Scholarship and Indigenous Place Thought seminar

I'm an archaeologist. The type of archaeology I do looks at the deep past where objects are really our only entree into narrating those worlds. But I'm the type of archaeologist who also looks at material culture in the unfolding present. So I'm pretty committed, for a variety of reasons, to taking material culture really seriously and encouraging students to take it quite seriously. In the specific work that I do in New Mexico, it's very important for me not to position myself as an ethnographer who studies people. People have been put under the microscope out here and there's a lot of offence that can be taken by the politics of representing other people. There's an interesting solution to that anthropological conundrum where I stand alongside my indigenous interlocutors and we both look at objects together and talk about them. Object oriented research does good analytical work of opening up worlds of conversation and history. So materiality lies at the center of what I do. 

Indigenous Place Thought was one of my favorite courses that I have ever taught. I do think it’s important to start by saying that I think it went well because I had great students.  They were all very, very present. I think a lot of the students had a political commitment towards conversations around indigeneity what it means to be indigenous.  I'm on ancestral Picuris Pueblo land and that became a theme of the course that was being convened by me on this indigenous land. The students got to meet with tribal elders, and they conducted interviews, and transcribed them and we're putting a book together for the tribe. They're interested in having their histories documented for this water rights case that's looming. So the students were doing that kind of activism as part of the course. 

In terms of the structure of the course, the two pieces that I really held onto as really central were first, weekly dialogues with elders from various tribes, who I'm in dialogue with. In the course we had conversations amongst ourselves on Tuesdays. And on Fridays, we usually hosted someone the students were in dialogue with. And that worked very well.  I think that everyone regarded it as a real honor to speak with some of these folks like Victor Masayesva, one of the most important Hopi or native filmmakers.  The other piece was to really assert the in-place sense of where students were in the world during all this and to take advantage of the fact that they were in loads of different places. There were students in Honolulu, there were students in the Middle East, there were students all over North America. And it was important to own that and to have a lot of their assignments be based on an engagement with place. This is where I suppose the thread of an embodied material encounter is important. 

Still from Victor Masayesva's "Imagining Indians" film
Still from Victor Masayesva's film, "Imagining Indians" (1992). Masayesva was one of the guests invited to Professor Fowles' Indigenous Place Thought seminar.

On a series of mornings I had them go and find a spot where they could address the rising sun. Students really loved that. The first in the series was to go and just listen, and to be present with the sun as it rises.  We had read a number of indigenous Pueblo prayers to the sun, which were part of our thinking about indigenous relationships to place. They had to sit there and watch the sun rise and listen. And then the next time they went and they composed a response and orated it. And then the third time was really just to listen again. And then students submitted those addresses to the sun as one of their essays. It was quite lovely and articulated with a lot of the indigenous writings that we were reading.  The other pieces of that emplaced aspect of the course were a series of essays that were placed-based essays where they were writing about a location, preferably, that they were co-present with and that was important to them. And they wrote about their own biography in that place. They wrote another essay looking at the material signifiers within that place. But then they move towards a deeper inquiry into the indigenous histories that are so often obscured within those places. 

My favorite part of the course was one that I never got to enact.  I spent hours out in the landscape out here in New Mexico, collecting these quartz cobbles that are referred to as lightning stones, and you go into the dark and rub these stones together and they start to luminesce and spark. I got my daughter to help me write all of the students’ addresses on boxes and I was going to send those stones to the students to make New Mexican lightning, and then to write about the heavens in their own place. And then I wanted them to treat those stones as an obligation to come to New Mexico at some point in the future and bring them back. 

The other intervention of the course was to say that as an anthropologist, we teach lots of courses on Native History, of course. And usually, there are indigenous scholars represented, but I personally had never taught a course in which all the texts were by Native scholars. And a lot of my colleagues didn't think you could fill a course with Native scholarship. So I got quite invested in putting this forward in a bigger way so that we could actually say, “Look, you know, you could construct your whole course and you don't need to read any white guys.”  The other part of the course was to say that there can be tribal members who are actually present in the course and addressing us - so it would be kind of shifting the ground to have that authority, in the course, not just in the readings, but in those who addressed us. And we did read two white scholars to address the condition of non-indigeneity. We read Michel Agier’s Non-Places which was important as a foil.  We did include Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places. The Jicarilla Apache, who I work with, really respects that book a lot. It was kind of interesting that the native interlocutor during that week wanted to use that as a way of talking about how white folks can get it right sometimes. 

