Toward a Global Indigenous Legal History: Agency, Intelligibility, and the Ethics of Representation

AHA Session 142
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Madison Square (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
José Carlos de la Puente, Texas State University
Katrina Jagodinsky, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Miranda Johnson, University of Sydney
Renee Sylvain, University of Guelph
Yanna P. Yannakakis, Emory University

Session Abstract

Indigenous histories are profoundly entangled with imperial legal history. The legacies of that history both constrain and enable indigenous communities around the world, as they claim treaty rights, insist on distinct land title, and struggle for autonomy. Native-ness––or “indigeneity”––has been and continues to be defined and distorted by post/colonial legal regimes. Yet indigenous peoples’ agency in shaping legal history––as well as being shaped by it––is rarely centered in global accounts of law and empire. This roundtable attempts a conversation about the possibility of a global and comparative legal history that foregrounds indigenous historical agency. Roundtable contributors who hail from geographical specializations spanning North America, Latin America, Oceania, and Africa, and temporal foci that stretch from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, will address the deep and problematic entanglement between histories of law and empire on the one hand, and indigenous ethnohistory on the other. Our goal is to inspire a critical indigenous legal history, which is conscious of the origins of our subfields and colonial appropriation of indigenous symbols and indigenous peoples as symbols.

On the face of it, ethnohistory and legal history are at odds in terms of their objectives, geographical scales, and methods. In this era of the transnational, imperial, and global historical turn, indigenous histories’ grounded-ness in the local, ethnographic, or microhistorical proves a liability in the eyes of practitioners of other fields. This is especially true in the field of legal history, which according to recent calls to action and state-of-the-field-manifestoes, aspires to be global. Meanwhile, scholars in Ethnohistory and Indigenous Studies are developing ever more sophisticated methods for reconstructing native ontologies of law, rooted in indigenous knowledge, symbols, and practice. How should scholars of native law approach their work and navigate a disciplinary imperative for intelligibility without compromising the integrity of the local story?

The ethics of representation also animates this roundtable. How should indigenous legal history be researched, written, and represented? Who is the audience for such histories? Are these questions equally incumbent upon scholars of distant versus recent pasts? Scholars working in earlier periods need to develop more concrete, grounded understandings of how native people understood, produced, and practiced law and justice. We also need clearer methodologies for recovering those understandings from archives that privilege imperial, often European, concepts of law, authority, and territory. Scholars working in more recent temporalities face the ethical imperative of collaborating with native communities, and of interdisciplinary engagement with anthropology, Indigenous Studies, Cultural Studies, and other related fields.

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