Remembering and Forgetting in Different Temporal Registers: Indigenous Memories and the Construction of History in the Americas

AHA Session 253
Conference on Latin American History 75
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Cynthia Radding, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Frank Salomon, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Session Abstract

In keeping with the organizing theme for the 2014 AHA Annual Meeting, “Disagreement, Debate, Discussion,” this panel is dedicated to the discussion of the methodological problems that arise within the study of different means of remembering and writing, not only in alphabetic native or European languages, but also in images, signs, and oral traditions. In order to debate the construction of memory from the perspective of indigenous communities, our intention is to frame these questions by comparing  indigenous records and their interpretations in different regions of the Americas and historical periods from colonial times to the present. The session is anchored in historical methods of research and understanding, but it necessarily embraces  interdisciplinary approaches to the problems of memory, language, and time in different cultural frameworks.

This session addresses the assertion that for many indigenous peoples the art of memory requires not only remembering but also what has been called “structured forgetting.”  Ethnohistorians have argued that the contradiction in reducing or reformulating oral narrative into a written version lies in the irreconcilable notions of time and history. Western perceptions of historical time as a linear progression of non-repeating events, recorded through written language, often present obstacles to comprehending a different perception of historical time, in which the validity of a sequence of episodes in a narrative is not dependent on its fitting into a single master narrative. For indigenous peoples mythical thinking and historical consciousness can develop simultaneously within a single society and even within the same discourse.  To record their history and carry it as a living tradition into the present through oral traditions, symbolic artifacts, written texts, and legal codes, indigenous peoples have resisted the efforts of both colonial and national states to shape the contours of historical memory.  In recognition of these divergent meanings of history, this panel does not intend to draw a stark dichotomy between indigenous and Western modes of remembering, rather it emphasizes the ways in which colonized peoples have reworked their traditions through the institutional frameworks of history-making in different colonial and national frameworks. The four presenters will address the problems of language, memory, and history through case studies from North and South America. Ethelia Ruiz Medrano integrates historical and ethnographic research methods  to bear witness to the construction of historical memory by communities in the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca, Mexico. Yanna Yannakakis brings together documentary history and legal history in her interpretations of court documents from the Zapotec regions of Oaxaca. Lisbeth Haas examines the production of indigenous histories and the codification of languages in late-colonial California. Kristin Huffine explores Guaraní adaptations of Christian art and religious expression from the missions of Río de la Plata. Frank Salomon, whose scholarship encompasses both anthropological and historical methodologies, will provide the commentary. This session is directed to a broad audience of students and scholars interested in Latin America and other world regions where the interface of indigenous and colonizing peoples provokes both conflict and syncretic re-imaginings of memory and history.

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