- The SAI and the End(s) of Intellectual History
In all conferences and meetings of this association, there shall be broad, free discussion of all subjects bearing upon the welfare of the race. [End Page 220]
In the penultimate paragraph of an essay I wrote for a recent special issue of the journal interventions on indigeneity and postcolonial theory, I stated the following: “The intellectual historical project that challenged the primacy of theory in my generation will play itself out” (94). That special issue, edited by my Illinois colleagues Jodi Byrd and Michael Rothberg, came out of a conference at the University of Illinois in which Native studies and postcolonial scholars grappled in various ways with the status of theoretical discourse in Native and Indigenous studies, and my comment about intellectual history served an argument through which I sought to reinvigorate theory, not to mention theorists, in our field. The focus of this special issue and the conference that gave it impetus is prima facie evidence to the contrary of my assertion, but I want to start with it as a way of creating an alternative way in which to think about the legacy of the Society of American Indians a century and more after its founding.
My invocation of the primacy of theory, I should say, was not a reference to Native studies—what we know as theory in academic circles has never had primacy there—but rather to the academic world those of us who came into Native studies faced in the 1980s. Embracing Native intellectual history, as I did as one response to that world, was a way of navigating between the theory-heavy broader world and versions of Native studies that had not, at least as of yet, established a satisfying basis for what our highest intellectual and scholarly aspirations were. But that navigation strategy, as I tried to articulate in the interventions essay, had come at the expense of a richer engagement with theory, or had at least delayed that engagement, and what we missed in the process was [End Page 221] what haunted my remarks. As I said of my prophesied playing out of the intellectual historical project, achieving that end is “the easier part. The harder part is taking the next step forward. Eventually that step will not just involve theory, but will be theory, and the sooner we get there, the better. So, let’s get there” (94).
Among theorists at the conference for which I wrote the paper, I apparently felt emboldened to make that statement about intellectual history, but in my basement home office staring at the page proofs, alone except for the shelves and stacks of books by the Native authors who produced the history of writing I referenced in my remarks and whose lives and works have become so central to the way that many of us define Native studies, I faced doubts about both the truth and the efficacy of what I had said. Did I really mean that, or some version of it? In the context of the essay, it was something of a throwaway line, so I could have done just that—thrown it away.
By keeping it, I unknowingly set myself up for this occasion, which is, of course, built around the idea of the history that a certain kind of intellectuals make. If the primacy of what I have called the intellectual historical project is ending, what do occasions like the one that prompted these essays on the Society of American Indians mean beyond pausing to recall with admiration some of those who paved the road that brought us to where we are today? My purpose here is to grapple with some of the trends in the doing of Native intellectual history that prompted my consideration of that project’s pride of place.
What was missing from the theory conference essay was something I have been working out since, which is the need for Native and Indigenous studies to work more explicitly in ways that recognize, generate, respect, and proliferate alternative versions of and practices within our field. A formal way of thinking of this is through the language of...