Ethics, Native Sovereignty, and non-Tribal Me

Indigeneity, Native Sovereignty, the incredible invisible video, Othering the white guy: Good Works–I am grateful!

I would like to be more clear more often in saying what my research is about, so let me say it again. This work is about the proud story of Native achievement found in the community singing heritage of the Brothertown Indian Nation, and about ways that singing lives on today.  Short answer:  Brothertown singing lives on in shape note singing, and thus permeates pervasively in USA culture.  But then, to elaborate specifically and to confirm details turns out to be enormously fraught and complex.  Orature meets literature, and much of the story occurred before audio recording existed.

And then, even what I’ve learned, or helped to create, I can’t always say!  Not because I can’t, but because I’m not allowed.  Or, I am allowed, but it needs to go through committee first.  Or Tribal Council.  Or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.  There’s a process.  I respect that.  We’re in communication!  Relations are on-going.  The chain of friendship must always be brightened.

Native sovereignty matters. Place matters. I need to take a bit of a detour in ideas before getting on with my blog about the Brothertown Indian Nation singing legacy.

Reclaiming Indigenous V V cover

Over the last few months, I’ve been browsing occasionally but with great interest in the book Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision (2009) Marie Battiste, ed. (Vancouver: Univ. British Columbia Press). In an appendix, the “Principles & Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People” linked below are reproduced in full. I highly recommend taking a look at that inspiring and challenging global document from a U.N. subcommission:
[as an aside, my Anchorage-born self loves that I was most easily able to find this text on the web through the Alaska Native Knowledge Network!—another wonderful website to browse!]

I shared these ethical principles and guidelines on indigenous heritage with a group to which I belong which is handling some historical Native American musical material. Immediately, a leading figure in the group who does much other archiving work responded with these “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials” saying, “We follow these!”
Wow. More detail, inspiration, respect, and challenge—especially for academics or library and archives types. Please take a look. 🙂

These linked documents and their ideas are weighty, serious, righteous, timely, and important. For everyone. For our relation with place. For human survival on this precious globe. We need local (i.e. Native) knowledge, environmental balance, Indigenous epistemologies and values. If they’re not respected, not maintained, not given to the generations—well, any culture, any species can become extinct. We’re on this globe together.

Often, the systems, life-ways, places, and relations with Others which allow and cultivate everything about Indigeneity are expressed as sovereignty—or sovereignties: geographic, political, intellectual, cultural. We all need Native sovereignties, and their fruits, literal and metaphorical! I believe that. I respect that. It’s on my plate every day, and in my bones—as is true of everyone. We’re all in different places in recognizing and relating to these realities, and in living them out wisely.

But, who’s ‘Indigenous’ anyway? Who belongs in a place, any place? How do we relate to place? How do we relate to the soil, and sustain it? How do we relate to our culture, and sustain it? What are we making and giving to the generations which hopefully will follow?  How can/should Indigenous knowledges and ways inform ANYone’s answer to these questions?  Or, what about when Natives of a certain place and climate and bioregion are dis-placed, or migrate, or their environment changed around them?  Aren’t we all migrants these days?  Isn’t that part of how the whole big globalized machine of the 1% works?  Isn’t it profitable to divorce the masses from healthy relations with soil, air, water; to pretend that place doesn’t matter; to turn everywhere into company-town, to turn all populations into desperate migrant labor and fodder for prison plantation planet? These are huge questions among a larger web I think about a lot, and deserve many books, many lives of answers lived…

Meanwhile (despite things like BIA regulation insanity), sometimes it’s a little bit less complex to ask and answer questions about sovereign Tribes, questions like:  who’s Tribal?  Who’s not Tribal?  Which Tribe?  When?  Where?  But, things get more complicated again when one digs in to sovereignties….   Who gives or recognizes sovereignty?  How did they get to do that?  Instead, is it like this?:  sovereignty just IS–it inheres in a people.  But, still, sovereignty must be claimed.  Or RE-claimed.  Or just lived out!–forget claiming, which is a relation with the Others.  Isn’t real freedom when you just do your thing, and don’t have to go to court or go to war for the right to it first?  Are these questions about political sovereignty? Cultural? Intellectual?  There are some good arguments that growth in ANY sovereignty enhances political sovereignty, at least to some degree.  My musical-cultural researches and results may not be about the most earth-shaking, nation-state defining, survival-determining issues facing people; but everything is connected, and cultural pride and belonging are healthy for anyone–and I happen to have expertise and life experiences which suit me uncannily well for exactly the musical and travelling-migrating historical project in my hands here.

