Ben Pokross

Ben Pokross

Advisory Council FellowPh.D Candidate, Yale University

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Writing History in the Nineteenth-Century Great Lakes

My project takes as its central question what it meant to try and record the history of Indigenous people in nineteenth-century America. Nineteenth-century historical writing has often been described as an instrument of Native dispossession, a tool for “writing Indians out of existence”, in Jean M. O’Brien’s words. But my project argues that Native authors not only penned histories themselves but played a constitutive role in the development of new forms of writing history. By analyzing four emergent genres of historical writing in the nineteenth century—the legend, the “traditional history”, the “textual memorial”, and the souvenir—I argue that we can see how these texts negotiate the use and meaning of history across Euro-American settler and Native communities alike.

Such a question takes on particular force in the Great Lakes, where Native people could not easily be condemned as vanishing. In this region of active entanglement and contestation between white settlers and Native people, history was a key site of struggle. “Writing History in the Nineteenth-Century Great Lakes” tracks the contours of this debate over what constituted the history of Indigenous people, what form and genre it should take. Out of these contests arose new ways of writing about the past. Returning to this moment in the development of historical writing, my project argues, lets us see the influence Native people have always had in crafting their own histories.