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“Sorry Business”: Bronwyn Carlson Presents in Flagstaff on Social Media Use and Mourning in Australian Aboriginal Communities

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While researching Native American veterans’ issues at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by Dr. Bronwyn Carlson (University of Wollongong, Australia) on 14 October. Dr. Carlson, who visited NAU to discuss collaborations between her institution and the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at NAU, specializes in the study of social media use among Australian Aboriginal communities.

I am fascinated by Carlson’s work because it brings together a number of aspects I have been grappling with for my milblog project. I read the use of social media by primarily non-Indigenous populations (i.e., US soldiers and civilian representatives of the home front) as a cultural practice that conducts cultural work by ceremonially negotiating war experience and, thus, constituting community. My work draws from a discussion of how Indigenous communities in the US reintegrate returning veterans and of the role community support plays in this integration process.

Media-studies approaches to social and new media in the early 2000s tended to be very defensive in stating that virtual communities, such as blog audiences or Facebook groups, could constitute community through relationship-maintaining interaction that was not bound to embodiment and place. Much of these debates seemed to defend against allegations that online communities could not be communities, exactly because they were not spatial and embodied, and often did not enable synchronous conversation (such as the sequence of blog post and readers’ comments).

While my own work draws from observations about Native American war-related ceremonies to argue that non-Native milblogs, indeed, constitute community because they perform ceremonial acts of narrating war experience and social support through audience response (an indirect link between Indigenous communalism and social media), Bronwyn Carlson’s research focuses on how Australian Aboriginals directly operationalize social media for community-related cultural practices.

One aspect of this would be the question of forging identity – I have been asked repeatedly in how far online space as a playground for assuming another identity might be a problem for my work on milblogs, in how far some blogs might be fakes assuming a “hero” identity In the case of veterans and soldiers, I am sure that any wannabe milbloggers would be called out very quickly because the milblogosphere so so well-connected and because the topics are so specific that faking expertise would be too difficult to succeed. However, the fact that some popular (general) blogs turned out to be based on fictitious identities, and the widespread utilization of anonymity in social media raised the question of authenticity among many colleagues to whom I presented my work. ‘Playing with identity’ seems to be primarily a problem of the “Western” world, though, if we consider Dr. Carlson’s work. Australian Aboriginals tend to be more interested in representing, emphasizing, and strengthening their cultural identity through their representation of “self” in social media, rather than engage in ethnic, social, or gender drag.

Carlson’s presentation and articles illustrate that Australian Aboriginals not only use social media at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians, but that their use of the media opportunities goes beyond typical non-Indigenous uses, as well. It incorporates culturally-specific elements that serve to (re-)instate cultural identity: Because many communities have been torn apart due to forced adoptions, residential schools, or employment requirements, many Australian Aboriginal communities face challenges in continuing particular practices, and social media offer opportunities to remedy this predicament.

This is especially important regarding matters of death and mourning, which are called “Sorry Business” among Aboriginal communities. Sorry Business entails social obligations, based on reciprocity and social support, participating in ceremonies, and representing one’s extended family. Social media allows people to inform distant relatives about the death of particular community members through online obituaries, to organize transport to remote funeral ceremonies, to extend gestures of support and condolences online if attendance at a funeral is impossible, and to dedicate online sites as memorials to deceased persons, to which users can contribute by posting stories, images, or messages. I have seen similar practices and functions of bridging the spatial divide in milblog-representations of mourning, and am fascinated by the similar utilization of technology to continue cultural communal traditions between them and the expressions of Aboriginal Sorry Business.

I found especially remarkable that Dr. Carlson presented this cultural phenomenon from various angles, discussing culturally-specific problems such as the impact of staggering numbers of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth on Sorry Business in the social media, and internal debates on cultural taboos (such as visual representations and mentioning the names of deceased persons online). These perspectives complicate our understanding of the matter, yet they illustrate intriguingly how a culture is not only confronted and challenged by technological and social change, but also, how community members take up the challenge and seek to incorporate these new technologies into its cultural and social fabric. Representations of internal debates and conflicts over cultural taboos versus opportunities to conduct ceremonies and commemorate lost community members, after all, indicate that this culture is alive and kicking.

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Lecture on Milblogs in Omaha and Research on Veteran Organizations in St. Louis

A few days ago on 3rd December, I have held my last lecture on this trip. While the earlier lectures discussed my work on German perceptions of Native American cultures and promoted the forthcoming book, this talk presented some of my current work on deployed soldiers’ milblogs. This guest lecture was hosted by University of Nebraska, Omaha’s English Department and the Office of Military and Veteran services.

I met Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, who invited me to Omaha, during his Fulbright year at American Studies Leipzig in 2007. Since then, we have kept in close contact and frequently worked together. Omaha is very dear to me, for the friends and colleagues I know here but also because this is where I held my first lecture when my dissertation project took shape in 2007.

