Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy Opening Plenary: Give It Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty at the Association of University Presses Conference OR In Which I Remind Everyone That Andrew Jackson Can Go F Himself
I was honored to be invited along with Dr. Niigaan Sinclair to be a part of the opening Plenary Panel: "Give it Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty" at the Association of University Presses Conference this year which was supposed to be in Seattle, WA but much like all of 2020 ended up with me in my yoga pants sipping some iced tea out of my Prince mug while answering questions about the future of University publishing. Because we couldn't be there in person we were asked to record our speeches and when they sent me mine I grabbed it and am now uploading it here along with the transcript!
My guiding principles for writing this speech were (1) let's make this world a better place through revolution, resistance and resurgence; (2) the world is ready for our voices, the voices of Black, Black Indigenous, Indigenous and People of Color. Last week the NY Times Bestseller list was full of books by Black authors. (3) There is always room to tell Andrew Jackson to go F himself. I mean it fits for every speech.
Also, just for the true fans, Audra Simpson recently requested to my friend on Facebook. That's right she gets to see ALLLLL the photos of the puppy and memes about what it's like to be the mom of a teenage girl that are fit to print! I'm trying not to brag too much but here I am bragging.
Video: Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy Opening Plenary: Give It Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty (June 15, 2020)
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This moment of ongoing resistance and revolution that we are experiencing reminds me that the work we have been doing in marginalized communities and the voices of Black, Black Indigenous, Indigenous and People of Color have been and will be the foundation for how we build decolonized futures.
As we begin today I want to take a moment to say #BlackLivesMatter and encourage us all to work to center and uplift Black lives. We are in a moment of needed solidarity where real change can happen when we build coalitions. Decolonization demands of us to think of our intersectional lives as powerful and full of potential. And we need to remember this will only come from action.
If you have not yet I highly encourage you to read #BlackInTheIvory
And learn from the stories that are shared by Black Academics about what it is truly like to navigate higher education and academia.
It’s very intimidating for me to think about who is potentially on the other end of this zoom meeting today. Editors? Are they real people? Do they also only dress professional from the waist up when they are filming Zoom plenary talks? (Cause I’m wearing pajama pants)
To this day when I go to academic conferences and I spot someone who’s written a book that has stuck with me in some way I will usually whisper to myself “that’s so and so” and then proceed to silently follow them around so I can see what books they are looking at, who they are talking to, and what they order at coffee shops. Here are some authors I have stalked at Conferences: Audra Simpson; Michelle Jacob, Linda T. Smith, Robert Warrior, one time I literally dived out of the way to avoid Joanne Barker who I had been stalking but she abruptly turned around for some reason so I had to get OUT OF THE WAY.
These are my Indigenous academic heroes. They showed me what was possible and they helped me to dream.
One time I saw Jodi Byrd in line at the airport. I instinctively called out “Jodi Byrd!” And she turned around and looked all confused.
Once I was renting a car and Joy Harjo was in front of me also renting a car and when she turned around I said “Joy Harjo!” And she looked and went “Oh, yeah, that’s me.”
Then she waited for me to say something and all I could say was “poetry. You’re good at it.”
The idea of being an author, or becoming an author felt like it would only happen to me if I got very lucky. This was the elite. And me, I was a regular person.
Sometimes Editors or Assistants would come up to me at Press Booths and say “what are you working on?” And I’d be like “I’m working on getting my life together enough so I’m not sleeping on top of my laundry any more. Although by the way sleeping on top of clean towels can be VERY comfortable.”
I would never say that I consider myself having enough hubris to be an author, especially an academic author.
And let’s be honest, the industry itself doesn’t feel set up to help new authors or first generation authors, authors who may be marginalized by editorial decisions and boards. We aren’t mentored through this process, we are expected to take the hits and misses, but we aren’t invited in so much as thrown in.
