The first three essays in this issue examine the complex workings of history, memory, storytelling, and literary arts in the context of slavery and settler colonialism, and ask the questions: Who owns and controls narratives? Whose voice do we hear and read? The next three essays explore modernity, race, and the city through sonic, visual, and spatial modes of meaning making. In a digital project review, Melissa Dollman discusses a digital companion to the biography Becoming Richard Pryor. In event reviews, Harrod Suarez examines the exhibit Ohio Artists for Freedoms, Karín Aguilar-San Juan assesses the Minneapolis-based exhibit Prince from Minneapolis and Ngahiraka Mason reviews the 2019 Honolulu Biennial. The three book reviews discuss new works in disability studies, history of black women, and social and cultural study of robots, respectively.
The Notorious Bras Coupé: A Slave Rebellion Replayed in Memory, History, and Anxiety
In around 1834, a one-armed enslaved man named Squire fled into the swamps surrounding New Orleans. Rumors told that he led a large band of brigades, had murdered countless whites, and possessed magical powers. Locals nicknamed him Bras Coupé: French for “severed arm.” Since his death in 1837, stories of this man, mysterious and magical, have captivated the attention of abolitionists, artists, and both free and enslaved storytellers. Sidney Poitier has portrayed the fugitive in film. George Washington Cable, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Neil Gaiman have featured Bras Coupé in their work. Both white supremacist politics and black oppositional politics – seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions – have repeatedly invoked the character.
My article explores how storytellers across nearly two centuries have redeployed this dense vehicle of racial meanings towards competing claims to power. In particular, Bras Coupé’s redeployments reveal how representations of maroonage – the act of a fugitive enslaved person living autonomously, often by hiding in swamps, mountains, or other marginal land – has historically provided enslaved, free, and postbellum Americans with a veiled discursive space for debating black self-determination.
The memories and symbolic meanings of maroonage remain potently powerful in New Orleans to this day. Perhaps the most vibrant illustration are the city’s infamous Mardi Gras Indian societies: secretive “tribes” of black New Orleanians whose ceremonies honor encounters between escaped slaves and Native Americans in Louisiana’s swamps. Analogous traditions can be found throughout the Afro-Caribbean, and date at least to the dance, song, and ceremonial processions of eighteenth-century enslaved Africans. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians are particularly renowned for their massive costumes, or “suits,” handmade from thousands of feathers and beads. Intricate beadwork patches, handsewn by the wearer over the course of a year, display symbols, stories, and celebrations of black and Native American resistance against white hegemony.
In 2016, Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Demond Melancon, leader of the Young Seminole Hunters, honored Bras Coupé with his suit. Melancon’s Bras Coupé suit has been displayed throughout the world – most recently, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum during the 2019 London Design Festival. You can watch videos of Mardi Indian performances here and here. You can learn more about Melancon’s work, and see images of his suits, here, here, and here.
“Indian Kids Can’t Write Sonnets”: Re-membering the Poetry of Henry Tinhorn from the Intermountain Indian School
Mike Taylor and Terence Wride
In January 1950 five hundred Navajo youth were taken to Brigham City, Utah, to enroll at the Intermountain Indian School—historically the largest off-reservation Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Alongside the school’s language and vocational training programs that ran similarly to other federal Indian boarding schools throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, Intermountain maintained a comparably robust and unfiltered language arts program; students published an annual yearbook, a monthly newspaper, a literary journal, and a number of collections of student poetry, stories, and other writings. However, such boarding-school literature—including that of the thousands of student writers throughout the history of American Indian boarding schools—has remained largely absent from larger discussions of Indigenous cultural and literary studies. This essay turns to the 1970 poetry collection of Henry Tinhorn, a seventeen-year-old Diné (Navajo) student at Intermountain, in order to (re)connect his recovered writings to ongoing traditions and histories of Diné and broader Indigenous literature and literacy. In addition to recovering Tinhorn’s poetry as an assertion of the need to read boarding-school student writings as works of autonomously important Indigenous literature, this essay explores the possibilities of returning such archived creativity home to surviving Intermountain students, families, and community members of the Navajo Nation. It also addresses what such returning might engender within future community-specific, field-specific, and broader boarding school discourse and community resurgence.
This essay began as an open invitation to students in an “Introduction to English Studies” course after having come across Utah State University’s digital archive of the Intermountain Indian School: “If any of you would like an experience in mentored research, I would love to work with you.” This resulting essay is but a small piece of what has grown into an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration between students and faculty at multiple universities, former boarding-school teachers, surviving Intermountain students, and current Diné communities that emphasizes our underlying argument that we have grounded in Tinhorn’s poetry; boarding-school student writings exemplify the resilience and resurgence of Indigenous peoples.
Beginning in USU’s digital archive, we first located more than 1,500 student poems and stories within the central archive of Intermountain. These writings include poetry, stories, and other creative writing that engage all aspects of adolescent Diné identity, including homesickness, anger, fear, teenage love, and humor. We recognized that the students’ creative writings offer a window into the everyday boarding-school experience in ways that previous studies that have focused largely on government documents, oral history, and even personal letters have not provided. This original archive led us to surviving students, teachers, and personal collections of additional student writings and visual art. From the hundreds of student poets that will be featured in our forthcoming book, Tinhorn was rare in that he self-published his own full book of poems as a student. Recognizing the impressive scope of the students writing, and the particular power of Tinhorn’s poetry, produced two incessant impressions: 1) boarding-school student creativity belongs back in the community; 2) boarding-school student creativity deserves to be studied as serious literature and art in order to fill a glaring gap in the artistic history of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
Responding to the call of Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee), Chaw-win-is (Nuu-chah-nulth), and T’lakwadzi (Kwakwaka’wakw) to return boarding/residential-school stories to communal spaces as a source for cultural resurgence, our extended work has been a collaborative effort with Dr. James Swensen (Brigham Young University) and Diné historian Dr. Farina King (Northeastern State University). Our goal has been to gather Intermountain student creative works and curate them into a travelling museum exhibit which is still moving to various cultural spaces throughout and around the Navajo Nation, including the culminating exhibit at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, AZ. In our travelling exhibit and subsequent book project, which is currently under contract with the University of Arizona Press, we have organized the creative works, supplemented by oral histories, into four thematic categories: homelands, family, school, and global consciousness. As we have worked to return Intermountain students’ creative stories to be shared in community spaces throughout the Navajo Nation, this essay features the particular process and experience of returning Henry Tinhorn’s boarding-school poetry to his surviving siblings.
In addition to outlining the experience of returning Henry Tinhorn’s poetry home, the simultaneous effort of our essay is to emphasize how boarding-school student literature is not only important material culture because of its contextual significance. Students’ writing also exemplifies some of the fundamental characteristics of contemporary Indigenous literature, therefore holding a crucial position within the aesthetic and conceptual literary history of Indigenous American peoples. By analyzing Tinhorn’s poetry through theoretical frameworks provided by such field-defining scholars as Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee), Jace Weaver (Cherokee), and LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), we argue that boarding-school student writings are much more than a corpus of circumstantially exceptional texts. Rather, like the ever-growing body of Indigenous literatures, boarding-school student writings are the literal evidence of and source for over a century of Indigenous survival.