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36th American Indian Workshop in Frankfurt, and a Presentation on Mental Healthcare for Native Veterans
Preparing this post I realize two things – first, I have been behind in writing and need to catch up because more items and events are down the road. Second, it seems not so long ago that, this venue of a research blog being all new to me, I reported from the 2014 AIW in Leiden, Netherlands. So, a year has passed surprisingly fast.
The AIW is the annual meeting of an interdisciplinary network of scholars in American Indian Studies in Europe. This year’s convention, held 24-27 March 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany, was titled “Knowledge and Self-Representation.” I was excited to hear a number of presentations on Indigenous knowledge and applications thereof, in disciplines such as philosophy, literature, political science, and anthropology. I particularly enjoyed Rainer Hatoum’s presentation on his work with Franz Boas’s shorthand notes, especially since I missed his lecture on that topic during an exhibition and lecture series in Dresden in 2013. John Gilkeson and Suzanne Berthier-Foglar offered intriguing overviews on how scholarship in Native American history and the Southwest, respectively, has developed and how Native voices and perspectives have gained more ground and influence during the recent decades.
Birgit Hans’s presentation on reservation day schools in North Dakota during the Reservation Era struck a chord with me. She discussed the amount of data that teachers and school supervisors had to collect about their’ students’ families. I found this especially significant because a colleague of mine is currently busy with a major research project on how Americans developed a sense of information as “data” during the nineteenth century, and how the systematic collection, storage and analysis of information affected US culture. The idea that day school teachers recorded the number of windows and chairs in their students’ families’ houses, the number of bales of hay the men made per year, whether or not the women attended sewing circles, whether families approached schools to obtain medicine, and other seemingly unrelated information collected here, in order to devise a key to tell school boards and BIA authorities whether these Native families were “progressive” or not, struck me as very odd. This was especially so since Birgit Hans worked out convincingly how inconsistent these teacher-statisticians were with their numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. In many cases, they simply seem to have gone through the motion of counting, because even the higher-ups did not seem to have known what to do with all the data, and simply wanted to have it for the sake of having it. This opens up quite a few parallels to today’s governments’ culture of collecting data about the citizenry.
This year’s focus on knowledge at the AIW was an opportunity for me to extend my own research in the milblog project from investigating how military psychology and US mainstream representations of war trauma and PTSD refer to Native American warrior and veteran traditions. I have become interested in how mental healthcare services for Native American veterans have evolved since Vietnam, and in how far they reflect the interest in traditional and alternative approaches and in storytelling for healing apparent in mainstream discussions of trauma in the last few decades.
I was intrigued by the number of (medical) studies focusing on mental healthcare services related to the 1999 report of the US Surgeon General on mental health and its 2001 supplement on the role of “Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” in mental healthcare, how many studies stated the need and made suggestions to improve care for Native veterans. Yet it is sad to see that, in the fifteen years since, so many difficulties remain, if only to improve the collaboration of mental healthcare providers, such as VA and IHS. In addition, my presentation discussed successful projects, such as the VA’s institution of Tribal Veteran Representatives, which was instigated in the early 2000s, to provide better access to and engender trust in the VA’s services among Native veterans in rural areas.
With a perspective of my overall project on cultural transfer and veteran and trauma issues, I was inspired to see how the VA and the Indian Health Service gradually became aware of and began to integrate traditional healing methods regarding war trauma, and how they tried to integrate such services in their practice for Native veterans. A number of comments to my presentation pointed me to specific projects in which these traditional methods, such as sweat lodge ceremonies, are offered by the VA. It will be interesting to compare these projects to approaches that try to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the practice of mental healthcare for non-Native veterans, such as the work of John P. Wilson (see his essay in chapter four of Raymond Monsour Scurfield and Katherine Teresa Platoni’s collection Healing War Trauma), or Ed Tick’s Soldier’s Heart. In addition, I recently became aware of the website veteranceremonies.org, in which Native Studies scholar Lawrence Gross proposes that Native Americans should actively help non-Natives develop their own rituals for reintegrating returning soldiers into civil society by discussing ceremonial storytelling, community activism, and Native approaches to humor. I add this here because next year’s AIW in Odense, Denmark, will focus on humor. I hope that, apart from presentations on Native comedy and stand-up, there will be discussions and presentations on the role of humor in healing, as well.
I recently returned from the American Indian Workshop, the annual meeting of scholars in Native American studies in Europe, bringing together scholars from literary and cultural studies, cultural anthropology, and history. This year’s meeting, the 35th, was held in Leiden, the Netherlands on 21-25 May. Only belatedly (embarrassing for a historian) I connected the dots when a university dignitary said during the opening “Welcome to Leiden, where it all began”: the Pilgrims spent a few years in exile in Leiden before making their trip on the Mayflower and eventually establishing Plymouth colony (apparently because they felt that their children were becoming “too Dutch”). The local museum dedicated to the Pilgrims was closed both times I went to see it – maybe I should have memorized the opening hours the first time I stood at closed doors. More lucky colleagues told me a lot about the small but very intriguing collection of furniture, clothing, and books.
After a conference at Plimoth Plantation in 2011, I have now visited several places “where it all began”; and I might also add the Canary island of La Gomera, where Columbus’s ships took water before making the long haul across the Atlantic. There is even a well in the island’s capital San Sebastian de la Gomera proclaiming that “this water baptized America.“
Back to Leiden and the AIW (I might come back to discuss my impressions of the old town in a later post) – I was curious about a new feature on the conference program. The organizers had set up a poster session in which MA-level students, but also a Dutch company and, if I’m not mistaken, NGOs presented their work. This piqued my interest because, as of now, I had heard about and seen poster sessions only in the natural sciences and social sciences, but not in the humanities. In the conferences I co-organized, we discussed the format as a way to accommodate an extraordinary number of presentation proposals but eventually decided against it. We were concerned that, particularly in literary and cultural studies, it would be impossible to express complex ideas with eye-catching visuals and that, eventually, posters would become what the German language calls a “Bleiwüste” (text-heavy; literally, a “desert of hot type”).
The posters I saw at the AIW, however, were nothing of the sort. Many presenters neatly structured their posters into research questions, short notes on methodology, data collection, and conclusions. Some included photographs from field work or from their cooperation with local Native American scholars and communities.
Most important for the presenters was that, although you do not have a lot of space to formulate your argument in complex language, you had about two and a half hours time to get in contact with your audience and discuss your work in depth. A traditional conference presentation is 15-25 minutes long and you will have only about 10-15 minutes for Q/A which does not allow for in-depth discussion. Here, you could take the time to challenge, ask, or comment, in a one-on-one discussion
without having to fear that going deep at this point will dominate the floor and discourage other comments. I enjoyed this format very much and had the impression that the presenters were glad about the opportunity for such detailed feedback. It might also have helped that the session room also hosted the birthday cake – keynote speaker Henrietta Mann turned 80 that day and was presented with a song by all participants (sung in their respective languages), and with this wonderful Dutch cake. This is how I like academia: merrily munching and chatting away!