European academic conference on American Indians

Submitted by Amy Ruckes

The 39th annual American Indian Workshop (AIW) took place on April 10th through the 13th in Gent, Belgium. It is an academic conference for professors, historians, artists, lecturers, teachers, museum curators, students, workshop organizers, and tribal members.

While searching Twitter,  I came across an announcement about the workshop taking place in Belgium and the call for academic papers.

Upon informing the organizer, Thomas Donald Jacob, about the discovery of AIW on social media, he was unaware of the conference being advertised using that platform. While the Twitter presence was not the foremost concern on this year’s host’s mind, that might change in the coming years considering the usage of social media in connecting Native American groups with each other.

Since the tribes encompass the entire North American continent and the gathering of native voices in a group chorus has had a dramatic effect in recent years concerning protests, legislation, and litigation; we will hope that the conference continues to use the social media platforms to not only inform their academic members of the scholarly references discussed during the conferences, but also seek to continue the dialogue with the native community as a whole about the historical information available and including their critical voices, oral histories, and concerns in the discussion.

The American Indian Workshop has had a long history in Europe. However, the responsibility to host the event has not always been an easy decision. Many hours and more than a few very long nights were spent by Thomas Donald Jacobs, Fien Lauwaerts, Adeline Moons, and Jeroen Petit preparing the theme, the sessions, the moderators, and the schedule.

However, the majority of the time was spent negotiating conference facilities, financial sponsors, and available university assistance. Considering the budgetary constraints and the lack of enthusiasm by many universities and organizations to fund humanities focused projects, the conference was a success and resulted in extensive networking and discussions among attendees.

The enthusiastic response from future host universities further indicated the success of such a gathering by destinations reserving the right to host conferences until 2022.

During the initial reception, I was warmly welcomed by Prof. Dr. Michael Limberger and Thomas Donald Jacobs, who has Cherokee origins.

For the conference opening, the keynote speakers were Elizabeth James-Perry, native artist, marine biologist, and tribal member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe; Camiel van Breedam, Belgium artist who has focused on the Native American theme in his art and literature; and Dr. Lomayumtewa Ishii, tribal member of the Hopi Nation and professor at Northern Arizona University.

The three keynote speakers addressed a range of issues from the tribal traditions, foods, stories, clan structure, economics, environmental issues, ceremonies, and activities of native life to the present issues faced by tribal members and the future survival of language and culture amongst societies that are eager to embrace the Native ideas.

Along with the conference discussion begun by the keynote speakers was a parallel dialogue about the enthusiasm that Europeans unwillingly engage in and the ensuing appropriation of the indigenous culture they are fascinated by and may profit from it through their artistic endeavors. This topic was initiated through the interview with Camiel Van Breedam, who has had a prodigious career as a Belgium artist in Europe and beyond since 1958. His focus is on recycling materials and drawing his inspiration from nature, social change, and the plight of Native Americans. However, his artistic piece, characterized as an ‘environment’, is displayed in Ghent University’s UFO atrium and is entitled ‘’Als het heidens oog vol is’’ (‘’When the heathen eye is full’’).

The artistic depictions of hatred toward the Native Americans which was expressed through violence towards them seems to evoke an austere reflection on the past as the natives were victims of genocide, while the descriptive term ‘’heathen’’ conjures up images of European domination and colonization effects that continue to this day. During the interview with the artist, he revealed a Eurocentric viewpoint influenced by European media accounts and literature.

At the end of the conference, we were elated to learn that the presentation of Mr. van Breedam artistic ‘environment’ at the University would, in the future, contain information from Native Americans who could impart an Indigenous perspective on the atrocities experienced on the North American continent. The dialogue which began with Mr. van Breedam will, hopefully, be a continual one within the university, Belgium, and the European academic scene as a whole.

The conference session extended between Tuesday through Friday. The presentations that took place during those brief four days were centered around the theme ‘’Arrows of Time: Narrating the Past and Present.’’ The expansive spectrum of topics contained within the theme and the limited time frame meant that sessions were overlapping and discussions were held at the end of several related presentations.

Using this method of related subject matter viewed from a multidisciplinary view gave an interesting perspective on topics such as Native American valor and atrocities in war demonstrated through presentations on documentary evidence of World War I and World War II’s Battle of the Bulge contrasted with visual art by Canadian First Nations artist Carl Beam which depicts the similarities between Native American and Jewish genocide.

