular, Tłı̨chǫ Dene knowing that braids together intellectual experiences with emotional, physical, and spiritual experiences.

Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire: Knowledge and Stewardship among the Tłı̨chǫ Dene

By Allice Legat

“While working in Tłı̨chǫ communities, I often walked between homes and locations on well-worn paths. On arrival, I would listen to oral narratives being told near fires from which warm tea and coffee were served, food cooked, and meat or fish were being dried. At times, women smoked hides. As I sat listening to individuals tell of their recent experiences, the most senior elders would listen and then weave these events into occurrences of the past. I gradually came to appreciate the importance of verifying happenings within the dè, where individuals are encouraged to observe activities both when interacting with the unpredictable and while doing the routine. As I followed Tłıc̨ho ̨  friends and colleagues along the trails—both mental and physical—they continually verified their own personal truths as well as what they had heard from others. As I walked stories through Tłıc̨ho ̨  nèèk’è and through the academic literature found in libraries and archives, I was taken on new paths, where I experienced my own truth in relation to the anthropological question of what it means to be knowledgeable if you say you are “from the land.”

In addressing the meaning of “becoming and being knowledgeable” among the Tłı̨chǫ  I considered several questions: What does it mean to be from the land? How does one become knowledgeable? How does one learn to see from a particular perspective? Who credits those who are knowledgeable? What responsibilities do those who are credited with being knowledgeable have toward others? How do ideas of what it means to be knowledgeable influence social organization within the community and the region? How is the past remembered?

An understanding of becoming and being knowledgeable among the Tłıc̨ho ̨ has to take into account several dynamics. To become and be knowledgeable is a lifelong process that begins with gaining a perspective from oral narratives that originate within the dè. Key elements of the Tłıc̨ho ̨  perspective include such things as knowing one’s place and the place of others, interacting and maintaining harmonious relationships, and having and sharing knowledge.

The Tłıc̨ho ̨  perspective is learned while listening to stories and reinforced through experience, providing personal knowledge and truths. Individuals can expect to have experiences without stories and still gain personal truth when those who have more knowledge weave the experience together with stories from the past. Stories are used to think with. The interplay between stories, knowledge, and truth through experience never ends. Human beings are never completely knowing; rather, they are in the never-ending process of becoming knowledgeable through experiencing life.

The past is intimately woven to occurrences in the present to be verified in the future. Stories from the past are continually pulled through to the present as they are experienced and threaded to the future by being shared with descendants. The points of entry and exit are the same. All happenings and events are continuously being connected and reconnected. Knowledgeable individuals know Tłıc̨ho ̨ temporal sequencing; they know occurrences that originated in the past continue in the present and future. To consider what it means to be knowledgeable, we need to think about social relations and organization. Individuals are considered by others to be knowledgeable when they have skills and competence and can think for themselves while considering ways to contribute to their society as a whole. Some knowledgeable individuals are also seen to have intelligence or access to Ɂık̨ ’ǫǫ̀  (often referred to as “medicine power” in the literature and during official translating events; however, when middle-aged Tłıc̨ hǫ  are speaking English, they often use the term intelligence). Individuals need to use and enhance their knowledge and intelligence while interacting with human and other-than-human beings, or their ability will be lost.”

From Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire: Knowledge and Stewardship among the Tłı̨chǫ Dene by Allice Legat. © 2012 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press. Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire: Knowledge and Stewardship among the Tłı̨chǫ Dene will be available from the University of Arizona Press in May of 2012. Allice Legat continues to participate in research projects conceived by Tłı̨chǫ today. She is an Honorary Research Fellow with the Anthropology Department, University of Aberdeen, and has recently been appointed the Roberta Bondar Fellowship, Trent University. This work draws upon her scholarship and work with the Tłı̨chǫ—in their home communities and in the bush and on the tundra.

New Spring Titles Offer Insights in Global and Historical Indigenous Studies
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This spring, in addition to nine outstanding First Peoples titles, our partners are publishing critical scholarship that is poised at the cutting edge of global and historical Indigenous studies research. This season our partners offer books that examine the dynamics of the slave trade in New France, how contemporary queer Native writers use representations of sensation to challenge official U.S. accounts of Native identity, Indigenous mobilization in Latin America against neoliberal governments, Māori connections to Oceania, an anthology of Native science fiction, and personal reflections of a leading tribal leader from the Navajo Nation.