I’m trying to learn and share a story of a certain singing subculture entwined with my whole life and with the Brothertown Indian Nation and their parent nations, and with the Oneida and other Tribes and Nations the Brothertown have lived with during their migrations from New England and Long Island homeland to western New York to Wisconsin. Some hint of the broader global Indigeneity ethics and sovereignty issues were a necessary background for me to get on with my blog post about my current archives project!

Oh–and, last bit of background.  I should say: I’m non-Tribal.  I’m white USA American, with these special flavors:  I was born in Anchorage, Alaska; raised in Oregon and Washington states.  I’m half Norwegian (my Dad is a Minnesota Viking–it’s not just a mascot, you know), half Swedish (with 1/16th of Finn on the Swedish side–we keep track), family on both sides in the USA now for roughly a century and a half.  I grew up singing liturgies, hymn tunes, even shape note tunes (just not in shapes) in Lutheran churches.  When I moved to Philadelphia, I got along with people best in the Black neighborhoods.  I have enjoyed some remarkable musical trainings, including degrees in violin performance and composition+.  I do the music free-lancer thing, with teaching.  I eat my food with chopsticks and play erhu music reading the Chinese jianpu music notation–there’s no explaining these things.  I’ve always read too much.  There’s always music running in my head.  Still I’m also always listening.  It all gets a bit jumbled sometimes.  Sounds like being human.

There.  Onward.

I wish I were better at showing my research results and more regular about putting them up here.  But, among the many challenges to those aims, a big one, ironically, is Native sovereignty.  “My” findings are not [only] mine—they are Brothertown’s!  Multiply that by the fact that the Oneida Nation are holding “The Brothertown Collection” at this time.  The Brothertown Collection is a unique, undigitized, extensive (over 1000 items), varied collection of materials crucial to my research.  The Oneida have it beside Green Bay, Wisconsin. Here’s one of my favorite views of the Brothertown Collection:

Need to do - Box 14

I mentioned that’s it’s a big collection right?  I don’t have permission to show you the inside of that box.  I respect that.  I have boxes like that in my office.

Some weeks ago, I was invited to “sit in” in a live video conference with mostly just Brothertown Tribal members and featuring presentation by a Tribal member about The Brothertown Collection, and just how it ended up with the Oneida anyway.  I was honored and grateful to be included!

Visuals were shared on-screen by the presenter, including the spreadsheet created in the Oneida History department with brief inventory descriptions of most of the collection, and the Accession Numbers for the maybe roughly half of the collection which has actually been accessioned and more thoroughly cataloged so far.  I was impressed!  When I was working in July in Oneida History Dep’t as part of this White Raven Archives Project, a computer station was turned on where I could view that spreadsheet.  Well, I could look at that back in the hotel room, and spend archive time more efficiently with requested items, right?  So I asked please whether I might put the spreadsheet on my thumb drive.

Oh, no.  I was told I could have pencil and paper.  OK.  I respect that.  So here’s a fragment from my notes–a little sample of labors.

fragment of Gabriel sprdsht notes +O-H

More rules: white gloves when I got inside the boxes.  And even that only with supervision.  And my bags / backpack outside the room.  I respect that.  Standard archive rules, actually.  But we learn that sometimes things are different for Tribal and non-Tribal.  I respect that.

During the video-conference, the factoid was mentioned that it had been reported to the presenter that only one non-Tribal researcher had ever asked for access to The Brothertown Collection.   !!!

I raised my hand.  “I guess that would be me.  I’ve done that.”  So, then it became mutually edifying for us to compare our experiences, Tribal and non-Tribal Brothertown, in our communications with Brothertown Tribal Council, and with other Brothertown position-holders, and with the Oneida Nation and History Department members.  Again, I was glad and grateful to be there and to be able to help with my perspective.  But in continuing conversation, it turns out that procedural questions arose, and not all was clear, and it’s my sense that, in fact, it is exactly by dealing with me as the Other that various Brothertown office-holders and policy makers are actually learning, deciding, creating their appropriate stance and actions.  Learning about sovereignty!–what is theirs, how to claim it, how to own it, how to exercise it.  Good!  But that’s Tribal business, I respect that, so I tried to shut up at that point.  And who knows, I may have all that wrong–I’m non-Tribal, I don’t know.  But that’s OK–“Othering” the white guy in Amerika can only be good, or at least fair enough!  I’m being Othered exactly by a perspective of Native sovereignty, which I not only respect, but also advocate.