The first session at the conference began with the presentation by Dr. Karim Michel Tiro, Xavier University in Cincinnati, about the Belgium Catholic missionary, Father Pierre Potier, who served the Native Huron populations at Detroit as military diplomat and ‘’seelsorger’’, a priest highly dedicated to converting souls and actively involved as mediator between the tribes and governmental and military institutions. The manuscripts by Fr. Potier include transcriptions not only on Jesuit theological teachings but also some of the best archival evidence of French North American language along with Huron linguistic documentation.

Potier seemed to be focused on Christian theology and his responsibilities in converting native Wyandots, while Wyandots viewed his presence among them as a status symbol and immediately requested a new missionary diplomat upon Fr. Potier’s untimely death.

The presentation was followed by historian E. Richard Hart, who gives expert testimony in litigation cases concerning the Sinixt tribe and other western tribes in land and treaty disputes with the U.S. government, discussing the European Catholic missionary, Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, and his travels through the Western regions of America and his continual impact on current tribal litigations occurring in today’s society through his documentary cartographic evidence that he developed during his 39 years and thousands of miles of land and sea travels extending from the American and Canadian Western territory into the Midwestern territory and even to South America.

De Smet used a strategy of inoculation against small pox as a way of converting natives to Christianity. His desire to set up Jesuit missions to serve the educational needs of the native population compelled him to cross the Atlantic 19 times to seek further funding from church officials. Although his intentions were clearly not altruistic in his behavior towards the Salish and Sinixt population, his achievements in negotiating peace between the tribes and the military prevented the utter devastation of war in the region.

The resounding influence of Jesuit missionaries is still felt to this day within the Sinixt tribe as they have an excessively high regard for higher learning.

The conference continued with presentations which discussed genocide; war; Indian residential schools; official public apologies by Canadian political leaders; the Native historical narrative in pedagogical institutions; Indigenous storytelling, music and art; political use of Plains Indian image in European right-wing propaganda; cinema representation of Indigeneity in popular culture; economic influence of Wampum; cultural appropriation of the Native identity in modern Polish and German literature and post-modern entertainment demonstrated in one session by Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor’s cinematic depiction of the German Karl May fest in ‘’Searching for Winnetou’’; health concerns of the Native population; native Andean sounds in Ecuadorian music; problems crossing the US-Mexico border during the pilgrimage to Magdalena; climate change and the effect on permafrost in Nunavik; the immense impact of American Indian code talkers and other native soldiers who fought in US military engagements in Europe; Indian protests in the last century; and reflecting on the need for environmental protection for Indigenous territory and reconciliation for past mistakes.

Four days seem barely competent to encompass such a breadth and depth of topics. The many centuries of Anglo interactions with the Native American population documenting their stories, traditions, culture, land, art and ceremonies simply cannot be dealt with in a timespan of a few days. However, the resulting dialogue pertaining to the Eurocentric documentary evidence on Native American culture and the ‘’historical authoritativeness’’, expressed by Dr. Ishii, concerning the indigenous population will continue between academics, historians, and tribal members as they return to their museums, higher educational institutions, and colleagues.

I, as simple observer, will be returning to my home and sharing with my family the knowledge that I gained from such a detailed narrative on my country’s history and my white and native ancestors impact on law, society, trade, food, and environment and the lack of ethical behavior towards indigenous populations. I hope that the enthusiasm will continue to be seen among humanities departments across Europe and America in order to provide a future platform such as this conference in discussing Anglo - and Indigenous history and the issues that still remain. The interactions between native culture, the church, the military, and the US government can still be contentious to this very day. There is much to learn about past interactions in order to grasp the realities of two interconnected nations living side-by-side and truly being interdependent on one another, whether both sides fully recognize it or not.

About the American Indian Workshop

The American Indian Workshop (AIW) was founded in 1980 at the Amsterdam Meeting of the European Association for American Studies. There were nine participants at the first meeting, but the AIW has since become the largest conference in Europe for researchers concerned with topics related to the Native Peoples of North America. The AIW also draws scholars from across the globe, working in diverse disciplines such as history, literature, anthropology, ethnology, art history, gender studies, museology, ethnomusicology, religion, law, linguistics, political science, cultural studies, philosophy, Canadian and American Studies, Native American Studies, Inuit Studies, and performance studies as well as communication and media studies. As such, the AIW provides an important platform for both established academics and young scholars for sharing their expertise, and benefiting form critical engagement.

The 39th edition of the AIW, titled “Arrows of Time: Narrating the Past and Present,” was held in Ghent, Belgium, while the 40th will be held in Poland.
On The Net:
www.american-indian-workshop.org/

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