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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Isaiah Lorado Wilner on the Influence of Indigenous Knowledge on Modern Thought

by contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach

Isaiah Lorado Wilner is a historian of knowledge with interests in Indigenous studies and intellectual history. His research uncovers the interactions of nonstate and state knowledge systems, and he is now completing a book, developed from his dissertation at Yale, about the influence of Indigenous knowledge on modern thought. Wilner’s research has received recognitions including the Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians, the Canadian Historical Association Aboriginal History Article Prize, the Modernist Studies Association Prize for an Edition, Anthology, or Essay Collection, and the Forum for History of Human Science Article Prize. He is the author of The Man Time Forgot (HarperCollins, 2006) and an editor of Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (Yale, 2018).

Wilner spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about his essay “Body Knowledge, Part I: Dance, Anthropology, and the Erasure of History,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).

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Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your article, you trace the evolution of the Hamat̓sa dance and the “remarkable effusion of ideas in dance” of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw over the course of the nineteenth century (133). Your argument is multi-layered and extremely generative. First, by analyzing Indigenous knowledge systems—such as storytelling, potlatch, and the Hamat̓sa dance—you are encouraging the field of intellectual history to move beyond its reliance on textual (particularly state) sources. You argue that state and nonstate histories are not only “equal” and legitimate forms of knowledge/political systems, but that they are inextricably linked during this tumultuous period. Indeed, you ask the reader to consider the provocative question “who is civilizing whom?” and demonstrate the influence of Indigenous knowledge on modern thought (114). Second, the “political genius” of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw to adapt and survive in the increasing violence of a capitalistic system offers a direct challenge to the western/other and primitive/modern binaries. Lastly, the expressive dance of the Hamat̓sa not only impacted the development of modern anthropology but shared in the making of today’s global indigeneity. With reference to the scholarship on modernity and sovereignty, how can understanding the body knowledge of the indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America expand the field of intellectual history and contribute to debates on modern thought?

Isaiah Lorado Wilner: We are commonly taught that modernity flows in one direction, from the West to “the rest.” The history that I’ve traced in this essay reveals the flow of knowledge in the opposite direction, from nonstate people to the state. The evidence I present is the work of the Kwak’wala-speaking peoples to civilize the man who came to study them, converting Franz Boas to the principles of potlatch, which led Boas directly to the transformational insights with which he is associated today. The deconstruction of race and the rise of the modern concept of culture—major steps toward decolonial thinking—resulted from the influence of Indigenous thinkers, specifically the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, who inculcated Boas in a system of knowledge enacted by means of dance.

In the example of the civilization of Boas by the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, we see evidence of a deep and profound Indigenous influence on modern thought. This influence has been erased from the state’s account but it remains legible in the primary sources created by the community. It opens up a question about the Indigenous influence on modernity. What ideas have Indigenous peoples contributed to the modern world? How have Indigenous peoples, as sovereign political communities, influenced global culture and politics? In what ways have Indigenous ideas been erased, obscured, appropriated, distorted, and denied? Where is this history of erasure recorded, and what might accessing it mean for the ways we live and think going forward? To read for the Indigenous influence on the making of modernity, I suggest that we need to change the way we research, turning to the historical archives created by Indigenous peoples themselves rather than relying on state sources.

Many of these archives are nontextual. In this article, I turn to the archive of dance, which is one way that humans document, interpret, tell, share, and create history. In the state we associate dance with art; it is studied as theater, choreography, performance. But dance has a politics, and in the living world it serves central political functions. Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw dance enacts right and title to territory, transmits knowledge, and institutes kinesthetic culture. By dancing, people create a body sovereignty that connects them to their history, to their family, to their lands and waters, and to neighbors, allies, and relations. All this was achieved by the Hamat̓sa dance.

A dimension of this experience that I explore in the essay is the role of dance as a memory capsule. Dance, containing the residue of history, carries a concentrate of experience through our bodies, and it is reworked over time by dancers who create theory through movement, reactivating and converting suppressed body knowledge. The concentrate of history is an active agent, stimulating the opening of intellectual passages. The knowledge that results is not just a record but a means of transforming the past. Intellectual actions conducted in dance are erased by the text but they are viral, spreading socially, and they may come to have wide resonance. As the dance moves from body to body, it transmits ideas through techniques of motion and posture, communicating ideas and transforming the collective sense of belonging. Changes merely suggested in speech can be enacted in dance, spreading social transformation. This body knowledge, once it has been cultivated kinesthetically, becomes a sovereign repository of shared stories and ethics which can be reactivated for social purposes each time the dance is performed and the memory capsule is ingested again. Dance, as a medium of instruction, can also be deployed as a teaching tool, and the stories conveyed through the activity of dance access memories that propagate ideas. The process of performing a dance that records a social history erased by the state is a process of flooding the memory with history, reopening access to insight.

