Saturday, October 17, 2015
October 17-18, 2015: Siobhan Senier's Guest Post on Dawnland Voices
[Siobhan Senier is Associate Professor of English and English Graduate Program Director at the University of New Hampshire. Her groundbreaking scholarship, teaching, and activism in American Studies, Native American Studies, and New England Studies have offered a model for this AmericanStudier for many years, and I’m very excited to share this Guest Post on one of her most recent and most important projects.]
Many thanks to Ben for inviting this guest post on Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Writing from Indigenous New England. If your concerns here are to introduce “compelling writers and voices,” and to ponder the “differences these might make to our national identity and narratives,” then this new anthology definitely aspires to contribute.
It was more than ten years ago that I started compiling material for this book. Upon coming to teach in New England, I felt a responsibility to represent the indigenous writers of this place. But no one seemed to know who those writers are, aside from the two Heath anthology staples, Samson Occom and William Apess. I hated to see our teaching and scholarship perpetuating the vanishing-Indian mythology. We northeasterners do love our James Fenimore Cooper and apocryphal chiefs jumping off cliffs.
Almost immediately, I figured out that I wasn’t going to be able to publish a collection of regional indigenous writing on my own steam. I started inviting area indigenous writers and historians to my classes, and it became eminently clear that they knew their own literary histories, whether or not these had survived the much-vaunted “test of time.” Wayne Newell (Passamaquoddy) showed me bilingual books Xeroxed or even mimeographed for dissemination among tribal members. The Dove family (Narragansett) kept copies of the short-lived 1930s magazine The Narragansett Dawn, and the many other writings of its editor, Princess Red Wing. Lisa Brooks told me about nineteenth century Abenaki-language primers, long out of print but still cherished and circulated among Abenaki people. And hilariously, tribal elders were patently unimpressed by my archival “discoveries.” When I asked Joan Tavares Avant (Mashpee Wampanoag) if she knew of Wampanoag poets, she hesitated, until I triumphantly showed her Alfred DeGrasse, who had published in the Carlisle Arrow. “Oh, him,” she said, and proceeded to tell me about her great-aunt Mabel Avant, whose poems are still recited at tribal events today.
So I asked as many people as I could whether they would be willing to serve as editors for a new collection of this literature. Indigenous knowledge-keepers, after all, are in the best position to select materials that are meaningful in their communities, whatever their “literary” credentials. They knew where to find historic writings and from whom to solicit newer ones. They knew how to navigate culturally sensitive questions surrounding which texts to include, and which to leave out. They knew how to present this material to a diverse audience of tribal and non-tribal readers. We organized Dawnland Voices by tribal nation, because the editors felt that this best reflected how Native people think of their own literary histories. The beauty of how this played out is that every tribal nation’s section has its own distinct character, determined partly by tribal history and partly by the editor’s knowledge and approach. Jaime Battiste, an attorney by training, selected heavily historic and legal documents for the Mi’kmaq section. Stephanie Fielding and Donald Soctomah used their broad community connections to solicit quite a bit of contemporary poetry for the Mohegan and Passamaquoddy sections. Ruth Garby Torres and Trudie Lamb Richmond drew on their considerable family archives for the Schaghticoke section. Indeed, finding material was never the problem. The book clocks in at nearly 700 pages and includes a rather dazzling variety of genres: a redrawn petroglyph; news articles; a triolet and hip-hop poems; blog entries; political petitions and historic letters; language lessons and recipes. And there was still so much more we could have included.
The anthology thus challenges the formation of “New England,” and of “American literature” more broadly, insofar as it puts the original people of these places, presumed to have vanished, back at the center—not only as authors, but also as stewards and scholars of their own literary histories. Carol Bachofner, one of the Abenaki poets in the volume, calls it “the gathering place.” She says, “it’s like a small village, where all these voices have come together, in terms of historical documents, and exposé, and telling things that were secret for so long because they were painful or shameful, all the way through to the light-hearted song lyrics. . .all of those things have come together and now exist for those people who have forever, really, not understood us, to understand us.” These voices are telling stories of settler colonial violence, yes, but also of continuous indigenous presence, of survival and resilience and resurgence.
Because there was so much more we could have included, we are starting an online extension of Dawnland Voices. (As I write this we are migrating from indigenousnewengland.com to dawnlandvoices.org). We have spaces for tribal historians to upload and curate historic documents; for students to collaborate with Native institutions on exhibits; and for young and emergent writers to share their work. We very much welcome new project partners—whether you are an aspiring Native writer; a tribal member or a museum/archival employee with particular documents to share; or a teacher of Indigenous Studies who would like to involve your students in this kind of work--so please do contact Siobhan.Senier@unh.edu if this looks of interest.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]