Transcript of Giving Voice: Chris Newell
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.
Today on Giving Voice, I talk with Chris Newall, co-founder and Director of Education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. In our last full episode, we covered roughly the first half of the life of Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet. Throughout the episode, we talked about danger of relying on sources produced in large by white colonizers to tell Native history, and how IHB and other history organizations are learning to broaden our ideas of what a source can be to include more Native voices in Native history.
To give you some more information on this topic and some context about why it’s so important, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who is working to bring these issues to light every day, and Chris Newall and the Akomawt Educational Initiative are doing just that.
And now, Giving Voice.
[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]
Beckley: We’re here today with Chris Newell from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and I’m gonna let you go ahead and introduce yourself, Chris.
Newell: Hi, Lindsey, hi everybody! My name’s Chris Newell and I’m a cofounder – one of three cofounders – of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. We’re located in the southeast corner of Connecticut, based out of Ledyard, Connecticut but we have roots all over Indian Country. I am originally Passamaquoddy from [place name], which is known as the Indian Township Preservation in Maine and live in Mashantucket and work at the Pequot Museum and do a lot of work – a lot of the focus of what we do is working with the Indigenous histories, helping with places that want to teach them in a culturally competent fashion to do so and hopefully create some resources, change some thinking in the future and make sure that when we talk about Indigenous histories that we include the voice of Indigenous people. So that’s the focus of what we do at Akomawt.
And just a little background – Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word. It comes from my language. It translates in English to the snowshoe path. It’s the symbol of our mission. Essentially, in the winter time, up in my territory, the snow shoe path was how you got out to where you needed to do work. When you needed to get back home, you found it again and traversed back on it. The more you used it, the easier it becomes to use and every season it renews. So that’s what we think about when we think about the educational initiative that we have brought forth here, is creating new learning paths for people to engage with Native content in a way that will be impactful as well as culturally competent, you know, trying to erase some of the old habits of Indigenous history in colonial spaces that have crept up and are still pervasive to this day.
Beckley: That’s great. And I know that we really admire your work. I know that one of the people here at the Historical Bureau saw you at the National Council on Public History and came back and we had a lot of really good conversations from that so, thank you for the work you’re doing and you continue to do and thank you for being here, of course.
Newell: Oh yea, absolutely love being here.
Beckley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those old habits you had mentioned. What are some of the habits that you were seeing and still see that you want to address with your initiative?
Newell: So, when it comes to museums, you know, essentially museums are places that were created by the colonization of America so when it comes to Indigenous histories told in museums, museums are essentially really colonial artifacts. Places of public history are oftentimes colonial artifacts and oftentimes tell the history of Indigenous people through that lens. American anthropology has a long history from the time it was founded of doing things like collecting human body parts, collecting material culture, and portraying a myth of saving the idea of the vanishing Indian, back in the early days of anthropology. Thoughts have changed over time but, you know, that’s kind of the basis of how these spaces were created in the first place and how a lot of these earlier books were created. And, so, there are some things that – some habits that were created back then. A lot of times, the use of generalized terminology – so Native, Native American, American Indian – to kind of put all Native peoples under one umbrella oftentimes appears and it’s not clear enough to a lot of people that there are literally, in existence right now in America, 573 separate, sovereign Native communities recognized by the government and over 1000 Native communities just in general in America – we’re not talking Canada and other places.
So there’s a really complex – there’s a serious complexity when it comes to Indigenous histories and when it comes to Indigenous contemporary issues and things of the sort. And unfortunately, museums generally still give the kind of general impression that we can put everything under the box of American Indian or Native American. If you visit a fine arts museum that has collections of fine art from around the world, literally all the Americans – the art of Americas – are usually places in one small room. So all of these 1000 different communities being represented in one small room. You know, it’s just – it give the general idea that we can put everything in one box and everything fits there when in fact there is no box that can contain the complexity of Native existence as well as our history and our arts and our cultural ways. So those old habits still exit today. We see changes happening when we see places like the MET have gotten rid of their Native American collection and have incorporated their Native American find art into their American wing. That was a big move there from a major museum of kind of rethinking how we present Native art as simply art, rather than cultural artifacts.