There is in dance both a tenacity and a creativity that is metonymic of the motility of culture. This would have profound implications for Boas, who was transformed by his exposure to the body knowledge of potlatch. The experience of dance deeply influenced Boas’s concept of culture, which is a kinetic concept, envisioning how people create worlds together through interactive movement, building up in rhythm a grammar of motion that constantly transforms. This Indigenous influence was erased by anthropology, which colonized Indigenous knowledge as its domain, and suppressed from the history of ideas.

The first part of the essay that is appearing in this issue explores the history of political thought that it is possible to write when we study the ideas transmitted and archived in the records of dance. I show that if we want to achieve a history of all ideas in interaction rather than a history of state ideas, then we need to move beyond the history of speech acts, which is focused on the movement of mouths recorded in texts, to trace the ways people transmit knowledge by moving the whole body. The Hamat̓sa dance provides an important example of the kinds of knowledge that Indigenous peoples have not only kept alive but transmitted to Western thinkers which have been erased from the master narrative. The history I narrate in the piece makes Indigenous stories told in dance legible to intellectual history so that we can access a fuller knowledge that has been denied us by the state archive and the state story. When we access the diversity of ways in which knowledge is encoded, then we will have a history of ideas rather than a history of states.

In this history of ideas, the concept of modernity looks very different. Rather than imagining a Self/Other rupture of the new from the old, we see a Host–Guest relation: the old survives through the new and the new recharges the old. The Hamat̓sa dance was a new dance that came from outside the Kwak’wala-speaking community. But the arrival of that modernity did not diminish tradition; it recharged it. The Kwak’wala-speaking peoples used the dance to revitalize and unify their society, organizing to achieve survival in an era of radical threat to land, body and mind. In the shadow of smallpox, amid a rapid population collapse, and in the face of a Canadian legal assault that outlawed the potlatch, the Hamat̓sa dance became vital fugitive knowledge. It played a central role in the survival strategy of potlatch, cultivating a culture of belonging, a stance of resilience, and an organized political movement that enacted an ongoing sovereignty. By circulating the dance, some twenty peoples came together to create a network of reciprocal gift giving and intermarriage that converted violence to nonviolence, redistributed wealth, and produced a festival of resurgence—an annual winter ceremony that disseminated the origin stories connecting body and land which are the essence of survival. Because the Hamat̓sa and the older dances that it interacted with operated together as instruments of governance, politics and diplomacy, both the circulation of the dances themselves and the movements conveyed by the dances record a history of sovereignty and political ideation. The study of these sources allows us to see modernity in Indigenous rather than Western terms. We come to appreciate modernity not as simple rupture, a break with the past imposed by the state, but a process of reweaving the vibrant fabric of tradition.

NPC: You relied on three types of historical sources for your essay: texts written by George Hunt and collected by Franz Boas, the media archives that propagate the Hamat̓sa dance, and oral histories with Indigenous knowledge keepers. In reconstructing the political and intellectual history of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, Heiltsuk, and Wuikinuxv you began to think about the back and forth between the archives and community as “deep conversation” (136). You use the texts of Hunt and Boas innovatively to show how, in the face of state erasure, Boas was used as a “viable host [body] of fugitive knowledge” for the documentation of indigenous knowledge (121). In what ways did this methodology enable a richer understanding of Indigenous intellectual knowledge? What were the advantages (or pitfalls) of “deep conversation”? Additionally, is your research (inadvertently perhaps?) a memory capsule itself, a demonstration of potlatch to the reader and the field?

ILW: We might think of a distinction between collection and recollection. Collection is based on extracting lively knowledge from the storyworld. Boas aimed to collect the stories because he assumed they were going to die out. But the community’s goal was recollection. It had developed the potlatch as a means of memory work—to keep the sovereign storyworld alive and propagate it into the future. When Boas arrived, the people extended the potlatch, making him into a host body of their ideas. Consciously or not, Boas became a carrier of Indigenous knowledge even as he also extracted it. Today, we are beginning to grapple with this contradictory legacy. Recollection is a process of reconnecting the extracted knowledge to the community that gives it voice, identity, and meaning. I work with Indigenous knowledge keepers who are my teachers and guides to the living system of knowledge. By studying with them, I gain insights that help me to read the textual archive, framing the questions I ask.