Later, presentation returned to contents of the collection.  I was awesome.  My knowledge, my fluency, the demonstrated fruits of my good preparation and long and focussed labors in Wisconsin, even the quality of my personal pencil index abstracted from that spreadsheet were all well demonstrated.  Or so I say.  You’ll have to take my word for it.  It was decided that access to this video-conference would be restricted to Tribal members.  I respect that.  Now.  This bit was a little tougher for me, slower in coming around.  Come on, Gabriel–don’t be a hypocrite!  Where’s your Native sovereignty advocacy now that it hurts you personally a weensy tiny bit?

I’ve been so busy, and so scattered, and so painfully behind in the fund-raising!  And besides, plowing through more boxes and folders at CT Historical Society, making more photos and notes for processing and working over.  I wish I were better at showing my research results and more regular about putting them up here.  I imagine that better blogging, better sharing, encourages people to give me financial encouragements, because they see the fruits of the labors, they see something of what value that money is buying!  But, ironically, among the many challenges to these aims is Native sovereignty, which I am promoting and advocating and increasing!

In other entries of this blog, I have shared links to previous video conferences of this sort.  I was so looking forward to getting the link to this video conference–it would have been so nice and compelling, I thought, and CONCISE for you dear patient readers, and so so easy for me the scrupulous yet prolix writer, to just give a brief paragraph of context, and then the link to the video.  Blog entry done. Click.  See for yourself!  No need to trust my writing, my memory–hear my words, and especially those of others, for yourself!  Besides, literacy screws up memory–orature people have better memories.  Oh, and while you’re here and that was so easy, why not click on that PayPal button or send something to the P.O. Box.  They won’t remain for long!

But no.  I mean, Yes!  Please do click and send!  Thanks!  But, no, I can’t share the video to encourage you in that.  We named names and got personal and got into Tribal business and experienced some other edifying but perhaps insider stumble-upons, and, I think appropriately, it was decided [I don’t know by whom–that’s OK–that’s sovereign Tribal business–I’m non-Tribal] that this one should not go public.  I was in it, but not of it, and now it is gone from me.

So weeks have gone by.  I have many titles and topics planned and in development for blog entries here.  But I just couldn’t get around the idea, then the conviction, that it was the right time in events and the right point in the blog, and just unavoidable that I do this Ethics and Sovereignty entry.  Yet despite weeks of brewing, simmering, condensing, here we are with so many words. Til finally I can’t bear it, and I know I need an entry.  Labor pains.  Boom.  Here we are again.

One more story bit.  Sometimes, it turns out that non-Tribal individuals can become remarkably well-steeped and active in Tribal culture, heritage, and advocacy.  Otto Heller of Wisconsin was one of those guys for the Brothertown throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Here are some of my notes from the invisible silent video:

RE Otto Heller

Otto Heller somehow gained possession of a vast collection of Brothertown materials going back to the 1790s+.  Then he also collected and added more.  And studied.  And gave heritage tours and lectures.  Helped organize century anniversary events of Brothertown achievements and communicated and coordinated about those with members of Brothertown parent tribes still in New England. He has four big spiral notebooks filled with dense, neat manuscript of an entire big book of history of Brothertown.  He gathered details, before the web as we know it and before certain recent books and publications, which I know only could have come from collections in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

During the video conference, a Tribal member made some comparison between Otto Heller and me–an Otto Heller for our times, or the new generation, or the new millenium!!  I don’t recall the words precisely, but you’ll have to take my word for it anyway, since I can’t double-check with the video, because that’s Tribal, and I’m not. And I respect that.  We all need the fruits of Tribal sovereignty.  I’ll go further.  The global mainstream thing isn’t working, and threatens the globe, or at least its human habitability. Nobody survives without a rise in global Indigeneity, a tide-shift in respect for and practice of Native knowledges and values, by everyone, in all the different places of the planet.

Anyway, I expect that I will be sharing more in future, as the cultural landscape evolves.  I’ve been very graciously invited in to much that is Brothertown’s (and stories of Oneida should be another blog entry!), for which I am honored and grateful.  I’ve enjoyed good times and good work with many wonderful, sweet, smart, funny, warm, beautiful, rugged people; made some good friends; gained and helped new colleagues.  Communications continue. Relations are ongoing. And negotiations. And diplomacies.  The chain of friendship must always be brightened.


Author: whiteravenarchivesproject

musician, independent scholar, shape note singer, Brothertown Indian Nation cultural researcher and ally

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