Also, the idea at a lot of public historical places, of presenting Native peoples as only existing in the past. That’s another old habit that is kind of pervasive today. I work at a major Native museum, and it’s not uncommon for a 4th grader to come into our museum, have a Native educator in front of them, and the first question they ask is, innocently, “When the Natives were alive …” and that’s how they begin their question. So there is literally a section – a significant portion of the population – that sees us as all dead and gone and vanished. And it’s largely due to the way public history is taught and the way it approaches Native Histories as if we are still having to be saved from being vanished, rather than incorporating the very vibrant ways that we have found ways to exist in the modern times and kept our culture alive and been very dynamic through history. And also, involved with all of American history.
That’s another thing with the story of America is that Native people are often so left out. And yet, the American Revolution was largely aided by Native peoples. All the way from that time – the industrial revolution was largely aided by work efforts in Native communities and things of that sort. And military times – you know, Native people have participated in the military in higher numbers per-capita than any other ethnicity in the United states and as a result, Native cultures were actually used in military structure and strategy to overcome things such as the code talkers from about 33 different tribes during World War II, which was a big part of the success of America in that war. So, in the story of America, Native people are, unfortunately, often let out as if we are a separate part of something else. And those are things that we at Akomawt are looking to address and looking to bring all together, so when we’re talking about the history of this land, we don’t just start at the time of colonization and think of it as only 400 or so years old. But rather, we think about people living on this land back 13,000 years at least, which includes Indigenous history as well and not erase that part of the history of this land here. Because Native people did exist here and thrive and subsist in a sustained fashion well – for millennia prior to any colonization. So, the idea that colonization saved Native people in some form is also something that we look to address as well. You know, so we really want to give Native perspective to a lot of these things. And that includes bringing Native voices and changing the framework by which Native history is taught inside of these colonial artifacts of public history such as museums to present them in a different framework that would expand the thinking outside of that box that we are constantly put inside of.
Beckley: That’s great. I know that we at the Historical Bureau have been thinking a lot about that and trying to come to terms with what we’ve done in the past and how we can improve ourselves going forward. And I think one of the major, I wouldn’t say blocks, but one of our – something that intimidates us about going forward is that, as public historians, we’ve gone through school. We’ve gone through, you know, some of us up to PhD level and all of it is learning how to use primary sources and how to read primary sources. And when we think of primary sources, we primarily think of written materials, weather that be documents or newspapers – things like that. Obviously, a lot of Native history isn’t written down in the same way European history was. And if it is, it was probably written by a European person. What are some of the sources that you turn to, to look at Native history?
Newell: Ok, so, the sources that I look forward to are really those conversations that I have in Native communities talking to people that have history there through multiple multiple multiple generations. And oftentimes, there are a lot of stories – a lot of oral histories that you can delve into that can really teach you a lot, especially when it comes to Native perspectives. So things like the name of the land, prior to colonization. Prior to the renaming of it. How did Native people name different aspect of land or the land that they live on? What was the lens that they viewed land through? So language is an important tool – so important for the view into the Native perspective. Native languages are so different from the English language. And that’s one of the things that I’ve delved into the most. So that requires from people that are language speakers and people that have that frame of mind of thinking through and Indigenous lens though language. And those are oftentimes elders, but not always, so sometimes you’ve got to spend some time and you’ve got to search out who is the respected person and who has these stories. Have conversations and just kind of let things come out as naturally as they would.
