- On Familiarity, Settler Colonialism, and Shifting Narratives
A response to Arini Loader, “‘Kei Wareware’: Remembering Te Rauparaha.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 339–65
I am a historian whose research focuses on nineteenth century Haudenosaunee history.1 Vast geographic distance separates the “people building a longhouse” I write about from the Ngāti Toa Rangatira people Arini Loader discusses in her essay. Haudenosaunee homelands, and contemporary reservation territories, are located in the eastern part of the Great Lakes region of North America. Te Rauparaha hailed from the Kāpiti Coast-Cook Strait region of Aotearoa New Zealand. Yet despite the continent and ocean that separates these two places, the story Loader tells, the work of memory-making and memorialization that she recounts, could just as easily have taken place in the late nineteenth century American city of Buffalo, New York, as the city of Ōtaki on the North Island of New Zealand. Reading her essay brought to mind prominent Haudenosaunee men who sat for portraits when they visited colonial centers on diplomatic missions or welcomed visitors into their communities.2 It reminded me of the work undertaken by orators who patiently explained Haudenosaunee history and philosophy in a variety of settings throughout the colonial period, work that continues all the way up to the present day. I thought of the Tuscarora writers David Cusick and Elias Johnson, who labored to translate these histories into English and publish them in an effort to right the wrongs that pervade histories of the Six Nations authored by non-Natives. The monument to the famed Seneca orator Red Jacket that stands in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery also sprang to mind. For me these parallels were simultaneously remarkable and unsurprising: settler [End Page 370] colonial structures and imaginaries are pervasive and predictable in British colonies and former colonies.
But what to make of this familiarity? It is important to grapple with the fact that while the names are different, the stories are strikingly similar. The title for Loader’s essay begins with “kei waraware,” a Māori phrase taken from the primary source, the biography of Te Rauparaha, that is translated as “lest it be forgotten” (342). Te Rauparaha’s son and biographer recognized that the leader’s life would be interpreted myriad ways, that his story would likely be misrepresented, and that he could become a caricature in larger colonial histories. For me, the phrase “lest it be forgotten” evinces additional fears of loss and erasure. In my own work, in the documentary record I engage, there are moments when fear is palpable. Haudenosaunee people faced innumerable threats to their land, their languages, their way of life. The pressure was unrelenting. And yet somehow they kept pushing back, determined to resist the advances of settler colonialism. So I also want to suggest that I see within the phrase “lest it be forgotten” a kernel of hope, the expectation that stories would be retained, that the languages would continue to be spoken, and that one generation might assist future generations by taking time to author documents, commission paintings, and create monuments that would persist within the settler colonial context. These artifacts allow for (and perhaps anticipate) the possibility of revisionist and restorative work. By examining them in all their complexity, we undertake the challenging work of disrupting familiar narratives and cherished mythologies. In this way we can decenter the colonizers and their settler colonial projects, instead shifting toward the stories, experiences, and perspectives that Indigenous ancestors bundled together, carefully curating a collection for future generations to unpack. This process of unpacking and retelling can be uncomfortable and unsettling. As Loader notes in the closing pages of her essay, “we often don’t know what to do with our own history” (358). But we can do this. And she is showing us a way forward through unfamiliar territory.
Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora, unenrolled) is an Assistant Professor of Native American studies at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). She works in the field of American Indian history, focusing on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) history during the colonial period and early American republic. Mt. Pleasant is completing a book manuscript, provisionally titled...