Bright spots

This fall semester was, not at all surprisingly, one of the hardest semesters I’ve experienced in a decade of full-time teaching. I’d stack it up alongside my first semester teaching full time–exciting in some ways, but also exhausting and overwhelming and frustrating and depressing all at once as well. I know I’m hardly the only one to feel that way, but that’s actually not at all my point here.

Instead, I want to briefly reflect on a set of developments outside the realm of pandemic-induced, and far more positive. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing a number of former students sharing things about their graduate school experiences and careers and lives in new places via social media over the years, and running into others who are teachers at my kids’ schools or work at the public libraries. But for whatever reason, it seems like this year I’ve seen much more of all of this–weddings, and babies, and home purchases galore. This is always fun to see and hear about, knowing that students I enjoyed are out there living good lives. But it goes beyond that, too. One former student wrote to tell me about finishing up her PhD in archaeology and her new job working in cultural resources management for the federal government. Another who works at Ferry Farm helped me get images of artifacts uncovered around the property and information about them that I used for my class on local history, and whether she knew it or not chatted with one of those students who made the trip across the river to visit. I took a trip to Gunston Hall with my cousin, and it turned out both the woman working the visitor center and the woman guiding the tour were former students.

I think my point is that I’ve been here long enough, worked with enough students, and spend enough time out and about in the community that these encounters are getting to be more common, and that’s more fun and rewarding than I ever expected it would be. In what has been a pretty bleak 9 months, seeing all the great things these students are doing with their lives has absolutely been one of the brightest spots.

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Nosy neighbor

I’m hardly the only one whose personal geography has shrunk dramatically since Covid-related social distancing began back in March, nor am I the only scholar who has found it hard to concentrate on researching and writing amidst the pandemic and the social unrest and political affairs and economic whatever-this-is. While I haven’t yet figured out how to effectively address my distractibility, one outcome of my restlessness has been a lot of walks around my neighborhood. I live in a suburban development in which most of the houses date from the mid-1980s to the early ‘90s, and were constructed by a pair of builders. The result is some notable architectural consistency, but with 35 years of differentiation among what used to be very similar homes (our house-doppelganger, for instance, inverted our color scheme, added a 2-car garage, and takes landscape design really seriously). 

This driveway is so disused (and the gate padlocked) that there must be another one somewhere–I think I know where, but haven’t located it quite yet, and it’s going to be long and obscured by newer houses.

But there is one definite anomaly in the midst of all this, a stretch of frontage with an old wooden fence, a line of mature oaks and magnolias mostly blocking the view of the house from the street, and several signs adamant that there shall be “NO TRESPASSING” onto the property. A gravel drive runs up to a portico, which is pretty much all that’s visible to passers-by. The structure sits well back from the road in the middle of a “block,” and is surrounded by newer homes. I’ve known the house was there for years, but never had the time/energy to devote to much sleuthing–a disinclination that has eroded over the past couple of months. So, I set about being nosy.

The best glimpse I can get of the main house.
And zoomed.

I started with a search on the real estate website Zillow, which let me identify the parcel, and which fortunately provided a short description noting that the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the time of its last sale. I had a lead. Finding it in the Register took a bit of work, since I didn’t know the name it would be listed under, and in fact the address currently attached to the property is not actually the address under which it’s listed in the Register. Still, once I’d located the listings for Spotsylvania County in the Single Property Listings Finding Aid, I could start reviewing a limited number of results and I found the property: Fairview, or alternatively, Breezeland. Registered in 1993, described as historically significant from 1837-1859, classified as Federal architecture, and designed/built by Samuel Alsop, Jr., a name I recognized from around town. And I now had a reference number. We were in business.

Sketch of the site in paperwork registering it on the National Register of Historic Places.

I grabbed the paperwork used to register the site in ‘93, and quickly confirmed what I’d long wondered, and suspected since I saw the 1837-59 dates: this neighborhood was part of a fairly extensive plantation. Alsop built a number of houses in Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, especially in the Federal and Greek Revival styles popular at the time–Fairview was built in the Federal style, with lots of Greek Revival details added during a remodel (the report includes a ton of detail, but I have no context for them so won’t summarize them here). He owned real estate in both locales, as well as Caroline and Culpeper Counties; he also owned and operated a tavern, grist mill, and plaster and lumber companies. At Fairview, enslaved people grew rye, oats, corn, and wheat. Upon his death, an inventory of Alsop’s estate included over 100 enslaved people, though it isn’t clear to me just how many lived on the 1200-acre Fairview plantation, or where their quarters would have been (several outbuildings remain, but they’re significantly more recent than the main house). Alsop died in 1859, and his family moved south to Georgia during the Civil War before returning later in the 1860s and beginning to subdivide the land, selling off parcels until only five acres remained surrounding the home by 1975.

