Monday, April 2, 2012


I'd like to begin with with a short apology for not posting in some time. No, I haven't been abducted or involved in a horrible car accident while traveling on the road--although I have logged quit a few miles since my last post. Instead, I spent some of the past week or so celebrating a birthday, driving, overcoming a case of influenza, and writing. But, I'm back.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the Myaamiaki Conference on Miami Tribe Scholarship at Miami University of Ohio. This year marked the fifth time that the Myaamia Project and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma hosted the biennial event. The conference centered on the theme of Meeloniteeheelotaatiiyankwi, or “we reflect.” The theme marked several major milestones in the relationship between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the university; the fortieth anniversary of an official relationship between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, twenty years of Myaamia student scholarships (and the creation of the Myaamia Project in the academic year 1991-92), and ten years since the first Miaamiaki Conference. For me, it was my first attending the conference and meeting many of the people associated with the Myaamia Project.

The conference was a combination of scholarly presentations, informational presentations on the history of the Myaamia Project, and panel discussions with faculty and students who have contributed to the collaborative effort between the university and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. It ranged from complex linguistic analyses of Myaamia stories to the genetic relationships between Myaamia Miincipi (Miami White Corn) to the experience of current and former Myaamia students at Miami University of Ohio. As I sat through the day’s worth of presentations and panels, one thought crossed my mind—I knew less about Myaamia language and culture than I thought. As a scholar of early- and mid-nineteenth century Indiana history I’ve studied the complex history of commercial relationships between Miami chiefs and Anglo-traders; but in the larger picture of what I witnessed on Saturday, that was only a tiny fraction of the story. Interestingly, I realized that the less I knew and the more uncomfortable I felt as an “expert” on the subject, the more encouraged I felt as a responsible and culturally sensitive scholar.

I also took the opportunity this weekend to embrace the conference theme of “reflect.” I was impressed by the mutually beneficial relationship that has been forged between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University of Ohio. The university hosts an office specifically dedicated to the Myaamia Project and tribal relations. Faculty members develop courses that take students to Indian Country and work with the Miami Nation. (Perhaps the most fascinating presentation centered on a computer science course that developed an iPhone application that scans barcodes that are placed around the home. Those barcodes link to an audio file that voices the item in the Myaamia language.) These forms of service learning, dedicated to aiding the Myaamia community, make me want to return home and do something.

My home institution, Oklahoma City University, sponsors an American Indian Scholarship program—offering free tuition, basic room and board, and book stipend to about 25 qualified students each academic year (if you know a young Native student who would like a free education, please pass that information and link along). Student scholars have been proactive in organizing their own activates, student organization, and community on campus, but they lack the type of institutional support that appears on the Miami University campus. More importantly, Oklahoma City University (located in the heart of Indian Country) represents an older paternalistic approach to educating American Indian youth that the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Miami University have seemingly overcome. The OCU AIS webpage states, “Not only is this opportunity incredible for students of American Indian descent, it is exciting for Oklahoma City University as we build on our history and commitment to serving Oklahoma.” But are Oklahomans really what the scholarships are about? What about serving the interests of sovereign tribes or nations and their community members? Shouldn’t that be the objective? Shouldn’t we be reaching out to the communities to identify those needs?

Moreover, Oklahoma City University houses a Native American Legal Resource Center within its Law School. Its mission statement--“to utilize knowledge and resources to serve the needs of Indian Country in a culturally appropriate and efficient manner for a maximum positive impact”—more closely resembles the relationship between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, but it’s sequestered within the Law School—at OCU rarely do the paths of undergraduates and law students cross, except perhaps at Alvins’ CafĂ© as they fight for cups of coffee in the morning. Hopefully, this will not always be the case.

This weekend has inspired me to return to OCU and push administrators and faculty to rethink the relationship between our philanthropic (and perhaps paternalistic) scholarship program and the larger objective of aiding Native communities in Oklahoma. While my time on the road has saved me from the incessant state-sponsored commercials on Oklahoman television that reject the water rights of sovereign nations, I have not forgot that OCU could be a place where Native community members gain legal expertise that could be used to defend communities against the ever-encroaching interests of Oklahomans and Oklahoma City.

In all, I left the weekend exhausted, enlightened, and encouraged. I can only hope to gain the willpower and commitment to see some of reflections reach fruition. Ultimately, I hope that you (as a reader and witness) will hold me to it. Until next time.....

