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  • Indigenous Biography, Genealogy, and Webs of Relation
  • David A. Chang (bio)

A response to K. Tsianina Lomawaima, “A Principle of Relativity through Indigenous Biography.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 248–69

Two of the things that fascinate me about Tsianina Lomawaima’s powerful piece are the ways she invokes the relationship of the individual to the collective (in the metaphor of the constellation), and the ways that Indigenous biography connects to genealogy (understanding a person’s life, its history, and its meaning by looking at ancestors and descendants). In both of these, the principle of relativity that she discusses is present. Both of them help me to understand the questions and challenges that have animated my own research and writing at the fringes of Indigenous biography.

I say “at the fringes of biography” because, like most academic historians, I am fascinated by biography, a genre that I have not produced. Its vividness and evocative power are undeniable. And of course I believe that individual lives are deserving of study. Yet I think most academic historians needlessly fear a question of representativeness: what can one person’s life legitimately demonstrate? Isn’t it better to see the individual as a representative of a collective trend? And so, like most academic historians, I have read biographies but never written one, not even a chapter-length one, and certainly not a book-length one.

Instead, in my own published work, I have culled brief episodes from the lives of scores of individuals as “evidence”—as illustrations of social phenomena. I chose those individuals and their experiences (or often their words) for what I claimed was their representative nature. I have narrated the political activities of Creek citizens in the 1870s to represent the controversies that [End Page 274] rocked their nation in the aftermath of the US Civil War; described the loss of a Muscogee Creek woman’s allotment lands to point to the history of land alienation; related a Native Hawaiian’s experiences in the goldfields of California to exemplify the lives of diasporic Hawaiian laborers; and mentioned the literary production of Native Hawaiian high school students to evoke the cultural work of Native young people in the 1930s.

This is to say that over and over in my published work, I have followed the model I was taught as a US historian: seize upon the telling anecdote from a person’s life to suggest that their experiences reveal the lives of countless other individuals. In such a model, the individual actually matters relatively little. It is the collectivity that matters. This is a tendency that exists not only in the professional norms of Indigenous history, but in academic social and cultural history more generally. I suspect, however, that an archaic kind of anthropologizing of Native people has also been at play; this leads historians to lean heavily toward the history of the society at the expense of the story of the person.

What Lomawaima is endeavoring to do here is so movingly different because it comes at the person from the opposite direction. The person’s story—and the person—has a dignity and a power and a significance all its own. Her great-aunt Tsianina’s story matters simply because it matters. That does not mean cutting it off from its social and historical context. Rather, it means understanding her within her context. The point is not merely to mine a person’s life for evidence to support one’s argument about the Really Significant Story of Social Change. The point is to understand—or, if that is too grandiose a term, at least to reflect with care upon—a person’s life.

That the person she is studying is her own relation is significant, and it is more significant still that she is described in a web of relations. This invokes what Lomaiwaima terms “a principle of relativity,” drawing on Vine Deloria, Jr.’s declaration that the notion that “we are all relatives” can stand at the methodological core of our efforts to understand the universe we inhabit.

In Native Hawaiian studies, this principle immediately summons mo‘okū‘auhau (genealogy) to the center of our attention. Mo‘okū‘auhau...


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pp. 274-276
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