Photograph from paperwork registering the site on the National Register of Historic Places.
Frame barn between houses on a different road along the back of the property.

So, anyway, I’ve at least partly satisfied my curiosity on that front, though there’s certainly more to learn about the property and where it fits into local historical context, as well plenty to think about in terms of the implications of living on such land. And maybe I’ll jump the fence and sneak a look at the house some day (kidding…mostly).

From https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/088-0012/
Posted in Historic sites, Virginia history | 3 Comments

Powhatan land acknowledgement

Before COVID-19 arrived in the US and prompted social distancing, self-quarantines, business closures, and event cancellations, I was scheduled to spend today moderating a conference panel at the Virginia Forum in Richmond. The three panelists would have been speaking about their work with the Rappahannock Indians, and they had invited Chief G. Anne Richardson to join us. Since we’re all at home (or perhaps fishing, but at any rate, not gathering in a crowd), I figured I’d write about it instead.

The panel’s goal was to explore the way scholars “craft history”–create narratives about the past–with the caveat that these scholars are doing so in collaboration with tribal members. In other words, the panel would recognize the Rappahannocks not as objects of study for historians and archaeologists, but as subjects articulating their own pasts in conversation with scholars and a wider public. 

Chief Richardson was elected in 1998, a fourth-generation chief from her family and the first woman to lead a Virginia tribe since the 1700s; she would have represented tribal members who had worked with our panelists, and been part of the conversation to follow the formal presentations. Scott Strickland, an archaeologist and GIS specialist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, planned to discuss his project mapping tribal settlements from the 17th to 20th centuries, which shows that the Rappahannock continued to physically inhabit their ancestral homelands despite efforts to remove and erase them. Woodie Walker, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, planned to discuss Rappahannock participation at the 1957 Jamestown Festival to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding; the festival allowed the Rappahannock to publicly perform Indianness, demonstrating their cultural knowledge and shaping positive attitudes towards Indians at a moment in history when Virginia tribes struggled for visibility. Dr. Edward Ragan, a historian at Centenary College of Louisiana, planned to discuss the Rappahannocks’ century-long struggle for formal, legal recognition by the federal government, an effort in which he has been involved for over twenty years.

Before introducing everyone, I had planned to read the following statement to begin the session, with no preamble:

Thomas Harriot traveled with the first Roanoke expedition in 1585, and produced the page above as part of his effort to learn Algonquian and develop a writing system to record sounds very different from English. Algonquian words and phrases written in this system appear throughout his notes on natural philosophy and mathematics. William Strachey later compiled around 400 words he believed spoken by Virginia Indians into his A Dictionarie of the Indian Language.

(1)–Wi’InGaNaKoa, AnXKaPa U’SkaoTiu, CaMa Cesk CaMei.

(2)–NiKenNeNahTos KiNaWun NaPin PoHaTen CepSin, WúTaXúnTas ČeNaKoMaKa’Ank.

(3)–TaXanTas Ok NiTaPeiWak, KiNaWun DúTúWes TaoNu DúNaPeiWak SuTaNoWas, KiNaWun NaMe DúNaPeiWak WeMaCin.

(4)–YúA PoHaTen PihNoHwan, Yu’A PoHaTen CepSin. KeKiu.*

(1)–Hello, good afternoon, and welcome/greetings all friends.

(2)–I understand well we sit/combine/gather on Powhatan land, foreigners/settlers in Tsenacomoco (Virginia). 

(3)–Strangers and friends, (we can) listen when Indians speak, (we can) see Indians in this, their home.

(4)–This is their language, this is their land. They’re alive/they remain.

For those of you unfamiliar with land acknowledgements, or territory acknowledgements, like the one I just read, this is something scholars of indigenous studies have started trying to do over the past few years, and a number of institutions have officially adopted these statements as well. Their purpose is to recognize that we as a population inhabit settler colonial states, nations formed as settlers from elsewhere claimed land and developed their own identities, societies, and institutions. That process displaces, sometimes eliminates (including through genocide), the original inhabitants and their cultures–settler colonists “attempt to engineer the disappearance of the original inhabitants everywhere except in nostalgia,” to borrow Nancy Shoemaker’s paraphrase of Patrick Wolfe. The premise of this theory is that colonialism has not ended, but continues to be enacted by suppressing indigenous voices–the daily lives of settler colonists perpetuate the erasure of indigenous people, despite the fact that they continue to inhabit their ancestral homelands, maintain distinctive cultures, and identify and function as communities. Land acknowledgements are designed to draw attention to this fact, to make visible indigenous people and their relationship with the land, and to complicate our own relationship with that land by recognizing that we continue to participate in colonialism.

