Tuesday, October 1, 2013
October 1, 2013: NEASA Conference Follow Ups: The Site
[This past weekend, the New England American Studies Association held its annual conference. This week, I’ll follow up some of the most inspiring aspects of the conference and some of the many great talks I heard there. If you were part of it, or if you have your own thoughts on any of these topics, please chime in!]
On two compelling sides to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.
There’s just something about having a scholarly conference at a historic or cultural site—I felt it with the 2009 NEASA conference at the Lowell Boott Cotton Mills Museum, the 2010 conference at the Mass Historical Society, and certainly with my own 2011 conference at Plimoth Plantation; and I felt it again, with particular force and clarity, this past weekend. Partly it’s a matter of direct contexts—the potent benefit to talking about issues of Native American identity, community, history, sovereignty, and so many more in one of the region and nation’s most impressive spaces devoted to those themes. But it goes way beyond that—many of the panels had nothing explicitly to do with Native American issues, but were nonetheless enriched immeasurably, as were the conference’s more informal and ongoing conversations and connections, by their surroundings.
There’s far more to say about those surroundings, about the Museum, than I can include here—I’ve already urged you to check it and other regional Native American museums out for yourself, and you should! But I did want to take this opportunity to highlight two very distinct but equally compelling and significant aspects of the Museum. First, I was struck during this visit by the genuine breadth of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, which guide visitors from the Ice Age up through contemporary life on the nearby reservation, with numerous stops along the way. In its own way, and despite the far more limited resources and space, the Museum tells a parallel story to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, just filtered through the lens provided by this particular place and community. As such, visitors to the Museum come away with a deeply contextual and compelling sense of life (in every way) as it has unfolded for first millions of years, then thousands of years, then the last few centuries, and then in the daily experiences of contemporary Americans. That’s a really ambitious goal, and one the Museum pulls off in spades.
The second aspect I want to highlight couldn’t feel more different, but is unquestionably part of our 21st century engagement with the place and with Native American communities overall: the Museum is located adjacent to Foxwoods, the resort casino operated by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. Two of my NEASA Council colleagues and friends, Michael Millner and Jonathan Silverman, gave excellent talks on the complex relationships between the tribe, the casino, other historic and cultural sites, and images and realities of Native American life (past and present). As Jonathan in particular acknowledged, the casino is an incredibly fraught and contradictory space, one that represents on the one hand an important step forward for the tribe and yet on the other hand conjures up (in its own iconography and in the popular imagination) images that are at best stereotyped and at worst directly harmful toward Native Americans (I once heard an intelligent and generally well-informed woman argue that since the casinos now exist, Native Americans must be doing very well and certainly don’t need our help any more). But whatever we make of it, to my mind a visit to the Museum should also include a thoughtful encounter with Foxwoods—just try to keep your wallet safely out of reach while you’re there.
Next follow up tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?