At first it also felt like a very dismissive process, having to sell myself and keep people's attention on subjects that really mattered to me. And - to be frank - I noticed a very big difference in how Editors and Staff treated me at conferences before I had a book, after the publication of my book, and then once my book won “Best First Book in Native American and Indigenous Studies.”
When we start talking about the role that University presses have in shaping what people understand as academic work, or in shaping what is valued as “cutting-edge” research, we must also consider the responsibility that Presses should have toward nurturing our next generation of voices. Those who might not have thought about publishing, those who might think they can never be a part of that elite. Just the perception - the way that the most confident of voices are the ones we hear from the most, or who we invite to speak on subjects, or how we demand certain conventions in the way people present on their work.
Presses also get reputations and generally those reputations are that they are “dismissive” or “elitist.” Maybe it’s a marketing thing. There were several presses I was considering and was then told by other people “oh you can try them, but they don’t publish Indigenous voices.” And when I looked into them further I noticed, they don’t publish Indigenous voices, they publish the voices of white academics who write about Indigenous peoples.
I have been mulling over lately who we Center when we come to these spaces to share our hard fought, often liberatory, but also labor intensive knowledge. I live this work in my body. I read accounts in archives of Indian children hiding in trees and having to remain silent as they listen to the sounds of their family being killed. Those who hid amongst the reeds in rivers and were told not to come out until the river no longer ran red with blood. In 1850 they passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and they started to enslave Native people in California. CA entered the union as a No Slave state - which we are so proud of. But we enslaved Native people. We sold them at courthouses under the guise of “apprenticeship.’ In Humboldt County, a review of these slave records reveals that most persons taken into slavery were children ages 7-12 and most of those were girls. So we should call it what it is - a sex slave industry. They were taking our girls, putting them into homes that didn’t care about them, putting their bodies, their futures up for sale. They were taking them, using them, disposing of them, and it hasn’t stopped. Indigenuos women and girls are still the most likely to be sexually assaulted, murdered, or go missing in the United States.
I’ve become obsessed with the idea of finding out what would happen if I started mourning loss of land, loss of lives, loss of fish - if my grief was on display. As an academic I’ve internalized the message that somehow the work isn’t supposed to be deeply personal. Like I don’t carry the blood of my ancestors in my veins, blood that has run rivers red as we held on to the bodies of slaughtered children and wailed into the night sky asking ourselves “why” or “what are we supposed to do now?”
Like we didn’t sing or dance for all those we lost. Like that song doesn’t come from me now. Like I don’t close my eyes and hug my daughter just a little bit tighter at night because there was a time when they would have ripped her from my arms and sold her. And I would never stop looking for her. I would do anything to find her again. Like my ancestors didn’t search until they couldn’t search any longer. Like we don’t continue to search, or grieve even now.
And we live here in this space that they stole from us. This place where we buried our beloved. Where we sing and dance and laugh and love. This place where we cried tears of joy and sadness and from laughing so hard our stomachs hurt and from hurting so hard we thought we’d never laugh again.
I can’t wear my grief like that – because it scares people and they go “oh, well she’s emotional” or “oh well, she’s biased” or “oh, she just wants to make white people feel bad about themselves.”
Sometimes this work can start to feel like it is only about our death. Our deaths, not our lives, not our futures, not our present struggles against a settler colonial systems that refuse to imagine our futures as sovereign nations, but instead focus on the violence enacted on our bodies. Making spectacle of our deaths is the practice of genocide. Denial was a practice of history. And we must be careful and mindful not to become merely spectacle again.
We can tell a story about Native peoples that begins and ends with genocide. This has been where many choose to start and stop. But we are not a people born in genocide, we are a people who are born through world renewal.
There may have been groups of settlers who thought they could stamp out that power, our power, which just shows the hubris of settler colonialism. But it also shows the fear. The fear of our stories. The fear of our continued relationships to land, to fish, to water, to decolonized futures. We are older than settler colonialism, our memories, our epigenetic markers, our DNA knows before settler colonialism and it will know after settler colonialism. It will be here in the next world. For me, our history is not the history of the attempted or ongoing genocide of us. It is a history of survival, resistance, resurgence and re-Indigenization.