Bonds of Alliance
Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France
By Brett Rushforth
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French colonists and their Native allies participated in a slave trade that spanned half of North America, carrying thousands of Native Americans into bondage in the Great Lakes, Canada, and the Caribbean. In Bonds of Alliance, Brett Rushforth reveals the dynamics of this system from its origins to the end of French colonial rule. Balancing a vast geographic and chronological scope with careful attention to the lives of enslaved individuals, this book gives voice to those who lived through the ordeal of slavery and, along the way, shaped French and Native societies.
Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia
Available: June 2012
University of North Carolina Press

The Erotics of Sovereignty
Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination
By Mark Rifkin
In 1970 the Nixon administration inaugurated a new era in federal Indian policy, promoting “the Indian’s sense of autonomy without threatening his sense of community.” Mark Rifkin offers a telling perspective on what such a policy of self-determination has meant and looks at how contemporary queer Native writers use representations of sensation to challenge official U.S. accounts of Native identity.
Available: May 2012
University of Minnesota Press

The New Politics of Protest
Indigenous Mobilization in Latin America’s Neoliberal Area
By Roberta Rice
In June 1990, Ecuador saw the first major Indigenous rebellion within its borders since the colonial era. For weeks, Indigenous protesters participated in marches, staged demonstrations, seized government offices, and blockaded roads. Since this insurrection, Indigenous movements have become increasingly important in the fight against Latin American neoliberalism.  Roberta Rice’s New Politics of Protest seeks to analyze when, where, and why Indigenous protests against free-market reforms have occurred in Latin America. Comparing cases in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, this book details the emergence of Indigenous movements under and against neoliberal governments.
Available: March 2012
University of Arizona Press

Once Were Pacific
Māori Connections to Oceania
By Alice Te Punga Somerville
Once Were Pacific considers how Māori and other Pacific peoples frame their connection to the ocean, to New Zealand, and to each other through various creative works. In this sustained treatment of the Māori diaspora, Māori scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville provides the first critical analysis of relationships between Indigenous and migrant communities in New Zealand.
Available: May 2012
University of Minnesota Press

Walking the Clouds
An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
Edited by Grace L. Dillon
In this first-ever anthology of Indigenous science fiction Grace Dillon collects some of the finest examples of the craft with contributions by Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and New Zealand Māori authors. The collection includes seminal authors such as Gerald Vizenor, historically important contributions often categorized as “magical realism” by authors like Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie, and authors more recognizable to science fiction fans like William Sanders and Stephen Graham Jones. Dillon’s engaging introduction situates the pieces in the larger context of science fiction and its conventions.
Now available
University of Arizona Press

We Will Secure Our Future
Empowering the Navajo Nation
By Peterson Zah and Peter Iverson
Nearing graduation from Phoenix Indian School, Peterson Zah decided he wanted to attend college. He was refused the reference letters needed for college admission by teachers who told him he would fail and thus embarrass them. Several years later, these instructors would receive invitations from Zah to a party celebrating his graduation from Arizona State University.  Part autobiography, part interview, and part conversation, Zah and Iverson’s account touches on a wide range of overlapping topics, but two central themes prevail: education and empowerment. We Will Secure Our Future is a fascinating look into the life of a man who became a respected visionary and passionate advocate for his people.
Available: May 2012
University of Arizona Press

“I’m a Mormon” Campaign: The Myth of an American Melting Pot Reconfigured
Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The current “I’m a Mormon” campaign has significant historical meaning in Hawai’i even though it has yet to reach its shores. Today Hokulani K. Aikau, author of A Chosen People, a Promised Land (University of Minnesota Press), offers a guest post that reflects on how the campaign continues both the myth of the melting pot and United States nationalistic discourses. This article is crossposted with the University of Minnesota Press blog.

By Hokulani K. Aikau

The "I'm a Mormon" campaign appears on a billboard in Times Square in New York City. Image from

If you live in New York City, Atlanta, Minneapolis or any of the other 20 cities in which “I’m a Mormon” ads have appeared, you might be familiar with the billboards and commercials. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign is a marketing strategy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons) intended to disrupt the dominant image of young white male missionaries riding bikes and knocking on doors with a new, multicultural image of the church. Indeed, the multimillion-dollar campaign – and the Mormon Church – has captured national attention due in no small part to Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican Party nomination. A Church spokesperson assured an NPR reporter that the ads have nothing to do with Romney’s bid for the White House. However, these ads have everything to do with the Church trying to forget its racist past by creating a multicultural present.

The collage of faces depicting average, everyday, modern people is striking because it presents the Church as an institution without a past. There are no “pioneers” heading bravely west to Utah, no sepia-toned images of temples or homesteads; only an insistence on the present as if the church has always been a diverse mosaic of bright, happy, multiracial faces. What these images attempt to elide is a persistent contradiction between its universal message that all people are the children of God, and through accepting the gospel and baptism all can have salvation and the racial logics embedded in the theology that serve to reinforce white supremacy. Even as the campaign seeks to forget the church’s racist past, the past is fully present in these images and thus so is race.

