NARA does online gaming

I’m a little late to the game with this, but I was really happy to find that in 2012, the US National Archives moved into the online gaming world and into the itunes store, with apps like DocsTeach (online here). DocsTeach is, on the face of it, a fantastic idea.  It centers the idea that a considerable part of historical learning comes through the analysis of primary sources, and seems to try to build activities that would be accessible to students with different learning styles.  Many of the activities are tactile, insofar as you’re asked to move documents around, though some are more well-developed than others. For the activity on suffrage, for example the task is to arrange documents in the order in which they were produced – a fine way to teach reading skills, but not so much specific to women’s suffrage in America.

Lewis and Clark screenshot. This is featured prominently on the itunesU site for the app, and seems to be one of the better-realized activities.

The Lewis & Clark expedition activity, on the other hand, requires a little more critical thinking, as well as some sounder pedagogy.  Given a map of the United States and a bunch of documents, students are told:

“In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  President Jackson sent co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore west of the Mississippi River in 1804.  Their route west is shown in green.  Although this territory was unknown to some, to others it was very familiar.

Examine the documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Determine where different groups were involved and use the hints to place the documents on the X’s on the map.”

The documents include Lewis’s speech to the Otto Indians (August, 1804), “List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West” (1803), and the “Proclamation to the People of New Orleans” announcing the Louisiana Purchase.  Having placed the documents on the map, students are asked to make a list of all of the powers at play in the region, and come to class prepared to share with classmates.  Though some of the language in the app, especially in the instructions elides native agency (things happen to, or are given to Indians – there’s no sense that Indians were active players in this at all), and only hints at the extent to which the United States was a young, untried, and anxious nation, it’s not a bad game overall. I’m happy that the National Archives is thinking pedagogically, and that there’s an initiative to digitize documents that students might not otherwise ever be able to see.

 

Unlikely confluences

Project Runway is a guilty pleasure of mine – I’m not generally a huge fan of the reality tv genre, but I do love shows that showcase expertise (Julia Child on The French Chef is my tv chicken soup when I’m sick.)  This season, a native woman, Patricia Michaels, made it to the final round of the show, and was quite vocal about the importance of “a native woman showing in her own country.”

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Rethinking Land and Language symposium at Columbia.  Through two round tables – one on the idea of land, and one on the idea of language in native studies – panelists discussed the current state of indigenous studies.  I’m a latecomer to the field – most of my familiarity with indigenous studies has been born of the article I’m finishing on the Cherokee and Choctaw donations to Irish famine relief – so I spent most of the day scribbling down references for things I must read, and must do, before this article gets sent out.  Even so, one of the most significant moments for me was J. Kēhaulani Kauanui talking about the ways in which the historical profession sometimes treats colonialism, and particularly the colonization of native peoples, as an historical, rather than a present phenomenon.  The audience was challenged to think about why scholars who write about native peoples don’t engage with theories of indigeneity, and why early modern Americanists in particular seem reluctant to present at native studies conferences.  There’s a lot to think about coming out of this symposium, but I was happy to see, when I got home to watch Project Runway, the presence of native voices on popular television, and not just native voices, but a native woman, and not just a native woman, but a native woman critiquing settler colonialism. 

Hunger as politics

I’m just back from ACIS’s 2013 meeting, where, inevitably, famine and hunger strikes were often on the agenda.  I’m also in the process of designing a course on popular politics, which I’ve conceiving of as means of acting politically open to those traditionally excluded from formal politics. This semester, I’m also sitting in on a class on humanitarianism at NYU, which pushes me pretty far out of my 19th century comfort zone.  We’ve been talking a lot about whether enumerated rights give oppressed people resources to fight their oppression, or whether oppressive regimes will always find ways to loophole their way out of those enumerated rights (as an aside, I just finished We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which is rife with heartbreaking examples of the ways in which the international community convoluted itself to avoid acknowledging genocide in Rwanda).  So, both in light of the panels I heard this weekend, and in light of this class, this op ed in today’s New York Times is particularly apposite.  If we agree that freedom from want is (or should be) a universal right, what do we make of the freedom to willfully starve onesself?

Hunger strikes are political tools with long shadows – those used by people who have little or limited access to other forms of resistance.  Suffragettes in prison used, and died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Irish Republican political prisoners starved and died in the H-Blocks.  While the World Medical Association sees force-feeding in response to hunger strikes as a possible assault on bodily integrity, the United States’ policy on the treatment of prisoners stipulates that “It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.” and when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate.”

My own work is so much about the political utility of acting to prevent hunger, that I sometimes forget the political utility inherent in hunger – and public displays of hunger in particular.