Deep conversation is about recollection. When a researcher conducts an oral history, that researcher usually arrives with a project in mind and questions to ask. With deep conversation, you are not looking for an answer to a question. You are working toward a deeper level of understanding that will eventually guide you to the right kinds of questions to think about. Community intellectuals and experts are my guides to the living storyworld, which frames the ethics and approach of my research. I did not arrive intending to research the Hamat̓sa dance. It was only after my immersion in the community that I saw its centrality and decided I needed to learn about it. Then, as a result of my conversations with Hamat̓sas, I began to understand the importance of the different motions and postures of the dance—how certain ways of moving communicate specific ideas. It was expressed to me that the knowledge is in the movement; it is carried by the motions of the body. But no one had ever studied that transit of knowledge carried by bodies from a historical perspective. As a result of deep conversation, my work became an attempt to understand the impact of ideas that circulate through body knowledge.

The work that we do as historians is a memory capsule of the time that we spent learning and working. Writing, like dance, reprocesses these movements and activities that we participate in only briefly during a moment in time. Writing is body knowledge. For me this article became a memory capsule of a phenomenal time that I shared with my teachers. My Hamat̓sa guides directed me to the knowledge that flows through motions and postures and also to the theme of what remains secret, what dancers refuse to share with those who come to observe them. This work with the community helped me to formulate my ideas about semiotic knowledge, which consists of legible signs, and nonsemiotic knowledge, composed of messages that are carried in code, can be interpreted only by their owners, and therefore cannot be extracted.

NPC: You note that the secondary literature is “so thoroughly prejudiced and inaccurate that the work cannot be relied upon for anything other than a study of Western stereotypes of Indigenous culture” (135). You ask researchers to be mindful of the harm they may cause to people and the earth in replicating these stereotypes and assert that “a line must be drawn” (135). Could you speak more about this “line,” and how we as historians can prevent the burden being placed on Indigenous peoples to reinforce this line, i.e. do the work to uphold it?

ILW: The stereotype I start with in the article, beginning with the picture of Franz Boas posing as a Hamat̓sa dancer, is the stereotype of Indigenous violence, a stereotype that guides Western representations of the Hamat̓sa dance. The stereotype obscures the actual history of state violence and the active role played by both the Hamat̓sa dance and the potlatch in converting violence to nonviolence. This is tied to a number of other erasures: the erasure of Indigenous politics under the generalized label of culture, which denies Indigenous sovereignty and self-governance; the erasure of autochthonous modernities, visions of modernity that differ from the state’s modernity; behind that, the stereotype that Natives are not modern—if they are modern, after all, then they can’t be Native, since the West defines modernity against indigeneity. Postcolonial theories of the denial of coevalness deny the agency of Indigenous peoples to influence modernity, and that denial is rooted in a failure to examine Indigenous sources.

The misrepresentation of the potlatch offers a case study of this erasure. Anthropologists who relied on secondary sources to construct social theory extracted a few passages from Boas to define the potlatch as “agonistic”: based on violence, rivalry, or antagonism. I have found that the corpus of unpublished primary sources constructed by George Hunt tells a different story. The potlatch should be called irenic rather than agonistic. It was and is cooperative, leading toward peace, conciliation, and cohesion. Yet the stereotypes continue to circulate. And despite the voluminousness of the potlatch literature, few historians have contributed to it.

The cause of this is that historians have not done their work. The discipline of history has not looked at Indigenous communities in the same way it has looked at other communities: by studying the sources constructed by the community itself. A representation has been created by another discipline, primarily anthropology, and that has been used as the governing principle to characterize Native societies. One solution to the problem is for historians to get to work. When we create an accurate picture of the past as a foundation, then a proper study from many different disciplinary perspectives can begin. We should place the primary sources, textual and nontextual, created by Indigenous peoples at the center of our investigation, supplemented by oral sources from communities. The archives created by Indigenous peoples and preserved via anthropology will be central to our work.

Today we are beginning to repatriate those sources to their owners through what is called digital repatriation, the return of digitized copies of documents from state repositories. This is an important step, but not the only step, toward repatriating all of the Indigenous knowledge to its owners and developing new relationships on a reciprocal rather than an extractive basis. It is possible for scholars to find practical ways to contribute to the decolonization of knowledge. We can begin by taking the study of knowledge beyond the limits of national concepts, giving serious attention to sovereign systems of self-governance like potlatch. There is a history of sovereignty that begins before the state and continues in interaction with it. The construction of any history that denies that sovereignty is false and must be revised. The history of ideas, in this hemisphere and worldwide, is built on ideas that deny the reality of the peoples and lands at its basis. This history is being remade as we speak, and over time it will be reinterpreted and rewritten.


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: Frenzy. Franz Boas adopts the pose of a wild Hamat̓sa. Image no. MNH-8300, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

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