In 1850, a group of ten white American missionaries arrived in Hawai’i to preach to the haole (white, foreign) population in Honolulu and other port towns. These men had traveled from California, where they were serving as labor missionaries. Although these were the first Mormon missionaries to Hawai’i, the missionaries were part of an effort of the church to expand its missionary efforts worldwide. Between the 1820s and 1850s, missionary efforts were focused on white, rural, poor communities in the northeastern United States and Native American nations, in part, because Mormon doctrine said that Indigenous peoples of the Americas are a lost tribe of Israel who at one time had the fullness of the gospel but rejected it and became cursed. Missionary efforts among Native Americans were seen as a way to return these fallen people to their once exalted state. Missionary efforts expanded internationally in the 1850s to England, Scandinavia, and Canada, where missionaries had much success, and to India, Thailand, and China, where they had some success among British soldiers, but next to no success sharing the gospel with native people.

But in Hawai’i something unexpected happened. Native Hawaiians were eager to hear the message of the gospel even though, according to instructions given to them by church leaders, the message of the gospel was not intended for them. In my book, A Chosen People, A Promised Land, I document the process by which Native Hawaiians come to be figured as a “chosen” people at a time when the racial lines between whiteness (which is a sign of salvation) and blackness (which is marked as cursed, barbaric, and fallen) came to be codified in the policy that banned black men from holding the priesthood that was in effect from 1852 until 1978.  I argue that in Hawai’i, the church had to contend with the inherent contradiction between its racist policy of exclusion and the inclusion of non-white people as Chosen. I also contend that the racial logics of the church both then and now should not be read as extreme or deviant, but as an extension of American nationalist and racial discourses.

Mural above the entrance to Brigham Young University-Hawai'i. Image from BYU-Hawai'i archives.

As I observe the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, I am reminded of events that transpired in Hawai’i in the 1920s and how those events are memorialized in a mural gracing the entrance to Brigham Young University-Hawai’i (BYU-H). In 1956, the first buildings for the Church College of Hawai’i, now Brigham Young University-Hawai’i, were completed. A tile mural over the main entrance to the David O. McKay building depicts a flag ceremony that took place in 1921. McKay, who at the time of the ceremony was a high-ranking leader in the church and would become president of the church (1951-1970), holds the United States flag surrounded by a diverse array of children standing at attention. Above the horizon is a silhouette of the LDS Temple built in 1919. This flag-raising ceremony is said to have made a profound impression on McKay, who wrote:

“As I looked out at the motley group of youngsters, and realized how far apart their parents are in hopes, aspirations, and ideals, and then thought of these boys and girls, the first generation of their children, all thrown into … the ‘Melting Pot’ and coming out Americans, my bosom swelled with emotion and tears came to my eyes and I felt like bowing in prayer and thanksgiving for the glorious country which is doing so much for all these nationalities.”
(Feb. 7th, 1921. Full text can be found in The Historical Origins of the Goals of BYU-Hawaii Campus by Robert O. Joy, page 33.)

McKay’s reference to the melting pot that takes in all nationalities and transforms them into Americans appropriates the American nationalist ideology of a nation of immigrants who, through the production of the land and labor, become true Americans. McKay draws upon this ideology and extends it to the church wherein the universal message of the gospel cooks out all differences of gender, age, and ethnicity – on, for example, you can choose from three categories listing gender, age, and ethnicity, but not sexuality, to search for Mormons who share your experience – to become one family, a (hetero-normative) Mormon family.  This attempt to grout over difference simultaneously obscures the racial hierarchy embedded in the theology.

Just as the mural over the entrance to BYU-Hawai’i is an extension of the American nationalist myth of the melting pot, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign can be aligned with the colorblind racial logic that emerged as a backlash to the civil rights movement and affirmative action policies of the 1970s. A colorblind approach attempts to eliminate race through a process of historical amnesia that disavows the historical process where by whiteness became hegemonic and the continued signifier of race in U.S. society. The multicultural mosaics on the jumbo-tron in Times Square of today and the myth of the melting pot from the 1920s reflect an attempt to tile over the persistent and pernicious racial ideologies embedded in Mormon theology and American nationalism.

I think to this day the LDS church is far more aligned with mainstream, middle-class white America than most people understand and the campaigns might be Web 2.0, but they utilize old strategies repackaged to appeal to a new audience.

The “I’m a Mormon” ads have not made it to Hawai’i, where I live, in part because of the sizable Mormon membership (about 5 percent of the population), and also, I suppose, because it has already been here.

Hokulani K. Aikau is associate professor of Indigenous and Native Hawaiian politics at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and author of A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (University of Minnesota Press, February 2012).



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