John Smith’s map of Virginia manifests settler colonialism, in that it overwrites indigenous history and names with English, and imposes English concepts onto the landscape it claims as a means of bolstering English territorial claims and informing English settlements.

This is the first land acknowledgement I’ve participated in, partly because such statements often seem somewhat pro forma, token acknowledgements rather than commitments that carry beyond that statements. However, I’m inspired today by two considerations. First, a conversation with a senior colleague who heard a land acknowledgement for the first time earlier this year, and told me she had found it very powerful simply to hear the name of the people indigenous to the land on which her conference was held–that that was important in itself. If that’s the impact on an audience, I think I need to rethink my reluctance. Second, we are hearing from three scholars who work with the Rappahannocks in a continuing relationship that serves the tribe as well as scholarly knowledge. This is scholarship as produced by the Rappahannocks, in conversation with academics; indigenous people are authors of their own histories, not simply objects of study from the past. Our panel is actively working to mitigate some of the effects of colonialism, at the very least the silence it tries to impose on Native voices; the very fact of collaboration, as well as the rewriting of historical narratives, are products of the Rappahannocks’ autonomy and sovereignty in the face of settler colonialism, and address the effects of settler colonialism in important ways.

*This is imperfect. The Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia has been offering an Algonquian/Powhatan language class for years, but only recently opened it to non-tribal members. I spent last year in the Beginners class, this year in the Intermediate. My teacher has not yet reviewed this statement with me, and as a student, I made some decisions he may disagree with in how I conveyed these sentiments. The English translation isn’t quite literal, but does its best to faithfully reproduce the general sentiments expressed in Algonquian. I actually began with a vocabulary list of Algonquian words, and then used those to build a statement reflective of land acknowledgements I have witnessed. Algonquian-speakers have adopted a set of syllabic characters to write this language, but I do not have that keyboard, nor would my rudimentary language skills allow me to effectively read it aloud.

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The menace of golf in 1659 New Netherland

In 1659, residents of Fort Orange and Beverwijck lodged a series of formal complaints “against the practice of playing golf along the streets.” Hackers and duffers no doubt posed the biggest menace, but even the most skilled of golfers could have been responsible for the allegations that the game “causes great damage to the windows of the houses and also exposes people to the danger of being injured, which is contrary to the freedom of the public streets.” Life could already be precarious in New Netherland’s northern reaches, struggles to secure a food supply compounding fears of Indian attacks amid escalating tensions with Natives just downriver. Fort Orange and Beverwijck drew settlers together and provided them a more defensible space and soldiers, but golf threatened the ostensible safety of the town. An errant golf ball could hardly be attributed only to a mischievous athlete, and enthusiasm for the sport apparently abounded. The town’s open spaces offered a promising set of ready-made links, while members of the town’s growing population could join the social event an ongoing game represented. But golf’s popularity and the no doubt less-than-developed skills of its practitioners menaced public safety and personal property, offering officials sufficient rationale for curtailing its play within the settlement. They promptly “forbid all persons to play golf in the streets, under penalty of forfeiture of f25 for each person who shall be found doing so.” Public thoroughfares would be free of the sport, forcing golfers to brave wrist injuries, ingenious gophers, and Indian threats in the open areas outside the town.[1]

Readers familiar with a scholarly literature emphasizing the strict religious orthodoxy and supposedly dour nature of social relations in New England’s Puritan colonies would hardly be surprised to learn that Dutch colonial officials had an equally sober response to fun in New Netherland. Likewise, readers familiar with Jamestown’s adoption of martial law to better govern colonists’ labor and leisure, and with English arguments that their Protestant labor improved North America’s lands as God directed and so legitimated their territorial claims even when Catholic Spain protested, might expect a similarly opaque role for religion in New Netherland. But others might be surprised to find other-than-economic factors shaping the governance of New Netherland civil society, particularly in light of scholarship on religion in the Dutch colony. Evan Haefeli has written about the Dutch origins of American notions of religious liberty, and in The Contest for the Delaware Valley, Mark Thompson pointed out that Delaware Valley colonists prioritized their own freedom of conscience as they negotiated with a succession of political regimes that claimed them as subjects across the 17thand 18thcenturies.

