My favourite aspect of the research was discovering the different personalities of the letter-writers and the relationships which develop in the correspondence. It gave me insight and an almost intimate vision into the lives of individuals within Native American communities. This was a highlight for me, because nowadays it feels like individual voices are so easily lost within wider narratives (whether that narrative seeks to malign them, or whether it aims to align itself with the ‘people’ in question). It often only considers the ‘community’ or the ‘group’, which fails to recognise the individual, and therefore dehumanises this individual.
By looking at the letters of individuals (such as George Billiot, David Billiot, Ann Celestine, Dorothy Celestine, Sister Felicia), it was an opportunity to familiarise myself with different voices of ‘Indian’ individuals, from a variety of groups including the Creek Indians residing in the Gulf of Mexico, the Piscataways in Maryland, Seminoles in Florida (amongst other ‘Indian’ groups). It gave me a chance to begin to learn about their family, their dances, their craft such as fans, beaded belts, their opinions. There was a particularly moving paragraph in one of the letters addressed to Speck, from an un-identified ‘Houna Indian’ who writes: ‘just a question if I am Indian can become a Indian or can get something like a machine’. Although it is not entirely clear, this question for me suggests that this individual is firstly asking whether he is actually ‘Indian’, since society has refused them this status, and secondly perhaps expressing a desire to be recognised as such. This implies how individuals themselves can become lost in ‘identity politics’. It suggests a struggle to know how to self-identify, in the Jim-Crow society which refuses to recognise the nuances and intricacies of identity. Society’s simplification of identity is a result of its ‘mission’ to consolidate ‘white’ power, as through generalised and superficial constructions of identity, the ‘one-drop rule’ categorised any non-white person (including ‘Indians’) as ‘black’. This was part of the effort to subordinate ‘non-whites’ through denial of official recognition of their self-identification.
I also felt like I ‘got to know’ Frank Speck, the researcher of ‘Indians’ within the South-Eastern region of the USA. The excitement of travel, discovery and feelings of progress were conveyed within some of the letters and reports. It was interesting to analyse the things I admired about him as a researcher, for example his first-hand communication with individuals from a variety of South-Eastern ‘Indian’ groups. But it also provided a chance to look at the limitations of his activities in which he tried to establish legitimacy and acceptance for those Native Americans who wished to be recognised as ‘Indian’ (rather than black or white). For example, I came across phrases in letters such as: ‘in whose [the ‘Houna Indians’] behalf I shall hold a conference’. This brought to my attention the problematic idea of non-‘Indian’ men (and potentially women) discussing the future of a group which contains individuals who want to identity as ‘Indian’, without any ‘Houna Indian’ representative. This raised the issue that ‘Indians’ were completely excluded from conferences regarding their own status and futures. This having been said, I do think he provided an important service as a researcher and correspondent in times of racial ignorance, prejudice and conservatism.
Anya Aujla-Jones, BA English