November 15, 2014

No University of the Aleut Nation: Thoughts upon hearing an interview with Claudio Saunt

The other day I listened to an interview with historian Professor Claudio Saunt on New Books in Native American Studies Podcast. The conversation between Professor Saunt, the co-director for the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia, and the interviewer Andrew Epstein concerned the historian's compelling new book West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, published by W.W. Norton and Company. West of the Revolution examines 9 locations in the Americas amidst the pivotal year 1776, the founding year of the United States, by tracing the stories of people in these places as to contribute a greater understanding of the Americas at that moment in time. The work has received high praise for its creative linkages, being called "bold and inclusive" by Chicago Times reviewer Doug Kiel, among a list of other praises.

The work entails the global histories of many American groups interconnected by the year 1776. This  includes not only the colonists, who would come to call themselves Americans, but also the original Americans such as the Lakota, the Osage, and the Creek. In doing so, he makes the case for building a history decentered from the incubating nation-state for a more inclusive notion of America. For example, the work accounts the Osages' movements into Spanish controlled parts of the continent and Creek participation in Cuban trade.

In the first chapter "Soft Gold: Aleuts and Russians in Alaska," Saunt traces the history of a small group of Unangax̂ people, whom Russian colonists called Americans, then labled them Aleuts. Here he reads the story of 7 Unangax̂ men whom traveled 2500 miles with Russian funcationaries across the Bering to Eurasia. After their arrival two Aleuts decided to return home with 5 staying on to haul a cache of sea otter pelts another freezing 750 miles to the city of Irkutsk, a Russian border town. This site served as a place where the pelts of both sea otter and beaver could be sold to Chinese merchants. I recommend anyone interested in the imbrications of Unangax̂ people, and global supply chains to read this book.

During the New Books in Native American Studies interview Saunt makes the case for approaching American history in such a way as to place the nation-state along side the rest of American history. "Even today," he observes, "I think so many of us are parochial in the way we the way we imagine North America and of course the U.S. in the broader world." He suggests moving beyond the structure of feeling that American history should be defined solely in regard to the history of the United States. To allow American history to become lodged within that frail framework is "....something" he says, "we all need to fight against." History outside the systems of ideas that manufacture national experience as solitary to the history that took place throughout the continent proves paramount for the study of national history. "In a very practical sense, if we are going to write about American history, " Saunt asserts, "then we need to write about the places the United States took over." In the uncovering of this past comes an understanding that the nation-state fails to eclipse the histories of America that have long gone unnoticed due to the narrative of westward expansion as the dominant paradigm.

Great resource! (found in an Oakland bookstore)
Saunt makes the case for this approach to history by elaborating on just what institutions exist for pursuing this type of work. "There is no university dedicated to the Aleut nation," he tells Epstein, continuing to say, "the resources don't exist." The task and responsiblity to produce this broad American history sits with scholars because, he contends, "Aleut" communities are without resources to support their own research institutions. If one lends a quick read to Barbara Švarný Carlson's "There is No Such Thing as an Aleut" one can see that Saunt's case for scholars to incorporate these complex cultures and histories into American history holds the possibility enriching an already exciting field of knowledge. I think in doing so would help alleviate the formable obstacles many Alaska Natives have with seeing their historical participation in the formation and operation of the United States in Alaska. Moreover, he powerfully declares that, "If its (the project to document American history) not going to be done by the institutions in the United States then its not going to be done." In other words, he's saying that the people known as Aleuts are an important part of the United States and to iqnore their part in history is to do a remarkable disservice to their communities and to the stories that constitute the American past.

Of course "Aleut" people as Alaska Natives are part of the United States and the nation's resources are also "Aleut" resources, but I think he is suggesting that institutions throughout the nation should be supportive of projects and scholars who are pursuing the types of research programs that are inclusive of indigenous people. Speaking to that, as a graduate of Benny Benson Secondary School who went on to do this type of work I can say that countless people have selflessly extended their hands my direction and helped me cobble together a research program and a personal archive of materials. However, according to the work of Professors Alberta Jones and Jessica Bisset Perea there is still plenty of work required to bring Alaska Natives and their programs into the national academy. Yet, there are a handful of Alaska Native scholars sprinkled through the "lower-48" who are doing excellent work. Within Alaska institutions like, University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Native Studies Program Kodiak College's Alutiiq Studies Program The University of Alaska Southeast's Native Studies program, and University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cross-Cultural and Indigenous Studies Program are all in the midst of pushing great work forward.

I want to applaud Professor Saunt for writing this book and to New Books for the awesome interview.

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