When these historical arguments about religious liberty intersect with contemporary impressions of permissive Dutch social attitudes—legal marijuana and prostitution in Amsterdam often shaping that sense—audiences sometimes read backwards to assume that early modern Dutch society, including in the colonies, was largely unconcerned with moral behavior and religious orthodoxy. After all, if something other early modern people took as seriously as religion was—in Dutch culture—allowed room for dissent in, that culture could hardly be expected to limit other behaviors, right? Yet a (long, and sometimes tedious) read through New Netherland’s court records will make clear that colonial officials spent plenty of time investigating and prosecuting intoxication, physical abuse, prostitution, slander, and underweight bread, and even a cursory scan will turn up compelling incidents. Pragmatic concerns with civil order no doubt motivated some of these efforts, but a moral imperative compelled some of this enforcement, as well. Haefeli acknowledges that Dutch approaches to freedom of conscience allowed for private worship rather than public, while Danny Noorlander’s forthcoming book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World, will make the case that the Dutch Reformed Church exercised more influence shaping Dutch colonialism than has previously been recognized.

In 1648, the colony cited a spate of hurricanes, epidemics, and floods plaguing “almost all countries, both in Europe and in these northern and southern parts of America, yes, even from this province,” as it proclaimed a day of prayer in response to “these sad and doleful tidings.” Explaining that “no other conclusion can be drawn than that the Holy and Almighty God of Israel, being justly provoked to anger and wrath on account of our sins and those of other nations, threatens us with a just retribution,” colonial officials “considered it highly necessary to proclaim and to order a general day of fasting and prayer which shall be held in the forenoon and afternoon of the first Wednesday in the month of May, being the 6thof the aforesaid month, and thereafter a monthly penitential sermon in the forenoon, to be held throughout our province of New Netherland on every first Wednesday of each month in succession.” To ensure the action was able to “conciliate ourselves and our subjects with God,” they specifically barred “all exercise and practice of golf, tennis, hunting, fishing, sailing, plowing, sowing, mowing and many other unlawful games, such as throwing dice and drinking to excess.” Clearly interpreting their experiences through a religious lens, the proclamation tied recreational activities such as golf—when they interfered with worship—to other vices, specifically gambling and drunkenness. Those were undoubtedly one set of the behaviors that drew God’s wrath upon the colonists in New Netherland and elsewhere, and therefore had to be eradicated for the good of the colonial project.[2]

They weren’t wrong to associate the game with other vices. Two years later in Rensselaerswyck, Steven Jansz testified that “a certain company of persons came to his house to drink, having played golf for brandy.” One golfer accused Jansz’s wife of “having erased two strokes at the same time,” and a second golfer joined the accuser. When the tavernkeeper stepped in to remind the two men “they should not make such charges without being able to prove them,” he was attacked and “received a wound in his left breast,” but was unable to identify the culprit because “three or four persons were wrestling together.” It later emerged that it was the original accuser Jacob Jansz who had “struck Gysbert Cornelisz, tavernkeeper, and Claes Andriesz with a golf club at the house of Steven Jansz.” The timeless tale of a golf cheat sparking a drunken brawl may be familiar, but it was also concerning to colonial officials determined to keep the peace. Perhaps equally important, the game elicited other immoral behaviors already blamed for contributing to the colony’s struggles.[3]

The worry for a New Netherland colony that was never very strong was more than merely a game causing disagreements. By 1659, when threatening golfers roamed the streets of Fort Orange and Beverwijck, the colony was no more secure. Tension with Natives had escalated into Kieft’s War in the 1640s, the Peach War in the early 1650s, and was accelerating towards the Esopus Wars of the late 1650s and early 1660s. Meanwhile, English colonists encroached on Dutch claims on Long Island and along the Connecticut River. Dutch colonists wary of venturing too far beyond the confines of their towns thus played golf in the relative safety of the streets, but created an internal danger to health and property that alien forces provided outside the settlement. Internal problems were concerning in their own right, but also because they introduced danger within what was supposed to be the safety of New Netherland’s northernmost settlement, and because they might draw the wrath of a God equipped with outside instruments—English and Native rivals—to administer His wrath to New Netherland. Besieged by forces both within and without the settlement’s boundaries, residents requesting a ban on the game ardently defended the “freedom of the public streets.”

[1]Charles T. Gehring, trans. and ed., Fort Orange Court Minutes, 1652-1660 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), 473-4.

[2]A.J.F. Van Laer, trans., and Kenneth Scott and Keen Stryker-Rodda, eds., Council Minutes, 1638-1649 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), 506-10.

[3]A.J.F. Van Laer, trans. and ed., Minutes of the Court of Rensselaerswyck, 1648-1652 (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1922), 132 and 137.

