As I relaxed towards the end of my first day in Syracuse, my mind kept coming back to a question I was asked earlier in the day. A local professor with whom I met with for coffee politely, but bluntly, asked why I chose to focus on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and wampum. I answered nervously, wondering if I could possibly give a “wrong” response. He listened intently and afforded advice where he could. (Which, to be fair, was in a lot of places.) But the question remained: what do I hope to accomplish with this research? Who am I helping? What does this do for both the academic world and the larger public as a whole? This professor asked these questions and forced me to unpack my thesis with intent; scholarship surrounding the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has a complicated relationship with the members of the nations themselves.
For years, beginning with the first European settlers and into the twentieth century, scholarship focused on the Six Nations has been improperly conducted. To oversimplify the subject, there are two major issues in Six Nations historiography among traditional historians: the contextualization of an Indigenous non-textual world into an immigrant text-based world and the misrepresentation of the Six Nations within that veiled contextualization. Dr. Philip Arnold, associate professor of History of Religions/American Religions at Syracuse University, noted this in his article “Black Elk and Book Culture” for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. “A more urgent problem,” Arnold wrote, “is how Black Elk Speaks represents the problem of the text in a world that is not textually oriented (i.e., the Lakota world)” (Arnold 1999). While Arnold spoke specifically towards the Lakota tradition, the point can be applied to other non-textual Indigenous traditions such as the Haudenosaunee.
This point has lead to misinformation of Haudenosaunee Confederacy and some down-right false scholarship concerning its traditions and peoples. Scholars, such as anthropologist William Fenton, perpetuated false theories on the political statehood of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy that were largely based on non-Native texts (Richard Hill 1992). This had, and is having, a wide-array of political and legal affects for members of the Six Nations in almost every period of Indigenous history since European contact. And, with the useful pushing and articulation of the professor and this information, I was formulated a more distinct topic for this trip.
My research will focus more closely on the political and legal struggles that stemmed from differences between Six Nations treaty-making (oral traditions and wampum) and European/American treaty-making (written tradition.) To what extent did the European/American written and material traditions affect their view on Haudenosaunee oral and wampum traditions? I will be using the seventeenth century Two Row wampum as a framework for political dealings between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and its immigrant neighbors. From there, I will move on to the modern legal battles that came from American misrepresentation of Six Nations political statehood as well as the revitalization of the Two Row wampum. Whenever possible, I will attempt to use primary sources gained through my research trip. Later on, I will incorporate Native and non-Native secondary sources that have conducted proper scholarship into the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. With my work, I hope to increase the available knowledge concerning the topics discussed above and help decrease the improper scholarship that had plagued previous research into the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. And so there I have answered the question that rattled my mind all day.
All the best,
P.S. I also wish to note another aspect from my cafe conversation, which hit a much more personal note: what do I want to want to get out of this research apart from its inclusion in the academic world? He began our conversation with asking about myself and who I was. My family was never one to speak of who or what we were or focus on our heritage. Why, then, was I focusing on the traditions and histories of a culture disassociated with my own? As well as being my first research-oriented trip, I believe my time in upstate New York will cultivate a lot of personal and internal discussion of my own identity. Perhaps that is too idealistic, or too dreamy, but will be followed nonetheless.
Arnold, Philip P. “Black Elk and Book Culture”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion vol. 67 (1999): 85-111. Accessed June 6, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466034
Hill, Richard. “Continuity of Haudenosaunee Government”. Indian Roots of American Democracy edited by José Barriero. Ithaca: Akwe:kon Press, 1992.