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Miami Chiefs and Muffler Men

I’m enjoying a brief respite, while awaiting a week’s worth of work at Miami University of Ohio later this month, and hoping that the short break will provide me with some time to update the blog and solicit your thoughts on a few stumbling blocks in my research. A project that began as an attempt to better understand the life of Miami war chief Francis Godfroy, has morphed into an exploration of history and memory in the state of Indiana. Nowhere is this clearer to me than the example of Cyrus Dallin’s statue “Appeal to the Great Spirit” in Muncie, Indiana. As I’ve written previously, the city adopted the imaginary “Chief Munsee” as it’s municipal symbol despite the fact that the statue and its subject have no connections to local history. I’m not going to recount that story here, but the more that I’ve dug into this topic the more confused I get. Most of my academic work centers on the production of local knowledge and the construction of imagined communities, but rarely have I encountered so many strange stages in how stories are constructed. In the case of Muncie, Indiana, the involvement of a single gentleman has thrown my initial interpretations on their head.

In the 1970s, William F. Hale, also known as Miami Chief Mon-Gon-Zah, attended many of the historical pageants and parades held in Muncie, Indiana (he is the gentleman pictured above). Hale had been chosen as chief of the Miamis in 1961 at an election held in Marion, Indiana. Hale’s tenure as chief marked a period in Miami history when three separate individuals claimed to be chiefs of the Indiana Miamis. I don’t want to pass judgment about William Hale’s claims as chief or his ancestral ties to the Miami community. Instead, I’d like to better understand his role in validating the fictional narrative of Chief Munsee and the local stories that the Muncie community told itself about its indigenous past. In most of the communities that I've studied, whites have erected fantastical fictions about their region's indigenous past. In almost all of these cases, they've done so alone. It seems, however, that William Hale actively participated in the construction of Muncie's local history.

Chief Mon-Gon-Zah provided the white Muncie community with an “authentic Indian voice” as they composed local pageants, participated in parades, and rewrote their history. Even in the community’s veneration of the “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” Hale was not a passive bystander. In fact, he directly participated in consecrating the statue as THE symbol of the community by serving on a committee that chose the image as the centerpiece of the municipal flag. As I’ve dug deeper into William Hale’s life and his participation in these events, things get even more complicated. In the 1960s and 1970s Hale attended many, if not most, of the historical celebrations held in Muncie, despite not being from the city (he lived in nearby Eaton—half-way between Muncie and Montpelier). At those events, he set up an “Indian village” where he displayed Indian objects and told stories to anyone who would listen. The “village” consisted of a large teepee marked with his name, Mon Gon Zah, on the door flap (the image above is taken of his village at one of these events).

Hale also befriended academics at Ball State University (along with local radio and television personality Chris Schenkel) and “adopted” them into the Miami tribe—giving them Miami names and honorary titles. Ball State Professors Frances Fox Miller (English) and Althea Stoekel (after whom the university archives are named) used their association with Hale to advance their own narratives about local history. They also served with him on the flag commission and many of the historical pageant committees. Miller even penned a romanticized play about "Indian Jim" and "Indian Sallie" that was performed across Indiana. All of these individuals became instrumental in shaping local knowledge about Muncie’s indigenous past and the veneration of Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit." They did so as "Indian experts." So what to think about this process? How should William Hale be viewed in his role of crafting local stories and images? What was his motivation?

It’s clear that William Hale was interested in preserving local indigenous history, but it’s less clear about what he thought that history comprised. How can I explain his use of plains-
style teepees; his participation on committees and commissions that elevated Dallin’s statue to a state of local adoration; and his business card (see right)? Could he have been attempting to keep AN indigenous history alive in Muncie despite anachronism? It’s fictions? Was there some other motive? One thing is certain: white members of the community used his “Indianness” to validate their stories. As long as he approved, they adopted those fictions as fact.

Well, this explains the first half of today’s blog title, but not the second. As I’ve written before, I find that serendipity guides my research as much as anything else. I've become pretty adept at gaming the system when it comes to securing hotels for research--move over William Shatner, there's a new Priceline negotiator in town. Part of my success involves weekend stays at the homes of friends and relatives (when rates go up and libraries are closed). After conducting research in Muncie on Dallin's "Appeal to the Great Spirit," I drove from Indiana to Ohio and spent a few nights at my parents' house. Over beers and a ballgame, I described to my father what I had found. "Yeah, I think I've seen that statue," he said.

"When have you been to Muncie?" I replied.

"I'm not sure it was Muncie. I was at an auction a few years ago and remember seeing a big Indian statue, but I don't think it was that far," he responded. "You have a map?"