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Oral histories from the Rappahannock River

Rappahannock River, as seen from Hunter’s Island, Spring 2017

As a colonial historian, I never thought I’d be working on an oral history project, but a couple of years ago a student from my environmental history class, Woodie Walker, who is also a conservationist at Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) approached me with an idea generated by his contacts at work: to collect and preserve oral histories related to the river. Following several dam removals in the early 2000s, the Rappahannock became Virginia’s longest free-flowing river, and a major destination for recreational paddlers and fishers, plus an important fishery for watermen. It’s an important cultural and natural resource for many of Virginia’s communities, and I’m delighted to finally share the first five oral histories we’ve collected in this collaboration between FOR and UMW students and faculty, and with the enthusiastic support of community partners.

On the site, you can watch videos of the interviews (time-stamped index coming soon for better navigation) or read transcripts (several are available now, and the rest will be soon).

If you want to know more, join us in Monroe Hall for Talking History on Feb. 12, or stop by the table at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on March 31 at UMW’s Dodd Auditorium.

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Some thoughts on football and the NFL

I suspect there’s a part of me that still loves football, but I’m also pretty sure it’s the part of me that is memories and nostalgia, not the part of me that lives in the here and now. In what’s becoming increasingly incongruous, I read lots of football coverage, and I hear the hand-wringing about declining ratings and interest in the NFL. I’m one of those people abandoning the league, and the sport, and as I think about why, I think the more compelling question is why I hung on so long.

A few years ago, the NFL moved Monday Night Football to a cable network, ESPN; I’ve never paid for a cable tier that gives me ESPN access, and I’m not willing to do that, or to support a sports network that increasingly monopolizes live sports programming and sensationalizes nothing-stories, and that more recently has withdrawn its support for quality writing and reporting like what I could find on Grantland. It then added a Thursday night game, which is rarely compelling, and only infrequently accessible. Just over three years ago my partner and I bought a house and moved in together, along with our two young girls, and my reality became that I couldn’t watch “the game,” or even “a game,” every Sunday like I used to. A year or so after that, I decided that even when a game I wanted to watch actually was televised in my DC-area market, I wasn’t going to center my Sunday around it.

Even as I prioritized other things in my life, I watched football when I could. It’s a great sport–the power and doggedness of Marshawn Lynch carrying would-be-tacklers for another 3 yards, the touch on an Aaron Rodgers back-shoulder fade to Jordy Nelson, the closing speed of Richard Sherman. And it’s a hard one to escape. NFL football, to me, is sitting in the shop with my dad watching Montana and Rice and Taylor and Sherrard and Craig and Lott and Jones and Cofer and Young and Owens; it’s Monday Night Football over burgers and tater tots, and Sunday afternoons at The Grad; it’s watching my contemporaries at Cal go pro and show up in the starting lineups; it’s begrudgingly embracing the Packers because Aaron Rodgers is from my hometown, and my community college, and my college alma mater, and doing so even as I spent a year in Minnesota; it’s phone calls across 2000 or 3000 miles to talk to my dad or my brother or my college roommate about the game or a free agent deal; it’s what I fleetingly dreamed of during the two years I played high school football, and especially during the two weeks in which I was good. I still thrill when I recall stretching my fingertips to grasp that leather, or driving a shoulder into a ball carrier’s ribs and feeling his feet leave the ground.

But here I am. My 49ers are terrible, but even when they’re interesting, they aren’t broadcast where I live, and I get stuck with eastern teams I couldn’t care less about. The Packers had a good start to the season before Rodgers went down, and they showed up on TV occasionally, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t lately (for good reason). When there has been a matchup I’ve wanted to see this season, I haven’t been able to find it on TV, and I’m not going to buy some cable package just to watch the NFL. The league is everywhere, all the time, and I can’t see what I want to anyway. I realize it’s a business, and there may be no market for what I want (San Francisco, or really any West Coast teams) where I now live (Virginia), but I’m not totally convinced that location does matter, given the league’s blackout policies, and its enabling franchises to relocate for taxpayer-funded stadiums billionaire owners don’t have to pay for.

That saturation, the proposals to increase the number of games, the criticisms of players sitting out–they’re all ways of increasing the amount of product to generate additional profits, but done at the expense of the laborers, the players. Sure, a few make millions, but most don’t, and the guys who’ve spent 10 or 15 years chasing NFL dreams–even those who make it–are going to bear physical costs. CTE and other health problems have been evident for years, even as the NFL denies or dismisses them, or institutes protocols ostensibly to protect players even though fans watching on TV can see they don’t actually achieve that. Some of what we–I–love about the sport is the excitement and violence, how physical it is. But I have a conscience, too, and one that struggles to reconcile my love of the sport with the cost for its players.