So oral histories for me are a bit part of what drives me because a lot of what they tell is not written down and what writing it down would do is kind of photograph it and freeze it in time because the stories do change over time, but that’s also part of the history. Viewing how to stories do change over time as well. So there is a way to view oral history that you can gain knowledge from that can be factual. But there is a method for viewing oral history that really takes some experience. You really need to be able to talk to a lot of people that have these histories and kind of get a sense of what a broad swath of how they’re viewing things, rather than just talking to one single person, which is the same as looking at one single primary – a piece of paper – a primary source document. It’s really the perspective of one person. So it’s kind of a failure of a primary document is that it does give an accurate photograph of that person’s view at that time. But it’s only that person and we’re not getting the swath of information across a broad perspective of people. So that’s why for me oral histories are one of the ways that I go and also I pay attention to the particular language. And just to give you a window into how different that is – the English language, when it was introduced to this land when the English arrived – has the blueprint of England. The ideas of land improvement – and I’m gonna put quotes around that word improvement – in 17th century English knowledge meant cutting down trees, planning crops, raising cows, chickens, and pigs – which are very different from the 13,000 years of sustainable farming and hunting practices and fishing practices that Native people had done for millennia. And would actually destroy the environment, upset the natural balance of things. And we’re currently still living under that and so that’s not sustainable here. You know, we’re seeing America return to Indigenous ways of knowing. So the Indigenous language has words that – of viewing land as property, and even viewing people as property. In the Algonquin language, at least in my language, land is not considered something that we can possess as an object. In fact, when we pick up a handful of dirt, the way we translate what would be the English equivalent of dirt really translates to “the molecules of our ancestors,” which shows Indigenous knowledge of the cycle of life and the science of all of that. And under that framework, with that translation, we see land as literally life. So if you pick up a handful of what would be in English dirt and you let that to fall out of your hand, that’s literally in our viewpoint, the molecules of your ancestors falling to the earth or literally life falling out of your hand and back to the earth. Therefore, how can you own life – if your framework, you cannot. And the land sustains everybody, not just people, but all animals, all life, is sustained by the land. Therefore, in our viewpoint, it cannot be owned. A lot of Native languages have similar kinds of concepts in them in that land is oftentimes considered in some shape or form alive. Or a version of substance. So elders, oral history, and language especially. Very very important to pay attention to the language of the people that lived on that land for thousands of years and have an intimate knowledge of it and developed a language around the way the land required them to live – to really have a knowledge of that history there. So please be sure you include knowledge of language and language keepers when talking about Native history there because of the importance of the framework.
Beckley: That is incredibly interesting. I have, of course, heard through my traditional education all about “Native people didn’t believe in land ownership,” but I never heard anybody, I don’t think, explain why they didn’t believe that. It’s always kind of a given of “of course they didn’t believe that. We believed that and they were different so that’s why.” Thank you for explaining that. That’s incredibly interesting to me.
Newell: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Absolutely.
Beckley: I wanted to ask if you think that our current methods of historiography are adequate for doing Native history. They’re just so based in a Eurocentric worldview and they’re roots are in Europe. So I want to know if you think that we just need to rethink the very foundations of how we’re doing history or is there a way to make our methods fit in with doing Native history?
Newell: Yea, so we really do need some radical thinking amongst historiographers and the way that we retell histories. And sometimes, in historical tellings we really try to achieve objectivity, which has its own merit and is valuable in its own right. However, there is something to be said for the subjective history. So to tell a story from a Native perspective completely is going to have a completely different ring to it than the primary source document history that was likely written by early Americans or people of European ancestry. And so, that’s one of the ways that we can rethink the way that we do these things. And technology is really affording us ways to bring back or to rethink how we do things. Some of these old things – one of the things that would often happen is that a lot of these things that were kept in collections were actually kept in the collection and you had to have special access to get to a collection to get that knowledge. And guess what? Some of that knowledge that was recorded by Europeans and early Americans is actually really factually and very valuable to Native communities who, through colonization, have in some way shape or form maybe have been forced to lose that knowledge. And by keeping it from native communities, you’re actually putting a block in front of them from getting a sense of sovereignty for themselves. Which includes not just self-governance, but also sovereignty in the way they tell their history.
For them to be able to look at those documents and then for them to be able to frame that information through their lens now allows historiographers who are largely translating it from one point of view, to see an opposing point of view, and when it comes to objectivity – that’s how we’re going to get to a more objective route there is by hearing both sides, which sometimes are opposed to one another. Which is totally find because not all things in history are very clear cut and we should discuss and debate. But we should also make sure that we are including all perspectives while we’re doing so and be aware when we’re not. So those are all things to consider for going forward there. And also creating long term relationships with tribal communities. For these colonial spaces of public history telling, that is such an important thing as well because when you bring a Native perspective into your museum, you can – there are ways to re frame the work essentially, decolonizing your museum. I know we use that term a lot these days, “decolonizing,” that’s really a way of re framing things back to an Indigenous perspective. My preferred word, when it’s applicable in actually re-indiginizing. So, what we’re doing is we’re taking a colonial space telling a story from a colonial perspective, and we’re going to take that history and then re-indiginize it because prior to colonization, this is the way the history was told was through an Indigenous lens, just not in a museum. So we’re taking that history and we’re re-indiginizing it through that fashion.