My father is a salt-of-the-earth farmer and factory worker with a high school education. I was surprised at first with his interest in my project--since he normally could care less about my scholarly pursuits--but something told me he wasn't going to stop until he figured out where he had seen a "giant statue of an Indian."

It soon became clear that we were talking about different statues.

"It takes up a city block and is, oh, about twenty-five feet tall, right?"

"Not even close," I responded.

Eventually our map quest led us to Montpelier, Indiana. After opening the wikipedia page, I was stunned at both the image and the description. My father was right. In the center of town, occupying an entire city block, resides a twenty-five foot tall statue of a Native American warrior, arm raised to the sky.

The description provided by Wikipedia declares that the statue is of former Miami chief Francis Godfroy; a historical marker signifying the former site of the Godfroy Reserve rests directly in front of the behemoth fiberglass monstrosity (the marker was erected by the Francois Godfroy chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution). Holy Cow!! My side adventure in Muncie, which had very little to do with the person I went there to study (Francis Godfroy) had led me to. . . .Francis Godfroy.

After a little side research, I discovered that the city of Montpelier claims that the statue was donated to the city by Miami chief Larry Godfroy (who was one of the three Miami chiefs of Indiana at the time that William Hale served as chief). The statue purportedly stood in front of the old "Indian Museum" at Eagle Creek in Indianapolis (many of the objects in that collection were forwarded to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art).

The statue certainly is not a statue of Francis Godfroy. Instead, it's part of a genre of outdoor advertising called muffler men. You may have seen one or more of these while motoring across the United States--they appear as giant Paul Bunyans, cowboys, lumberjacks, and stereotypical plains warrior Indians They were created in the 1960s for gas stations and auto repair shops to attract business--because nothing says "get your car fixed here" like a giant ax-weilding Paul Bunyan. In many ways, they are the 1960s equivalent of the wacky wavy inflatable arm flailing tube man.

Like Muncie, the community in Montpelier, Indiana, has come to adopt the statue as their own--developing a localized history and incorporating it into their city webpage. I'm not sure what to make of Montpelier's story just yet, although I may be able write an entire book on local imagery of Native Americans in Indiana before this is all finished. Something is at work is this state, where a remarkable number of local communities remake their indigenous history and replace it with fictionalized foundation narratives with ahistorical statues as illustrations.

Nor am I certain what to make of Miami leaders, like William Hale or Larry Godfroy, who aided communities in the construction of these localized histories. Clearly I've got much more work to do. I'm heading back to Muncie in April and plan to visit Montpelier at that time. The best I can do for now is start to deconstruct these local narratives and images and ask the larger internet community for help. So, whatcha say?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sweet Home Chicago

I apologize for the dearth of blog posts in recent days, but this week has been nothing less than a blur of hurried flights, professional commitments, and loss of sleep.

As some of you are aware, I abandoned my permanent residence at the end of February in exchange for life on the road. Since most of my research takes me to places far outside of Oklahoma, I decided to relinquish my apartment, place all my earthly belongings in storage, and live out of hotels and the spare rooms of family and friends. I know what you’re thinking; sounds exciting. Well, let me tell you the first thing I learned about living this way--you run out of clean underwear and socks a lot quicker than you think. Commitments required my return to Oklahoma City this week, where I’ve been living out of a local hotel—I feel like a stranger in a city that I’ve come to call home.

I returned to OKC earlier in the week to speak at the Spanish Cove retirement home in Yukon, Oklahoma. Yukon is a relatively small western suburb of the city—and where I normally live when a full-time resident of the Sooner State. It’s part old rural Oklahoma—local furniture stores still sell wagon wheels as interior decorations—and part modern suburbia. It also happens to be the birthplace of Garth Brooks and proudly boasts his name on water towers, city signs, and a stretch of North 11th Street that has been renamed Garth Brooks Boulevard (home of Walmart, Target, Staples, and Lowes).

Each year the Oklahoma Humanities Council sponsors a program called “Let’s Talk About it Oklahoma.” It’s essentially a community book club. At the beginning of each fall and spring, local coordinators choose one of several themed programs and then invite scholars to lead public lectures and discussions on each of the books. This year, the Yukon public library picked a theme on early Presidential politics. As a local Yukonian/Yukonite/Yukon—something, they asked me to provide a public lecture and lead discussions on Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx. Most of the participants are elderly members of the community, which best explains the Yukon public library’s decision to host the lecture at the local retirement home. I’m not normally nervous about speaking in public, but this time was different. How would an elderly, rural Oklahoman audience respond to my interpretation of Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the modern Republican party’s abuse of Jefferson? My fears were short-lived, as the audience of about 45 seniors tore apart Ellis’s apologetic account of the third president. The discussions were lively and reminded me why I continue to present public lectures—despite my experience a few years ago, when I was duped into speaking for a chapter of the Confederate Veterans of America in the back room of a Denny’s (my honorarium: a Grand Slam Breakfast). But, that’s a different story.