We can add the league’s bumbling around issues like domestic violence and protests, where it’s clearly more concerned with its public image and trying to eliminate any contentious social or political discussions and keep stars on the field than with the rights or well-being of its players, or their families. The NFL acts when its bottom line is threatened, not at any other time or in response to any other pressure. Again, I’m disinclined to watch and generate revenue for a sport in which owners are trying to compel players to act one way (not protest), but oppose disciplinary actions for domestic abuse and other poor behaviors because discipline might cost a team victories.

Even through those issues, I remained uneasily invested, unwilling to withdraw completely. But this year one of my daughters has wanted to watch games with me, and I’ve been stuck in an even more awkward position. If we could watch the Vikings–she’s from Minnesota–I might be willing to dismiss my reservations in the interests of sharing some quality time with her. Instead, the team most consistently broadcast where we live is Washington. I am, among other things, a Native American historian, conscious of what that team’s nickname means historically, and to American Indians today. I cannot and will not in any way support that team until the name changes. Washington games were the first I refused to watch. To top it all off, this year the NFL decided to schedule the team to play on Thanksgiving Day, which is already a somewhat problematic holiday as many Americans celebrate it. And that games was against the Dallas Cowboys, just in case there was any remaining question that the NFL has absolutely no regard for the people it purports to “honor.” I realize the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year protected the right to use nicknames like this, but Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell emphasize the ruling, not that the court identified racial epithets as protected speech. Guys, those are bad. I can’t in good conscience cultivate any interest in that team, and given the television market in which I live, that league.

And so I’ve pretty much stopped watching this season, and I can’t honestly say that I miss it. I’ve used my Sunday afternoons to hang curtains in our library, build Lego sets with my daughter, nap, read the Washington Post, carve a pumpkin, work a couple of puzzles, repair the deck and the shed door, decorate a Christmas tree with my wife, take pictures of my girls during their riding lessons, cook some delicious meals, and do the housework I haven’t gotten to during the rest of the weekend, which I’ve spent shopping with kids and catching up on work and reading. Hell, it’s Sunday afternoon as I’m writing this.

I won’t pretend that I never liked football or the NFL, and I won’t pretend that I’m never going to watch it again. I also admit that I read about it–less today than a year ago, since now I haven’t seen what writers are discussing, but also hopefully more now than a year or two from now, when I will know fewer of and less about the players being written about. But for me, football has grown bigger and bigger in ways that make its flaws impossible to ignore or reconcile with my other priorities, and so that growth has made it a smaller and smaller part of my life.

Now, when do pitchers and catchers report?

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Native media responds to Trump

“Navajo Indian communication men with the Marines on Saipan landed with the first assault waves to his the beach,” 1944; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I sometimes think I should just stop being surprised and/or appalled by anything Donald Trump says or does, but more often I hope I never stop being shocked and horrified by how awful he is. Yesterday I managed to ignore the internet all afternoon only to arrive home and be asked if I’d seen his antics at a ceremony ostensibly meant to honor the Navajo Code Talkers. Some of his remarks were fairly typical of Trump, but they took place in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, and included his use of the name Pocahontas as a slur.

There were plenty of reactions from the media and politicians, and I have plenty I could say (both as a historian, and as a decent human being), but there are better voices for this moment. Indian Country Today reported on the event. The National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel issued a statement in which he rightfully redirected attention to the people who should have been at the center of this conversation: “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country.” Later in the day Native News Online’s Mark Charles (Navajo) wrote, “PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP COULD NOT HOLD HIS TONGUE. HE COULD NOT FIND THE COURTESY TO CONDUCT THE CEREMONY IN A DIFFERENT LOCATION BEYOND THE GENOCIDAL GAZE OF THE SEVENTH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. AND HE COULD NOT CONTROL HIS INCESSANT NEED TO KEEP THE SPOTLIGHT ON HIMSELF, NO MATTER WHAT THE CONTEXT, OR WHO HIS AUDIENCE.” 

Think what you will about Trump–if you’re among the 38% of Americans who still approve of him, clearly decency and logic have nothing to do with your support and you won’t be swayed–but don’t ignore that in a ceremony meant to celebrate the contributions of Navajo servicemen from a wider Native community that has historically been marginalized, and continues to be today, Trump marginalized American Indians yet again. Remember this moment, yes, but remember the histories of the Native men and women this ceremony was intended to honor, too.