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Last week’s lecture provided an overview of the interdisciplinary methodology of the project and contextualized Native American military traditions before launching into a close reading of an American soldier’s milblog from Afghanistan. I pointed out different elements of ceremonial storytelling in the interaction between deployed soldiers and civilian audience. Some of these textual elements led back to the presentation on “tribute and memorial posts” I held at the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles. Similar to my reflections on the longue dureé in Indianthusiasm for teaching due to the lectures on Nazis and the GDR that I held over the course of only one weekend in Oklahoma in late October, this lecture helped me approach the topic of death and mourning in milblogs from different angles, discuss it with a diverse audience, and thus extend the scope of my work from the ASA presentation in early November. This widened perspective will help me tackle another chapter of the blog project in the coming year.

Apart from the academic values gained from this final lecture, it was fascinating to observe the environment in which the event took place. The lecture was held at UNO’s Community Engagement Center, a brand-new building dedicated to community outreach. The audience was thus both “gown” and “town,” comprised of students of both English and Native studies courses, veterans, and members of the Omaha community. As my colleagues told me, UNO was recently rated the best four-year college in veteran services by the Military Times. It was thus particularly interesting to observe and discuss veterans’ affairs at this institution. This also brought back discussions and observations from last year’s conferences at UC Santa Barbara and Copenhagen where many discussions and presentations centered around the question of college veteran services, student veterans, and the role of the humanities in veteran reintegration.

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Similar questions recurred during the last few days when I met with colleagues and representatives of veteran groups, such as The Mission Continues. The Mission Continues has recently become one of the best-known veteran support groups. They focus on community service and volunteerism as its founders have realized that many veterans are eager to continue serving and that volunteerism, i.e., helping others, helps veterans to help themselves in their efforts to reintegrate into civil society. I became interested in groups like TMC when looking at the warrior philosophy of Native American military traditions and their strong focus on ceremonialism, community relationships, and mutual aid. Native studies scholars argue that “warriorhood” is anchored in perpetual community relationships, while “soldiering” in the ‘Western’ sense is more perceived as playing a social role. The community engagement of The Mission Continues reminds me of relationships in changing tasks (from fighting to, say, charity or care-giving) known from native warrior philosophy.

Since both Native scholars and military psychologists have argued that ceremonialism and community relationships  might support the reintegration of non-Native veterans and could play a role in working through their traumatic experiences, I have begun looking beyond milblogs to find other non-Native efforts to implement community and ceremony in my research during this year. The Mission Continues is a very good example for such efforts. Getting together with TMC representatives as well as social sciences scholars from Washington University and Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area helped me explore these veteran groups’ efforts. Their information and advise provided valuable social science perspectives for my project. I will continue to look into this and similar projects, although they are not deployed soldiers’ narratives, to look for ceremonialism and community interaction as ingredients for reintegration.

Lecture in Tübingen and an “Indian Bridge”

I went to Tübingen on 6-7 May to hold a guest lecture on Wild West shows in Europe. Tübingen, a small town near Stuttgart in the region of Swabia in Southwest Germany, is one of the reputable traditional university towns. As Leipzig is proud of Goethe’s time as a student at its university (most of which he apparently spent partying), Tübingen is proud to have many German Romanticists, such as Hölderlin and Hauff, as well es the philosopher Hegel, among its former faculty, students, and residents.

The lecture on Wild West Shows addressed several aspects of German perceptions of Native Americans (and vice versa) that I explored in my dissertation, such as German impresarios’, newspaper reporters’, and the audiences’ expectations and reception of Native American show performers, but also a perspective on the Native experience and motivation to join these shows.  My presentation was integrated in Prof. Astrid Franke’s lecture on “Issues in American Literary and Cultural History from the Civil War to the First World War” and was videotaped. I will post a link to the video as soon as it is published. It was a great opportunity to return to my general research interest in German/European representations of Native America. I will probably post more entries in the future to discuss anecdotes and examples of Indian imagery popping up in German history and current everyday life.

Whenever I come to a new town, I like to walk around to get a feeling how it is laid out: what are the distances and major landmarks, how do these landmarks look from different perspectives and how does the structure of the town relate to them (e.g. in the line of view). It is always exciting to see the “underside” and subcultural aspects of a place as well, so I look for graffiti, stickers on lamp posts, and posters, no matter if they advertise festivals, political events, or garage sales. I will take some time in future entries to post pictures of signs from different places I came across and found remarkable.

 “Walking the map” of Tübingen, I happened upon a little bridge, called the “Indianersteg” (Indian’s Footbridge). It’s simply a small pedestrian bridge connecting the southern part of town with an oblong island that parts the Neckar river across from the old town and is laid out as a park.

source: http://www.tuepedia.de/index.php/Indianersteg

Tübingen’s official wiki states that the name comes from children playing Indians at this bridge. The title’s first occurrence in official records is from a 1871 report on an accident. This fits nicely into my presentation topic: Discussing ethnographic exhibitions (Völkerschauen) and Wild West shows, I explained that, although “Indianthusiasm” as a phenomenon developed since c. 1800, these shows helped turn it into a feature of popular mass culture during the 1870s and 1880s. The fact that children met at this bridge to play Indians in the 1860s and early 1870s tells us that this cultural practice was already widespread at a time when the popularity and high frequency of these shows as just starting, several years before Buffalo Bill first toured Germany (1890) and Karl May published his first Winnetou novel (1893).