On Wednesday, I switched gears and hopped a 6:00am flight to Chicago. If a small coffee shop in Bowling Green, Ohio marks the beginning of my academic career (see my first blog post), then Chicago and the Newberry Library represents a moment of maturation on my larger intellectual journey. When I arrived at Purdue University in August of 2002, my research primarily focused on white settlement in the lower Great Lakes. Encouraged by faculty at Purdue to explore the larger consequences of settler-colonialism, especially through the work of American Indian Studies scholars, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar being sponsored by the CIC American Indian Studies Consortium and held in conjunction with the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian Studies. The CIC AISC represented the collective efforts of the Big Ten schools, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois-Chicago to bring together students, scholars, and independent researchers.

It so happened that the seminar was led by Susan Sleeper-Smith—PhD advisor to my good friend, Joe Genetin-Pilawa, at Michigan State University. Joe and I had attended Bowling Green State University together as undergraduates in the 1990s. In fact, I often joke that despite the advice and concern of friends and family who incessantly inquired—what the hell are you going to do with a history degree—we both ended up getting PhD’s and tenure track jobs. We both took Susan Sleeper-Smith’s seminar in 2003 and held fellowships at the Newberry Library during our PhD studies. On Wednesday, he was one of two scholars presenting as part of the D’Arcy McNickle Center’s American Indian Studies Seminar. I used the seminar as an opportunity (and excuse) to revisit the Newberry Library and see old friends. The seminar was engaging and intellectually stimulating.

For my undergraduate students, seminars at the Newberry Library are far from lectures or classes. Instead, scholars and researchers apply to take part in these workshops, where some of the brightest minds in the Chicago area come together to critique and discuss their work. The “presenters” supply the library with a research paper (perhaps 20 pages or so) and the D’Arcy McNickle Center circulates those to attendees prior to the seminar. The “presenter” is asked to contextualize their work in a brief 5-10 minute overview and then the twenty or so attendees spend the following hour and a half asking questions, providing suggestions, and generally discussing the papers. It’s an absolutely amazing experience for both the presenters and the attendees. Watch out: I’m thinking about conducting classes in this way sometime in the future.

Afterward, I had the great privilege of going out to dinner with Joe Genetin-Pilawa and Rachel Buff, who traveled down from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to attend the seminar. Both Joe and I had been students of Rachel Buff when she taught at Bowling Green State University at the beginning of her career, but I had not seen her since leaving BGSU almost a decade ago. It was nice catching up and I look forward to ongoing conversations (as well as the writing group that spurred from our dinner).

I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago over the past decade and often feel at home there, but I’m not sure why. I could care less about the Magnificent Mile; I could care less about local museums and parks; I could care less about the Sears Tower (other than I refuse to call it anything else); and I could less about Chicago sports (okay, I kind of care about the Cubs). So why do I feel so attached to the Windy City? Perhaps, it’s because each time I travel there I’m engaged in larger intellectual pursuits, like I was this past Wednesday. Living life on the road raises questions about the meaning of home. As a transient, I have many homes. If home is where the heart is, then Oklahoma is home. If home is where family is, then Ohio might be home. But, if home is where the mind is, then perhaps Chicago is home.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Waiting for Godfroy

I’ve reached an existential crisis as a scholar and historian. As a teacher, I have no problem seeing the fruits of my labor through the successes of current and former students. But, scholarly reassurances are far more elusive. Perhaps this is the case of all first time authors who simultaneously await reception of their initial book while charging forth with new projects. It’s a dual feeling of trepidation and excitement. At times it can be paralyzing. Unless validated by colleagues for the first book, what gives me the right to move forward?

It also raises questions about my role as a historian in writing about the dead. What are my responsibilities? As a historian educated in the twenty-first century, I’ve been trained most specifically to find the ironies that plague our past. But is it enough to simply highlight the contradictions of colonialism (in the case of indigenous studies) or argue that the past is more complex than we once believed? Certainly there is more to what we do, right?