“Navajo Code Talkers [Bill Toledo, Robert Walley, and Alfred Newman] in 2013”; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Election day, one year later…

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, I awoke to the realization that my syllabus tasked me with addressing Andrew Jackson and his appeals to populism on a day on which Donald Trump could confirm victory in the presidential election. That Trump’s win signaled something about the American electorate was a scary prospect for some of my students, and for myself, not because it meant the advance of traditional conservative ideals like limited government, but because it also seemed to advance the racism, bigotry, and misogyny Trump displayed throughout his campaign. At the very least, voters motivated primarily by other political considerations accepted those attitudes; at worst, those attitudes were a driving force in his victory.

A year later, I’m addressing Jacksonian democracy the day after an off-year election in which energized Virginians turned out in the highest numbers in 20 years to vote on candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state delegates (school boards and county supervisors, too). Political newcomers contested Republican-held seats in the state assembly, though more Democrats went uncontested; Democrats won the statewide offices, and made significant gains in the legislature. But more significant than party affiliation is who some of those candidates are, and what they may represent. Justin Fairfax, the new lieutenant-governor elect, is the first African American to win statewide office in Virginia since 1989. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, defeated the incumbent Bob Marshall (ironically, the author of an anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill). Historic electoral victories–by women, people of color, homosexual, and transgender candidates–dotted the country. The progress and acceptance those elections signal, to me, is every bit as significant as the political ideologies of the candidates themselves. Combined with turnout, races like these may tell us more about an energized American electorate than 2016’s elections did.

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Confederate monuments and white landscapes

It has been less than a week since white nationalists and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, just one of the many Confederate monuments throughout the state. With a mounting push to remove them amid ongoing conversations about race in the United States, and with an upcoming gubernatorial election in which one Republican primary election candidate made preserving Confederate monuments a centerpiece of his campaign, the issue is unlikely to fade away in Virginia. The state may be at the center of today’s conversations, just like it was at the center of the Civil War, but it’s hardly the only area grappling with the legacy of the Civil War and its memorialization. New Orleans removed the last of its Confederate monuments last spring. This week, Baltimore city officials removed four Confederate monuments while citizens in Durham, NC took matters into their own hands, pulling down the city’s Confederate Soldiers Monument statue. Donald Trump of course weighed in, Tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” and I want to spend some time examining the defenses he’s parroting.

As supporters of the continued public display of Confederate monuments argue, they do commemorate history and culture. But that is exactly why we should be removing them: they commemorate a history and culture that rested on the oppression and abuse of non-whites. I agree that we can’t–and shouldn’t–erase or ignore that history, but we also don’t need to maintain highly visible stages for its celebration. What such monuments represent constitutes a very narrow view of American history that excises the experiences of a wide range of historical actors, particularly African Americans. Perpetuating that narrow view in which the Confederacy stands in for a more inclusive Southern history denies black Americans a proportional role in the shared narrative of US history that links diverse Americans together–it effectively excludes the African American community from the American body politic by pretending they either have no history of their own in America, or that their experience is subordinate to a (Confederate) history worthy of commemoration. Historical narratives enable people to make claims to the land and resources and social institutions around which that history developed, that play a role in a given narrative. Confederate monuments imply that only those who share a commitment to and role in the history and culture they represent can access those resources.

But to my eye, the significance of this debate is even more explicit when these monuments include statues of human figures–Confederate military personnel, politicians, and slaveholders, whether specific individuals or generalized representations. Ties between bodies and the landscapes they inhabit have long been cited to support claims to land and its resources. Eighteenth-century European colonists frequently portrayed Native bodies as naked and mobile, assessments that reinforced the notion that Indians did not belong on lands that Europeans saw as cultivated (clothed) and settled, and should therefore be removed in favor of more compatible, civilized, European bodies. English colonists in particular argued that only successful permanent inhabitation upheld claims to land in America, and that Indians as well as competing European colonists had failed to establish ownership as English colonists had. Installing statues of individual Confederates exercises a similar logic, establishing white bodies as representations of an American history that gives one group of US citizens a preeminent claim to the lands a more diverse community actually occupies. By this standard, bodies defined as “non-white” don’t belong because they’re associated with distinct histories that aren’t attached to the physical space of the U.S.

Both of these processes inherent in Confederate commemoration–entrenching a particular historical narrative, and representing it with bodies of Confederate heroes–literally mark the American landscape as the exclusive possession of white Americans. In other words, Confederate monuments encode white supremacy on an American landscape in place of the segregated landscape that has been gradually eroded over the course of more than a century, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. 

[Added 8/19/17] To communicate to people of color that they’re excluded from American life and institutions, monuments are placed in spaces that are centers of public and civic life in the United States: A statue of Roger Taney, who authored the majority opinion in Dred Scott, at Maryland’s State House; Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus; the entirety of Monument Avenue in Richmond; a Confederate soldier at the Loudon County (Va.) Courthouse. Collectively, these signal white supremacy in political, educational, civic, and legal settings, respectively.