This is why my work centers our resurgence, our revitalization. Yes, it is important to understand the many nuances of this attempted genocide, but I also want to talk about us in complex ways that acknowledges we are more than what settlers wrote about us in archives, more than the documentation of our death.
When we worked in our community to revitalize our women’s coming of age ceremony, we found parts. We heard stories about ancestors who said “I can’t remember everything, but I can remember this. A song. A prayer. A story. I will carry that forward for the next generation.” They planned for us. They knew we would be here. They were not dying, sad, vanishing Indians, they were going to survive and they would remember, so that we could dance and sing and laugh and love.
Yet these are not the stories we read on best seller lists. I don’t want my work or research on genocide to Center our deaths. To make spectacle of this catastrophe. They use words in these books like “labor” instead of “slavery” or “forced prostitution” instead of rape. Like we should believe this story is about a play on words. Defining and redefining us without us.
See what happens is that there is still an assumption that our peoples histories, stories, research etc. are biased or at the very least “overly emotional.” Sometimes I also get “utopic.”
I’ll come in to spaces and say “prior to colonization there was no rape. Also everyone had a house and enough food to eat.”
And then someone will say “she’s biased. And she thinks Indians are the best. And this is a utopic vision of the past.”
To which reply “Of course I’m biased, so is ---insert white historian here---. And a culture and society with no rape is not a utopia, at least it shouldn’t be, it’s just a good idea.”
I think now, in this moment we are witnessing, we have seen how the world was shaped by white fragility and white comfort. The books that people centered were written to help maintain a white comfort with how we understand this world. And it was Black and Indigenous feminists, philosophers, and activists who were doing the real work of envisioning worlds without state violence, moving us forward so that we can all breathe. Now it’s time for you all to start thinking “what do we want our futures to look like? What role do we play as university presses in making that world?”
Take a good, long, look at your list. Where are your Black, Black Indigenous, People of Color voices? What kinds of stories are they telling about us?
And then do these five things:
1. Stop publishing books about Andrew Jackson. Unless the title of the book is Fuck Andrew Jackson. Then maybe. But ask yourself do we really need another book about Andrew Jackson? (This can also be applied to the following - General Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, really any dude that signed the Constitution.)
2. Create Indigenous editorial series with supportive Editors that know Indigenous studies. I published my book with the University of Washington Press because of the Indigenous Confluences Series led by Coll Thrush and Charlotte Cote.
3. If you’ve already published a book about the California Indian Genocide (but haven’t published a book about California Indian fights for water, salmon, land return, language revitalization or cultural resurgence) then you don’t get to publish any more books about the California Indian Genocide until you do.
4. This is the same for “Indian Wars” or “Early Colonial Relationships.”
5. And finally, #5: Stop centering white audiences. Think about how you can make books for marginalized communities and audiences. Remember that they also need representation and that their voices have been and will become some of the most needed in times like this- revolution, resistance and resurgence.
In my own community, after my book was published, I would have young people come up to me and say “I bought your book, I’m going to read it.” I would usually respond “well, it sometimes has really big words in it like I have to say epistemology a lot so that it can be an academic book.”
And this girl, in the 8th grade, said to me “don’t worry, I have a dictionary.”
In our area, people don’t really hear about us in the news unless we are being reported on for crime - on the 10 most wanted list, drugs, alcohol. This is the story our media usually tells about our tribes in this region.
“But” this girl said to me “people buy your book. Someone made your book and put it in stores. That means they want to know about Hoopa. They want to know about us.”
Now, young people have told me they are writing, they are going to write the stories. They said “you have a book, maybe I can have a book.”
And I say “You can write a book. You can get a book published. I’ll make sure of it.”
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, volunteer Executive Director for the Native Women's Collective and is currently re-watching My Name is Earl...
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