When I teach historical methods and practices, I almost always begin with Jill Lepore’s insights about studying and writing about people of the past (for her students, individuals associated with the American Revolution). In a humorous and perceptive handout she reminds undergraduate students at Harvard, “You’ll be dead one day, too, so please play fair, and remember: never condescend. It’s probably bad enough being dead without some smart aleck using your life and times to make a specious claim.” Scholar Avery Gordon asks us to think about the “complex personhoods” of those whom we study. “All people,” she argues, “remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others.” In essence, in every time period, humans have pulled from their pasts to make their present and project an image for their future. Thus, to study them requires a delicate and deliberate touch. One in which we tease apart these varying elements of their worlds. We might also remember David Lowenthal’s reminder to study the past as a foreign country—recognizable yet different than our own. As I’ve thought about how to approach Francis Godfroy, all of these ideas have popped in and out of my head. But I’ve struggled most with my personal role in writing about his life.

When I first began this project, I wanted to refocus the manuscript and interject myself as the central character. In the style of John McPhee, the book would be about my journey. My own experiences would serve as entryways into discussing larger issues about Godfroy and the Miami Indians. My students joked that I was heading down the road of becoming the Nicholas Cage of historians—hunting for treasures and retelling my adventure stories? I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not. Were they referencing the Nicholas Cage of National Treasure or Ghostrider? Regardless, my working title highlighted the focus on self: “Finding Francis Godfroy.”

I’m torn between writing the book as a biography or as a postmodern search and methodological guidebook for studying a person of the past. In an email exchange with George Ironstrack (of Miami University of Ohio’s Myaamia Project), he suggested that I title the book “Waiting for Godfroy”--a clear allusion to Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” I’m not sure whether I’m Vladimir or Estragon in this analogy, but in any case, like Beckett’s work, the title hints at the absurdity of waiting for the unknown (in this case the dead) to arrive and speak to us. Instead, the book would focus on the journey itself. Ultimately, ending with an admission that I can’t speak for the dead or truly write their story, only my own. Until very recently, I wasn’t sure how to express these thoughts into words. And then…….

After my last post on dead historians and oddly placed statues, my friend Coll Thrush commented on the blog’s Facebook link. I’m not sure how many readers caught his comment there, but I thought it worth sharing here. “I increasingly think of us as translators for the dead,” he wrote, “which in other societies would be a sacred task.” What a profound thought. And one that makes a historian reflect on their special role in conversing with those who have come before us.

I’ve been on an intellectual journey as of late, attempting to explain to myself why studying the past is important; why digging into the lives of the deceased is worth the inordinate time spent in the archives; why I have the right to write on their behalf. Coll’s thoughts best address those dilemmas. It is a sacred task—one that requires a deft hand, an open mind, and sensibilities perhaps lost on our predecessors. We write for a purpose—to remind ourselves that large and obscure historical issues (like colonialism) had/have real, personal, and intimate consequences. Studying the past is ultimately about engaging with the lives of people and places. And that should not be an easy thing.

In that spirit, the next stage of my research will take me out of the archives and into conversations with people (and explorations of place). I have returned to Oklahoma to finish some departmental business, advise students, and coordinate Oklahoma City’s National History Day competition—the things we do for service to our departments and professions. Afterward, I am off to Oxford, Ohio to attend a conference hosted by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Myaamia Project and visit with Godfroy’s descendants. Then, it’s off to Indiana, where I plan to visit places closely connected with the Miami Indians of Indiana, including Godfroy’s former village and the family cemetery.

I’m not sure what to expect as I move forward, but I’m certain that I’ll continue to struggle with my role as a historian, biographer, and translator for the dead. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Statues and Dead Historians

I have spent the better part of my career listening to dead people.

They speak through brittle documents cached away in archives; they speak through the typed pages of historians who have tried to resurrect their lives; they speak through the mouths of descendants who have preserved their memories through recollection and oral histories. I take each one of these voices seriously.

For Francis Godfroy, I spent the better part of two summers parsing through his correspondence, business ledgers, and legal papers at the Indiana State Library. When I returned to Oklahoma City at the beginning of the last academic year, I began assembling a rather substantial library of books on 19th century Indiana and Miami history. As any good historian would do, I wanted to know what other historians had written. I’m perhaps overly ambitious; I wanted to make sure that I had read every published account written about Godfroy. I was startled to discover the paucity of material on the man.

I had been familiar with one of the books, Bert Anson’s The Miami Indians. It was one of the only full treatments of the Miami Indians that I could find, but it had been published in 1970. More concerning, several years ago at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, I heard scholars (more knowledgeable than myself) question major assertions in the book. Who was Anson? Why was the book so contentious?

