'So It Is Written': The Subversion of Indigenous Culture through Documentation

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Adam DePaul / NeMLA Convention '23
contact email: 

Many Indigenous communities have suffered, and continue to suffer, dire consequences from the dominant trend of ascribing primary value to the written word, considering what is not recorded as surplus data. These consequences can result either from what is selected for inclusion in the Written Record, or from what is omitted; in either case, the problem stems from a dominant culture that values the written word over knowledge transmitted through the oral tradition or held by living, unpublished knowledge keepers.

In their article “The Museum of Indian Culture and Lenape Identity,” David J. Minderhout & Andrea T. Frantz elucidate the “Documentary Genocide” of the Lenape Native Americans who remained in their homeland but were omitted from census data. These “surplus” Lenape continue to struggle with outside perceptions of legitimacy due to their exclusion from the written record.

As reported by John Bierhorst in The White Deer and Other Stories Told by the Lenape, Lenape storyteller Willie Longbone would sometimes begin his stories by saying “my story camps,” indicating that the story, passed almost exclusively through the oral tradition, “has a life of its own.” However, when such stories are committed to writing, the resulting artifact often arrests the life of its story, becoming valued as authoritative, and all divergent tellings as surplus.

This roundtable seeks to illuminate ways in which the elevation of the Written Record subverts indigenous culture and communities, and to explore ways in which the prominently document-oriented culture of Academia can mitigate this subversion in its inclusion of indigenous knowledge in the classroom.