The Author’s Corner with Sami Lakomäki

Sami Lakomäki is University Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oulu in Finland. This interview is based on his new book, Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600–1870 (Yale University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Gathering Together?

SL: I worked on the book for a long time – it began as a Master’s thesis that grew into a doctoral dissertation that evolved into the book – and my reasons for writing changed along the way quite a bit. One might say that I started with a curiosity about a particular place and people, gradually became more interested in broader theoretical issues, and finally hoped (rather grandiosely) that my work might have some importance beyond the academia as well.

When I first started reading Native American history in the 1990s, maps depicting seventeenth-century North America often had the label “poorly known tribes of the Ohio Valley and the interior” spread across the east-central part of the continent. The Shawnee people, in particular, seemed to be very “poorly known” indeed. Many books on the Ohio Valley, the War of American Independence, and the Indian Removal mentioned them, sometimes even giving them an important role in the narrative, but with the exception of biographies of the famous early-nineteenth-century leaders, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, almost no one put the Shawnees at the center of the stage. I began to wonder what the history of the continent would look like if you placed the Shawnees at its core. What made this all the more intriguing was the mobility of the Shawnees: since the seventeenth century they have established communities across much of North America, from what is now southern Ontario to northern Mexico and from eastern Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. To me, it seemed important to investigate the Shawnee migrations in the context of European colonialism: how did European colonization and state-building produce Native migration and displacement? At the same time, I wished to understand how people experienced the mobility that imbued their lives and how they, as communities, dealt with it. And this made me think about nationhood and ties to place: how mobile and often widely scattered communities facing aggressive colonial empires might have conceptualized identity, belonging, and land rights? Finally, I hoped (and continue to hope) that writing about the history of Native nationhood, displacement, and land rights might encourage the readers, or some of them, to think what these issues could or should mean today and in the future.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gathering Together?

SL: Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Shawnee people developed two alternative strategies – dispersal and consolidation – to cope with the European colonization of North America. These strategies were based on differing and continually evolving visions of community, nationhood, and space, reminding us how crucial it is to focus on Native American political philosophies and debates when seeking to understand both Native agency and Native-newcomer relations in North American history.

JF: Why do we need to read Gathering Together?

SL: Finns are culturally programmed never to promote their own work, but I’ll try my best. Partially because I am an outsider – neither an American nor a Native American – Gathering Together may help to look at North American history from a somewhat unusual angle and raise questions that have not been asked previously. Traditionally, scholars have narrated North American history as a story of Euroamerican nation-building and Native American disintegration. What I emphasize in the book is that Native peoples, too, built nations in the post-1492 North America and that their efforts to do so were informed by their own political ideologies and worldviews. In addition, what historians have interpreted as Native social disintegration often meant something completely different for the Indians, since their understandings of community, power, and peoplehood did not correspond to contemporary Euroamerican ones. Focusing on how the Shawnees envisioned their society and nation, how they debated over these visions both amongst themselves and with the colonists, and how their political ideas shaped their actions during the colonization of the continent, Gathering Together invites readers to see Native peoples as creative political thinkers and actors who constructed and contested complex and dynamic political philosophies and social orders.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SL: Actually, I am not an American historian at all. I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and currently I work in a cultural anthropology program. However, from early on I have been keenly interested in the intersections of anthropology and history – what some people call “ethnohistory” and others “historical anthropology.” While most cultural anthropologists concentrate on contemporary cultural and social phenomena, I have always felt that I cannot really understand what is going on today until I grasp the history behind it. What happens almost invariably is that trying to grasp that history takes up most of my time as a researcher – hence I write about the past to understand the present.

Why I have written about North America rather than about my own country, Finland, and its past is a complex story. I became interested in American and especially Native American history already as a kid. On one hand, this reflects the very powerful and visible role U.S. popular culture has long played in Finland. On the other, the beginnings of my interest also tell volumes of the problematic position of Native Americans in both U.S. and European popular culture as objects of curiosity for non-Native audiences. By the time I began my undergraduate studies, I had developed a more serious interest in Native American history and contemporary situation and wanted to understand how Indigenous peoples fostered their nationhoods, sovereignties, and cultures in the most powerful nation-state of the world. It was much later, though, that I realized that having an academic career and researching these issues professionally might be a realistic possibility for me. That realization developed only gradually around the time when I began to plan my doctoral dissertation.

JF: What is your next project?

SL: I am currently working on a comparative research project exploring how Indigenous homelands were incorporated in expanding colonial empires and, later, nation-states in two regions that have seemingly very dissimilar histories, North America and Fennoscandia (the geographic area of contemporary Finland, Sweden, and Norway). While I investigate the concrete processes of incorporation, I am particularly interested in the ideological frameworks within which they took place – e.g. evolving colonial interpretations of Native land rights – and the Indigenous strategies for dealing with imperial and state invasion. On a more theoretical level, I examine how Natives and invaders negotiated their relations and identities through space, for example by defining one another’s rights to space, by drawing borders (political, judicial, racial etc.), and by imagining where the other belonged in space.

There are two things that make this project fascinating for me. First, there is the comparative angle that forces one to recontextualize familiar national, regional, and continental histories in a far broader setting – and this often makes those familiar stories appear strange and surprising, as something that has to be explained in a new way. Second, the project is important for me personally. It both allows and forces me to confront the colonial history of my own country and family (one of my grandfathers worked as a policeman among the Indigenous Saami people of northern Fennoscandia, the other was involved in building hydropower dams on Saami homelands). In addition, even if my focus remains in the past, this research pushes me to address contemporary issues crucial for many Native peoples, such as land rights and sovereignty.

JF: Thanks Sami!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner