SEA Scholar of the Month for November 2018: Christine deLucia
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I grew up and went to college in New England, so it was a big leap for me to move to southwestern Colorado one summer as an undergraduate to work at an interpretive center focused on Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures and histories. The immersion in western Indigenous place stories, environmental and archaeological issues, and connections to contemporary tribal nations was transformative for me, especially as a counterpoint to how “America” typically appeared through the literary and historical frameworks I had encountered up to that point. I returned to the Northeast after this and fortuitously registered for a Native American literature class with Lisa Brooks. Studying Indigenous texts with her helped open up vital questions about what constitutes history, memory, traces, and more. I also began to recognize important tensions between how many Americanist scholars tended to approach geography, chronology, archives, evidence, and nationalism, and how Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars recast these foundational issues. I recall being assigned Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in three different courses during a single semester, and realizing how significant yet also delimited her captivity narrative was. When I learned about seventeenth-century Indigenous incarceration and trauma on nearby Deer Island—a locale that challenges Boston’s entrenched “city upon a hill” and “Freedom Trail” self-narratives—I knew the Native Northeast was a region I wanted to devote myself to understanding in alternative ways. Deer Island became a focal point in my first book’s study of King Philip’s War and its contested remembrances (Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast [Yale UP, 2018]). It impressed upon me the importance of listening to and foregrounding tribal communities’ own perspectives on their pasts.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I tend to interpret “early American” in a capacious way. I have been enormously influenced by present-day Native authors whose writings and broader social endeavors engage critically with early American topics and their ongoing legacies. I keep returning to Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Drawing on intergenerational forms of Mohegan knowledge, it is woven through with insights about Mohegans’ and related Native communities’ strategic interactions with settler colonialism, and the vital ways that community members have maintained ancestral memories and guiding principles in the face of daunting, even existential, challenges. Texts like this, or any number of tribal-authored histories that reflect stewardship of culture and sovereignty over the longue durée, assist me in approaching early American texts with different questions and analytical frameworks. I also find the extensive archive of Indigenous/colonial treaties and land negotiations from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to be essential. These are collectively created documents that challenge certain Euro-American academic notions of authorship. Yet they are inescapably significant lenses onto diverse conceptions of place and governance, and pathways into understanding past actors’ expectations about their communities’ futures.
What are you currently working on?
I am grateful to be on leave at the Newberry Library in Chicago this year researching and writing my second book, a study of Native American, Euro-American, and African American entanglements in the eighteenth-century Northeast. It’s focused on the dynamics of knowledge production and community resilience in an era of pervasive transformations. I’m especially interested in decentering the “expertise” of colonial figures like the New England minister and Yale College President Ezra Stiles. He imagined himself a kind of “Indian” authority and even ally, yet was thoroughly contoured and blinkered by his own investments in settler colonialism before, during, and after the American Revolution. I am experimenting with decolonizing forms of writing that foreground Indigenous agents (especially women) and knowledge systems, material culture, practices of dwelling, and the ongoing reverberations of cross-cultural encounters right into the twenty-first century. I also have essays and articles in various stages of germination that reckon with museum and archival “collecting” practices, and Indigenous interventions into these oftentimes fraught repositories.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Since I’m currently living in the Great Lakes region, I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s marvelous Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, a meditation about Anishinaabe places, memories, and reading practices. I’m partway through Tiya Miles’s The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits,which works at a fine-grained scale to recast understandings of race and power. I often turn to fiction and poetry when I am trying to think beyond the conventional bounds of scholarly historical writing, so I am looking forward to diving into the collection New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich. And I am well down the rabbit hole of learning about new digital history projects that take on mapping, language, public history, and pedagogy in order to offer different avenues into past and present.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I am indebted to so many generous scholars, archivists, librarians, curators, community members, and my own students for shaping my intellectual pathways. Jean O’Brien, Lisa Brooks, Neal Salisbury, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, and Lawrence Buell have been especially important critical interlocutors. They have thought alongside me about new approaches to histories and methodologies, and taken up the ethical as well as political stakes of how our present moment engages with the past and its landscapes.
Christine DeLucia is Associate Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and will be joining the History faculty at Williams College in 2019.