Somehow, aesthetics also enter into this argument, Trump Tweeting, “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” The notion that you can’t or shouldn’t change a designed landscape because it is aesthetically pleasing or itself has a long history stems from a conservative impulse to preserve that landscape as it is. It aims to permanently entrench the history and culture that landscape with its monuments represents. The ugliness in Trump’s words is the implication that there is no greater beauty to be had than what already exists. I have to believe most Americans don’t want these monuments “comparably replaced”–they want something better.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures. All I could think to include were pictures of Confederate monuments, and no…

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Teaching US Environmental History during Trump’s first 100 days

This semester I found myself teaching U.S. Environmental History in what I’ll just call a disturbing political climate (har) for those of us concerned with our environment. In the past four months, Scott Pruitt, a “climate change denialist” and the former Attorney General of Oklahoma with a history of suing the agency he’s now charged with leading, was confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; the president’s transition team asked the Department of Energy to identify employees who have worked on Obama’s energy and climate policies; White House officials and the president have discussed withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords; the Dakota Access Pipeline was completed with Trump’s support despite protests, and within weeks sprung several of the leaks its critics charged were likely; the administration shared a federal budget proposal that would slash EPA funding and ax all support for the Chesapeake Bay Program‘s restoration efforts. That’s a sampling, but the clear trend is that none of these moves signals an administration particularly receptive to scientific or historical evidence, or committed to prioritizing environmental protections.

Atlantic Sturgeon, photo from Chesapeake Bay Program, http://www.chesapeakebay.net/blog/post/five_endangered_species_that_live_in_the_chesapeake_bay_region

Most of that was easy enough to anticipate as I planned my classes for the semester, and I wanted to make sure we addressed some of those developments as they occurred. But my goal was to try to use environmental history to encourage political consciousness, rather than insist on a political ideology. To that end, I asked students to watch the news for current events related to the environment, and consider how deeper understandings of environmental history might shape actions, policies, arguments/debates, news coverage, etc.

I am sometimes a bit wary of asking students to draw connections between the past and the present, though not because those connections don’t exist or are unimportant. Sure, part of the value of studying history can be to make just those comparisons, but because many students’ historical knowledge remains fairly limited (we’re working on it!) their conclusions often tend towards the teleological. It often seems like many just aren’t (yet!) able to fully explain that arc, or recognize the complexity lying between a then and a now, and so instead resort to cliche–essay conclusions that assert a historical event is important “because it’s how we got where we are today.” Not necessarily wrong, but not wholly productive, either. I’ve been trying to find a way around this, in part because many students seem inclined to look for parallels, and in part because I want others to acknowledge and explore what environmental historians have termed a “usable past.”

One strategy I’ve landed on is to use historical examples or historical thinking to shape inquiries. That is, rather than encouraging students to find and fully explain parallels and direct connections, I want them to take a more complete understanding of either their present or historical example, and use that to develop questions and methods of learning about the other piece of that comparison. This means we can use gaps in our knowledge in productive ways, and whichever approach students adopt, they’re developing historical thinking. If they explore a historical episode and then consider its significance for the present–what current social or political tensions it reminds them of, for instance, or what ongoing environmental concerns appear similar to a change from history–they’re beginning to construct a usable past. If they explore a more contemporary issue and then speculate about what knowledge and information they need to better understand it, and how they might pursue that, they’re thinking methodologically about how to do environmental history–about the types of inquiries that drive it, and the sources available for resolving those questions.

This does mean the written product always reflects an inchoate process, but my hope is that privileging inquiry over assertion/argument allows students greater latitude to explore a variety of environmental issues and to take some intellectual risks. I also hope that by approaching such issues through a set of queries students will more comfortably critique the version of events they’ve been presented with by whatever news source they’re drawing from, whether it be the Washington Post, Fox News, The Economist, or the Billings Gazette.

Construction on Dakota Access Pipeline, photo from Billings Gazette, http://billingsgazette.com/business/dakota-access-pipeline-now-complete-in-north-dakota/article_46d20365-c9da-5c65-98e2-0c4c8a8c2427.html

Initially I wanted this assignment to reflect a historiography in which scholars the scholars we read throughout the semester consistently reminded us that environmental history is not simply a story of declension in which people arrive and destroy pristine environments, and I did receive papers that addressed species recovery, environmental education programs, and green business practices. But the majority focused on actions taken by and in response to the Trump administration, a reminder that it’s perhaps difficult to see our current moment as a story other than declension.

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