- The Continuing Circulations of New England's Tribal Newsletters
Because they tell stories and include genres we simply don't find in other places, Native American periodicals are a vital source of literary history. There are hundreds of them, many identified in Daniel Littlefield and James Parins's three-volume reference American Indian and Alaska Native Newspapers and Periodicals (1986). Yet most of these remarkable publications remain inaccessible and unknown outside the communities that produced them. Only seven are included, to date, in the Library of Congress's digital newspaper project, Chronicling America. Fewer still have been the subjects of any scholarly research. The Cherokee Phoenix (1828–1834) has received some attention as the "first" Indian newspaper, as have the student papers published by the notorious Carlisle boarding school during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Periodical literature, however, is a much richer archive than scholars have fully appreciated.1
To illustrate some of this richness, I survey tribal newsletters emanating from just one region, New England, and describe editorial discussions about digitizing them as part of a new electronic collection, dawnlandvoices.org. New England has enjoyed pride of place in the US literary canon, in no small part because of its success at what historian Jean O'Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) calls "firsting and lasting"—installing Mary Rowlandson as a "first" settler, throwing Uncas off a cliff. While our canonical writers have often been dutifully feeding this myth-making machine, the region's tribal communities have been circulating small publications that tell and retell their own histories, imagine and reimagine their own futures. It may [End Page 418] well be the futural quality of periodicals ("in the next issue you can expect another language lesson") that makes tribal newsletters so abundant, and so abundantly powerful, for people who are always assumed to be disappearing. Even where individual titles may be short-lived, collectively these publications demonstrate what James Clifford calls an "indigenous longue durée" (199): an understanding that the violence of settler colonialism has, in the end, offered only temporary interruptions to indigenous peoples' continuous presence—and to their continuous writing—in and about this place.
Digital platforms give us "a critically important opportunity to think more carefully about the place of Native American expressive culture as an integral, albeit long neglected, part of 'American Literature'" (Powell and Aitken 250). Perhaps more importantly, they introduce indigenous literature to a wide audience. Dawnlandvoices.org is emerging from a print anthology I published in collaboration with 11 tribal editors, Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (2014), which represents literary traditions that have been altogether marginalized even within Native American and Indigenous Studies, never mind US literary history more broadly. This study decolonizes the very business of anthologizing, with its taste-making and authority-conferring proclivities. As much as possible, we distributed editorial control to what some of these writers call "the gathering place." Organized by tribal nation, the book includes historic petitions, letters, recipes, political manifestoes, a triolet, short stories, hip-hop poetry, language lessons, and news articles—materials deemed meaningful and memorable by tribal members themselves rather than by a literature professor or board of academic experts. The print volume weighs in at nearly 700 pages, and it barely scratches the surface of what the tribal editors found in their local archives and solicited from friends and neighbors.
Some of the tribal editors—specifically, those who have been archivists—and I have contemplated extending this anthology to an online platform. As I detail below, digitizing tribal archives presents unique challenges, partly because of the precarious nature of most of the physical collections, which generally have not received the material and curatorial support enjoyed by places like university libraries and, thus, have often not been systematically cataloged or even saved. Digitization is also tricky because of cultural sensitivities concerning "access," often considered an unquestionable good in Digital Humanities, but not always so within indigenous communities. To a literary historian raised on ideals of canon-busting, it may seem obvious that indigenous texts need to be recovered and disseminated. To tribal communities, it seems obvious that indigenous texts are too often misunderstood, misused...