Despite Anson’s sympathetic account of the Miami Indians, he was the product of an older generation of academic scholars who studied Native people. His work relied heavily on government documents. Consequently, indigenous people only appear in his narrative when they interact with white people (and only when that interaction is documented in the official government record). I wondered if Bert Anson, who spent his career teaching at Ball State University, would have changed his approach in light of four decades of changes in the profession.

This last thought led me to Google. I typed "Bert Anson" into the search engine and crossed my fingers. I discovered two things about Professor Anson. First, he would be unable to answer my queries in person—he died in 1992. Second, his research notes for the book were housed in Ball State University’s archives under the title, “Miami Indians Collection.” I immediately opened a second browser and started hunting for hotels in Muncie, Indiana. I had planned a two-week research trip to Indianapolis to conduct additional research in the State Library and Historical Society collections, so a few days at Ball State University made for a nice break from the routine.

In early January, after walking five blocks through a pretty nasty Midwestern snow storm, I groused into the Ball State University archives and special collections’ reading room. I asked the student worker at the desk to pull the collection and waited mere minutes before he plopped the box down on my desk. In fact, I had yet to fully unpack my computer when the first, and only, box of the collection arrived. According to the finding aid, the collection included “notes, photocopies of treaties and legal proceedings, tribal genealogies, correspondence, and other materials relating to the Miami Indian tribe.”

Scholarly standards of the 1970s must have been more lax than today, because the box yielded a total of 34 folders—most of which were filled with handfuls of photocopies. I hadn't traveled to Muncie, Indiana to see copies. I wanted to get my hands on Anson's handwritten notes, especially the notecards used in writing the book. As I opened the folder titled “Miami Indian notes, circa 1829-1831,” I was met with disappointment. The folder included two tiny bundles of notecards, bound together by old shoestrings. The entire box contained little more than 100 cards; most of them a mere line or two transcribed from government documents or the photocopies found in other folders. Could this be it? Was this the extent of his work?

I knew that the research notes for my first book numbered in the thousands. Where was the rest of Anson's research? As you might have expected, I approached the student archivist with a puzzled face. He had no answers. Instead, he pointed me to a section of the archive's website that listed other collections related to “Indians.”

What would I do for the next two and a half days? I contemplated driving to Indianapolis and abandoning my trip to Muncie, but something told me to follow the suggestions of the 20 year old desk worker. “Fine, pull every collection on this webpage,” I asked assertively (but politely).

As I thumbed through box after box of useless material, a single image kept appearing over and over again. It was seemingly everywhere--on mayoral letterhead, the city’s municipal flag, the cover of historical pageant programs, and even recreated in 1965 by the local boy scout troop as a living parade float. The image was that of a Sioux warrior on horseback, arms stretched outward, head tilted toward the sky. Why of all places did Muncie, Indiana, an area with a deep indigenous history of its own, adopt a stereotypical image of a Great Plains warrior to symbolize their Midwestern city?

I've since conducted additional research on the statue and the city's use in local iconography. My initial hypothesis is that the statue, a copy of Cryus Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit, has served as a symbolic surrogate for the region’s real lived indigenous past used to mask a community's guilt about a violent past and deflect charges of racism in the 1920s.

At the time of its installation in 1929, Muncie quickly was becoming famous as the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd’s study Middletown. In Robert Lynd’s sequel, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937, the sociologist depicted Muncie as a dysfunctional community (and hinted at community racism that targeted immigrants and African-Americans). Many of those charges seem based in truths; Muncie had been the center of a Women’s Ku Klux Klan movement in the 1920s, and editor George Dale waged war against the Klan in the pages of his Muncie newspaper. Could Dallin’s statue (often referred to as Chief Muncie by locals) and the foundational fictions that accompanied it have served many purposes for a heavily scrutinized community?

I’m not sure of the answers quite yet, but I’m already booking hotel rooms for additional nights in Indiana. I’ve spent a career listening to dead people. This time Bert Anson led me to Muncie.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Scholar's Dilemma

I feel as though I’ve developed a surefire approach to conducting historical research:

Step One: Choose a TOPIC. Make sure it’s broad enough that you can write a book about it, obscure enough that it hasn’t already been written about, and significant enough that someone else will read it.

Step Two: Develop a clear and concise research QUESTION. Use it to guide the entirety of your research for the years to come.

Step Three: Outline a detailed, multi-year research PLAN. Hopefully, this will take you to impressive archives and research institutes around the country and/or globe over the course of your research.

Step Four: Discover a cooler project along the way.

Step Five: Experience a MELTDOWN. This is the point where you consider whether to continue with the old project or start anew and abandon steps one thru three.

I've suffered from a stage five meltdown several times in my short career--most significantly three years ago.