Beckley: So, for our last question, I think it might be a little bit redundant, but I keep on – I hear you talk about the importance of community engagement and including Native perspectives. Can you just elaborate on why it is so important to do these things and why it’s important for everybody who’s listening to be thinking about some of these questions?
Newell: Absolutely, So, in native communities, there is a lot of knowledge that gets passed down through the generations, and these types of things – that type of knowledge being passed down – doesn’t get a degree passed with it. There’s not a piece of paper that goes with that knowledge and these people become respected knowledge keepers in their communities. And when we approach these communities and we find these knowledge keepers and we’re going to bring them into these academic or public history spaces – the common thing is, if we were to bring in another academic, we would pay them for their service of research or knowledge in helping that institution to accumulate – we should also think of Native knowledge keepers who don’t have a master’s degree of a PhD to be on the same level of knowledge as somebody with a masters or PhD. It’s just that they have that level of knowledge on their own community and therefore, we should compensate them appropriately when we do involve their knowledge. Too often, one of the old habits of old anthropologists was to go into a Native community, extract knowledge, not give any compensation to the people they extracted the knowledge from, and then leave the community, write books, and develop careers based on what they have extracted from that community. And that really needs to change. There really needs to be some collaboration. Some equity. If we go back to the presentation that we did for NCPH, there really needs to be some equity in the collaboration and these colonial spaces really need to recognize Native knowledge keepers on the same level as the PhD’s that they have in their institutions and make sure that we treat their knowledge equally as well as compensate them properly because in this modern day world, unfortunately we cannot live necessarily off the lands we used to, and therefore, the use of money to get food and things – that’s what we all live under these days. Therefore, we should consider these traditional people with that compensation or, possibly maybe doing something for the community if they would choose not to have money because some of these people don’t want money. So when that happens, there should be some sort of give and take going with the community as well to acknowledge what is that, to make sure we’re lifting it up and putting it on the same level as those that would write about it that come from outside the communities.
Beckley: Thank you. I think, Chris, I think we’re running up against our time limit here but I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you wanted to say that I’ve left out – address any concerns that you have, or just promote yourself or your institute.
Newell: So, yes, once again we are the Akomawt Educational Initiative. You can find our website at www.akomawt.org. That’s the Passamaquoddy spelling. I know that the “k” sounds like a “g,” so that Akomawt, but it is a “k” in there. So, you can find out more information about what we’re doing and what we’re up to. We’re also on social media at Akomawt, on twitter at Akomawt as well as on Facebook, and those are the places that you can really see an up-to-date of what we’re up to in real time. And we have some other things that are coming up in the near future so follow our social media and keep an eye on our efforts – one of the things that we’re looking to do in the very near future is provide a database for Native American mascots for people who want to have conversations about that and to see the data about those schools and which ones have changed and all of the information. And in the future, possibly, a Native sourced website on treaties. So, once again, a very subjective history – we’re going to let tribes tell their own view of how treaties were historically signed with the U.S. government or with British government history. So, get a different side of the story as well. So that’s things you can look forward to from Akomawt. We look forward to this work – this is really something we’re all impassioned about, endawnis, Jason and I feel very strongly about this work and thank you so much for having us here to bring our voice to your podcast.
Once again, I want to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us for this segment. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, we will include a link to a great reading list compiled by Akomawt in our show notes, which you can find by going to blog.history.in.gov and clicking on Talking Hoosier History at the top.
We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow IHB on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for Giving Voice: Chris Newell:
Learn more about the Akomawt Educational Initiative at their website: akomawt.org.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, Akomawt has put together a phenomenal resource list, including websites, books and more. Find it here.
In the episode, Chris mentioned a database for Native American mascots that Akomawt was working on. In the intervening time since we spoke, that database has gone live and is a greats resource to learn about the history surrounding Native American Mascots, the conversations going on about the topic and ways to approach conversations on the topic. You can see that here.