There were some crazy and wonderful moments in the course.  When Victor Masayesva talked about COVID it was really linked to Hopi notions of prophecy, and it was stunning to hear him speak. Archeologist Mary Weahkee who is Santa Clara and Comanche joined us to think about objects in particular. So the point was how places get drawn together in objects.  Mary is a native craftsperson, really renowned and so she was there in sharing with us all of these feathered blankets she had made and how she produces objects. Students were meant to be thinking about the difference between the objects they brought from their surroundings that they had attachments to but had no idea where the materials came from, to, to the way, objects were deeply ecological within this kind of indigenous tradition that she was sharing.  Mary showed us how she makes yucca twine, and the importance of teaching the youth how to be able to produce with local materials. And all of this was situated within a sort of very dark conversation about the Anthropocene that had been sort of paralleling our conversation about indigeneity in the class. 

Photo of Mary Weahkee,weaving a blanket with thousands of feathers from turkey hunters
Mary Weahkee, archeologist with the Department of Cultural Affairs in Santa Fe, New Mexico, weaving a blanket of turkey feathers. Photograph by Martin Perea for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. A video of Weahkee making the blanket can be watched here.

Now, even though the Indigenous Place Thought seminar has ended, the students are voluntarily considering continuing the interviews with the tribal elders about tribal experiences with COVID. It’s triggering those early colonial experiences with smallpox that devastated everything.  So the project is about making sure that the tribal experience with COVID is recorded. 

The digital as material 

It's a real problem when the digital gets treated as immaterial. The fact that our eyes burned, is evidence enough that this is a real infrastructure. We talked about this a lot [in class]. And actually, the indigenous place course, you know, the fact that we're resuming together is by virtue of all sorts of infrastructures that cross indigenous lands of great pluralities all around the continent into the world. So there's nothing immaterial about all of this. 

 This is the classic question of infrastructure. Infrastructure is meant to be invisible, as are the people who work on it. They're supposed to be hidden away behind walls, or underground, so within anthropology, the real impetus to have a critical investigation of infrastructure is to make visible that hidden world, and I think there's nowhere that that's more significant than in the online world. My focus in the seminar was on the building off of conversations around Standing Rock and other infrastructural conversations that we were having in the class about native lands and their relationship to these big infrastructures that are so central to the state. 

Within Native American Indigenous Studies, typically one begins to talk or a class or by invoking, you know, the indigenous communities whose land we are on.  But I have real issues with those land claim statements, partly because it reifies history.  There’s a plurality of peoples who have attachments to those places. There’s a lot of complexity that gets washed out. But it's also the case that you have someone come and give a talk:  well, they just flew across the country, they traversed so many indigenous lands for that event to happen.  

There’s no way of even quantifying what our footprint is, in terms of internet usage. So it never gets talked about. And, indeed, it’s quite the opposite. 

There's an enthusiasm about reducing travel to conferences and having these Zoom opportunities.  I still think that’s a net good of this experience.  It’s really unethical to fly to Japan to give a 15-minute talk. I do think that there's a space for thinking about how online spaces could replace some of that unjustifiable travel and especially for tenured faculty who don't need to network anymore in the same ways. Elizabeth Cook in Environmental Science really is someone who is at the intersection of social science and science-science. She has had some of the most interesting comments about building local networks, having gatherings that are local that are sort of networked with other gatherings that are local. 

Zoom’s potential as equalizer 

 Zoom is blowing my mind a little bit - like these oral histories that we were conducting tribal elders. That's been something really great. And I was hearing the folks who direct StoryCorps talk about this on the radio - that Zoom has worked remarkably for a lot of oral history work going on right now. It is very effective. 

It's also like everybody's equally objectified by Zoom. I think there are shared vulnerabilities. Zoom allows the vulnerability of the students looking into my living room or my office or special vulnerabilities that come with what we're experiencing right now that would be impossible to replicate otherwise.  Owning that materiality of the online experience is important: though a lot of my seminar this fall, one student painted and that was her way of being present in the conversation.  Another student might knit. Others have a cat in their lap or a cup of coffee in their hand. And, you know, I grew to really value that I thought that was lovely. There were ways of sharing in that embodied intimacy, the kind of thing that wouldn't have been able to happen in the classroom. I think those are the happier aspects of this experience. Obviously there are the burning eyes, the crouching over [the computer] - the unhappy aspects of it. 

The other thing about Zoom I really don't feel like we've acknowledged enough that we have successfully actually dismantled some of the hierarchies that govern the classroom. There’s a lot that I don't like about Zoom, obviously, but I do think it has finally succeeded in me not being the person in charge.  It really does feel like we're all struggling through something. And there's something interesting about that, and it will be a loss when we go back to a classroom that has that spatial hierarchy built into it.

Being able to offer commentary in the chat really just creates all sorts of new opportunities for different levels of intervention. You know, I had students pushing back against me in the chat; students really didn't hesitate.  Some students will make some intellectual critical interventions, and they'll do it in the chat. And I'm going to miss that when we go back into the classroom.  It feels very hierarchical to me. Maybe there are some creative ways of doing a critical rethinking of the spatiality of the normal classroom.