In the summer of 2009, I found myself in the manuscripts room at the Indiana State Library thumbing through a collection titled, The Francis Godfroy Papers, 1824-1847. At the time, I was finishing work on my first book, Winning the West with Words (yes, this is shameless self promotion), and had a few extra days in Indianapolis. Instead of packing up my laptop and setting off to enjoy some well-deserved time off in the city—I had been working in the library about 9 hours a day, six days a week, for the previous month--I decided to comb through obscure and ancillary collections that might provide remote connections to my research. That’s when I asked the archivists to pull the Godfroy Papers—a collection that had almost nothing to do with my project, but a collection that might provide broader insights into the 19th century Great Lakes that I study.

I knew almost nothing about the subject of the collection, but here’s what I did know: Francis Godfroy was a Miami war chief, he built several impressive timber-framed homes, and he was apparently a hefty man (reportedly tipping the scales at nearly 350 pounds). The only reason I knew any of this was because Englishman George Winter—a person to whom I devoted an entire chapter of the book--passed through Godfroy’s village on his way to visit famed Miami captive Frances Slocum. I was initially excited to view the collection. After all, seldom does a researcher find early 19th century Native voices captured in state archives (they are almost always diffused through meditators, interpreters, or government officials). Could these be letters written in Godfroy’s own hand? Would they reveal something new about life in central-Indiana lost in Anglicized accounts? I only hoped. When I opened the first of three folders, which comprised the entire collection, I noticed two things:

1) The collection included a mere dozen or so Photostat copies of letters sent to Francis Godfroy
2) Many of those letters were from a guy named Allen Hamilton.

I did what any good historian does; I approached the archivists and asked them the academic equivalent of WTF? They didn’t have answers, but they suggested I consult the Hamilton Family Papers—the bulk of which was donated to the library sometime in the 1990s. I said, “sure, why not. I’ve got time.” The Hamilton Family Papers comprise 51 boxes of material. Obviously, I could not sift through it in one day. Still, I thought I’d try. The bulk of materials in the first 12 to 14 boxes (dated 1810-1845) had not belonged to Allen Hamilton or his family. Instead, the boxes contained payment slips, business ledgers, legal documents, and personal letters from the trading houses of Francis Godfroy. The discovery created the historian’s dilemma: stick with the old or start with the new.

I wanted to know more. And, once I did, I wanted to tell this man’s story.

Thankful, I didn’t have to choose between projects. I was close enough to finishing Winning the West with Words that I could transition easily from one idea to the other. I finished the manuscript by the end of the year and returned to Indianapolis the following summer. Over the course of two months, I parsed through all 51 boxes of the Hamilton Family papers (I’ve transcribed nearly 600 documents that trace back to Godfroy). These documents have led me to other collections that help shed light on life among Godfroy’s villages along the Wabash and Mississinewa Rivers in present-day Indiana. They have also led me to people (more about that in an upcoming post).

I’m currently working on detailing Godfroy’s life and the contested legacy he left behind. What do I find so interesting about a man whom I barely knew three years ago (and who happens to have been dead for about….oh….170 years)? Why do I think it’s important that the stories captured and hidden in the archives be recovered? Our narratives of the Great Lakes and statehood development obscure the complexities of life for people on the ground. Francis Godfroy’s life represents a real muddling of that story (perhaps an upending of it).

My trip to the Indiana State Library taught me several things. First, diligence and the act of wading through material can pay off. Truth be told, I almost did pack up my stuff and head off for the golf course in 2009. I had examined more than a dozen useless collections, folders, and individual documents that led me no where. Time spent being thorough eventually paid off. Second, manuscripts are the collections of dead people. They can't speak to you and answer questions. Archivists can. Brent Abercrombie and Mark Vopelak at the Indiana State Library knew more about their library's collections than anyone. They led me to Francis Godfroy. Since those early research trips, they've become good friends and welcome faces in the reading room. Over the years, I've learned to admire and respect the active role of archivists in the research process. I tend to chat up archivists wherever I travel. Finally, I've learned to be flexible in conducting research. As much as I'd like my students (and myself for that matter) to adhere to a strict research plan, I also know from firsthand experience that being open to change sometimes leads to better questions, interpretations, and even topics. Sometimes serendipity happens in the archive. When it does, I say go with it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On the Road Again

