Good afternoon! I thank all for your patience. I just finished my last birthday cupcake and as a gift to my followers, I decided to try something very new. This week, I had the special pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Andrew Fisher, History Professor, and author of Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity. Dr. Fisher is currently an associate professor of History at the College of William and Mary located in Williamsburg, VA. The goal of interviewing Dr. Fisher was to offer the public a behind-the-scenes look at the process of an academic who has worked successfully with Native Tribes of the United States. His book Shadow Tribe has been well accepted by the Native population which he covered and he continues to conduct work with the Pacific Northwest tribal people to this day.
What was supposed to be a half an hour turned into a 90-minute conversation about history, teaching and working with Native communities. To provide some structure to this interview I developed ten questions for Dr. Fisher. Here is some of what was shared.
Dr. Andrew Fisher
1. When did you know that you wanted to go into the field of History?
It would have to be my introduction to Dungeons and Dragons. During 6th grade, I discovered this role-playing game in which I always wanted to be the Dungeon Master. Dungeon Masters control the narrative and ultimately set the tone of the game. It also really engaged me in learning mythology of other cultures and the Middle Ages. So, basically what I am saying is I’ve been a geek all my life.
2.Was there a person or persons that were major influences in your academic career?
I had two very influential History teachers in high school, but it was the late Mr. Paul Copley (Sunset High School) who was most influential, especially in my Senior year. He was funny, snarky, liberal, and practiced his golf swing during his lectures. Mrs. Barbara Traver (Western Civilization class) really encouraged my writing. Several professors at the University of Oregon strongly encouraged me to pursue graduate school and had it not been for that encouragement I am not sure if I would've done an honor's thesis or gone on to get my Ph.D. After taking a class from Dr. Jeffrey Ostler, who focused on modern Native American history and the American West, I shifted my studies away from Anglo-Irish relations. His courses seemed more immediate and applicable to the present because I had grown up in the West. I have always been more interested in understanding history and how it explains the present so as to address social inequalities that are rooted in the past.
3. What are the top three books that every history students need to read about Native American history?
You mean besides mine? It is very difficult to narrow it down to just three but I will give you three off the top of my head. There are so many contenders. Here are three that I am teaching in my classes right now:
- Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian
- Ari Kelman’s The Misplaced Massacre
- Cathleen Cahill's Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933
4. What drove you to study Native Americans?
I was at Arizona State University, in the godforsaken Valley of the Sun, and I had to come up with my first paper topic (Peter Iverson prof.) while I was terribly homesick. I was flipping through my photo album and saw pictures from a hiking trip in the Indian Heaven Wilderness. I had taken a picture of the monument to the 1932 Handshake Agreement between the Federal Government and the Yakama Nation. I thought “maybe there was a story behind this”. I cold-called Mt. Adams Ranger Station (Rick McClure and Cheryl Mack, USFS Archaeologists). They provided documentation that supported my first papers and articles that would later materialize into a dissertation, which later became the book Shadow Tribe. Not long before I began preparing my dissertation, Salmon Scam had just occurred, so, there was a population who were enrolled in Yakama but adamantly maintained their identity as Columbia River Indians.
David Sohappy Sr., the center of the Salmon Scam controversy
5. How do you engage millennials with your teaching strategy?
I actually utilize YouTube often. Recently, I taught them about the Federal Indian Relocation policies
policies where the Federal Government, in the 1950s, were urging Natives from the reservation to remove to city centers to lead more "ordinary" lifestyles. So, as a metaphor, I utilize a Sponge Bob Square Pants cartoon. It was an episode where Squidward kept urging Sponge Bob to be normal. He watches this video to become normal but he ended up being really bland and boring. Does this have anything to do with history? No. But it resonates with that generation and I use it to make a point. I have also found that teaching this generation about empiricism is critical in this "post-truth" society. We must have evidence for the things we say.
6. Can you tell us about a current research project you are working on?
I am currently researching the life of Nipo Strongheart who was a Yakama Indian and an early Hollywood actor and technical advisor. In his work on screen and behind the scenes, he subtly attempted to create more culturally authentic and historically accurate depictions of Natives in film. He donated this extensive collection to the Yakama Nation at the time of his death. His collection became the first collection of the Yakama Nation Museum created in 1980.
7. When you hit a research obstacle how do you overcome it?
Keep moving. Like the island hopping campaign seen in the Pacific Theater during WWII, when you get a nut that is too tough to crack, you go around it. In an ambush, the worst thing to do is freeze up. You can always circle back. Instead of beating yourself up for years about one unanswerable question, mark it, and move on. You may find that looking in other places, you will find the answer to the original question. Like archaeology, the historical record is incomplete. What you provide is an interpretation of a record that is full of holes. You have to be comfortable with saying "I don't know", ambiguity, uncertainty, limitations of knowledge. If you spend all your time trying to find every shred of evidence, chances are you are never going to write anything.
8. What are recommendations for researchers wishing to work with Native tribes?
I suggest that folks do it for the right reasons. Tribes are justifiably weary of earnest, white academics who come seeking information to advance their own careers. Ask yourself “why am I choosing to study this?” and “Am I going to benefit or hurt the Tribe with my work?” What I became aware of after testifying in the Sandy River smelt case was that what people write about Native people in the past, can strongly impact Native interests in the present. Also, have patience and persistence. Be willing to show up year after year, to share your work and your process, and to accept criticism.
9. In reading your book, you have maintained so much of your voice throughout, do you have any advice about publishing and working with editors?
Your first book is always a compromise between the dissertation it was and the book that it becomes. A lot of it was discussing methodological issues while trying to maintain a voice that would resonate with people who have no background knowledge in the subject. It was a challenge because "storytelling" is looked down upon within the field of History and in some ways that instinct is beaten out of us in graduate school. I think I have enough of my dad in me. He wrote ads for a living and used to say to me "punch it up a little" about my writing. He always thought my paragraphs were too long. There's enough of his influence that I like metaphors, wordplay, compelling stories, and hooks. Those are my favorite parts. That is what makes it fun to write history
10. Since you actively teach so many students, can you share one of your favorite moments as a teacher?
Ultimately, the most rewarding moments are seeing students connect past historical events with current events such as with the No Dakota Access Pipeline Project. I enjoy watching students’ little epiphanies. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also the students that just don’t “get it” when it comes to Native American issues such as professional sports mascots and Federal Native assimilation policies. There’s always someone in the back of the room asking “What’s the big deal? It’s just a mascot.” Those students really drive me to keep pushing students to learn the history of Native Americans. And when they don’t, I get to write snarky comments on their papers, like “Guys named Chad don’t get to tell Indians what to do anymore.”