I've long imagined what this blog might look like. A little over a year ago, Oklahoma City University graciously offered me a semester research leave to work on my next book (more on that later). OCU is primarily a teaching institution, with bright students and deeply engaged faculty--I feel very lucky to work alongside such talented and dedicated people. But working at a smaller institution does present some limitations. Many younger faculty have been trained in hyper-competative graduate programs that increasingly stress the mantra of publish or perish. Sometimes I feel like we live double lives. In one life, we spend inordinate hours prepping courses, many on 4-3 teaching loads, participate in workshops meant to better our pedagogy, and meet with students in one-on-one consultations during long office hours. In our other lives, we engage in scholarship as if employed at a research institution--presenting at multiple conferences each year, sending articles off to major journals, and even publishing books through university presses. For those of us who share these experiences, I often wonder, how do we stay sane? Last week I posted a query to friends on Facebook about what to name this blog; most suggestions included a wordplay with my last name--The Bussiness, Chitty Chitty Buss-Buss, Just Busst a Move, History Bussness, Bussting Out, Myth Busster (one of my favorites). Perhaps the most revealing suggestion came from a former advisee and current graduate student at NYU, "I drink for a reason." Our academic lives certainly can, at times, seem overwhelming.

Oklahoma City University may be that rare school that places emphasis on teaching yet actively supports faculty scholarship--writing groups, financial assistance, institutional recognition and awards. For this, I feel especially blessed. In December I could have left the university and set off for research, returning in August with product in hand. But, in teaching a methodology course last fall semester, I realized the dangers of working in isolation. I've often taught about the process of research and stressed to students the importance of working within a scholarly community. How could I leave them with that message and then set off alone to conduct research? I rarely find examples of historians who write about the process of historical research--especially in a venue that's accessible to students. So, I wondered, why not let students and colleagues in on the next six months of my life? And, what has prevented me from doing this up to this point in my career? Perhaps, it's the admission that, no matter how much I'd like to think of myself as the Anthony Bourdain of historical research, most people simply find my profession boring. Nonetheless, I figured, someone might find this stuff interesting. Right?

This webpage is the product of those thoughts and a newfound courage to expose the methods of my madness to viewers of the interwebs. At its core "Historian on the Go" is a blog that provides a window into the methodologies employed by historians on a daily basis. It is also my means of soliciting input from the larger academic and scholarly community (including many of you, my current and former students). It will also serve as a place for me to muse about living on the road. Over the course of the next six months, I hope to chronicle all of this for those willing to tolerate my writing and ranting.

I realize that blogs exist in the netherworld of cyberspace, but they also are written by people in brick and mortar places. So here I am, drinking a cup of coffee, enjoying a heavenly piece of cheesecake, listening to Elton John croon Tiny Dancer, and clacking away at my laptop. In a nostalgic nod to my academic roots, I wanted to begin this blog where my career started--Grounds for Thought (Coffee Shop) in Bowling Green, Ohio. More than a decade ago, I wandered into this coffeehouse seeking quiet refuge from an apartment-full of college roommates (and on a quest to find an acceptable cup of coffee). Fourteen years later, the building looks the same but the person typing at this computer has changed. I often wonder what life would have been like had I not wandered into this place.

Truth be told, I didn't travel all the way from Oklahoma to Ohio for a cup of coffee. Instead, I trekked to Bowling Green to visit former mentors, colleagues, and graduate students (prior to receiving a PhD from Purdue University, I attended BGSU and then returned in 2007 to work as a visiting professor). I almost always begin research by reaching out to smart people. The first person I sought was a mentor from graduate school, Professor Ed Danziger. Over a hamburger and fries, he reminded me of the importance of using opportunities like this to teach students about the methods of our profession. I shared my idea for this blog and warned him that he would appear in the initial post. He didn't seem worried (perhaps he realized the minuscule audience for blogs by Jim Buss). Tomorrow I'm meeting with a former colleague, Ruth Herndon. She began her time at BGSU the same year that taught here. One of her PhD students, and a former teaching assistant of mine, is presenting a paper at the Ohio Seminar in Early American History and Culture on the campus of The Ohio State University tomorrow afternoon. The seminar, and drive to Columbus, will present an opportunity to chat with Professor Herndon and her students. A dinner tomorrow night will include a few faculty and friends who teach at OSU. I'm excited about the conversations that routinely follow such colloquiums.

I know I haven't shared my project yet--that will come tomorrow--but I wanted to launch this blog and give students and colleagues time to start following posts. Please feel free to share the blog with others, including students. And, please provide feedback and comments on stories posted on the site. My own archival research won't begin again for a few weeks, but I'll spend the intervening time recounting archival work conducted over the course of three weeks in January. Get ready for tales about Native American ghosts, buried treasure, and oddly placed Sioux warrior statues in eastern Indiana.

Until tomorrow.