There are obviously many ways of interpreting this year's American Studies Association conference theme, States of Emergence. To "rise," "develop," and even "survive" are words that come to mind. These terms also resonate with American Indians, Natives, and/or Indigenous people. When we speak of emergence we often mean a place of origin.
My tribe, the Choctaw Nation is originally from the southeast. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson and the federal government forced our people on the Trail of Tears. Today our tribal headquarters is in Durant, Oklahoma. Yet for Choctaws, emergence refers to our ancient Mother Mound, Nanih Waiya in Winston County, Mississippi. Choctaws are fortunate, we can drive to our creation site in Mississippi and shout, "Kids get out of the car, we're here."
The Nanih Waiya, we are told by elders and storytellers, is where our ancient ancestors tunneled up through the earth and emerged into the sunlight. Choctaws dried their bodies on the mound and became red women and men. (Another way of saying the land created us.)
In 2011, I began work on a research project with other indigenous playwrights and scholars titled, "Indigenous Knowledge, Contemporary Performance." We visited mound sites from Canada to Louisiana. At one time, thousands of mounds, including embankments, conical mounds, platform mounds, and effigy mounds, dotted Indigenous North America, beginning as early as 4000 CE.
Chadwick Allen, literary scholar and associate provost at the University of Washington suggests that mounds were multi-purpose sites of intellectual exchange. He writes, "In the North American context, thousands of earthen mounds, embankments, and enclosures remain extant, though often obscured, eroded, desecrated, or dislocated, sometimes partially or wholly destroyed, and occasionally reconstructed. The compound noun "earthworks"evokes the collective presence of these remarkable structures, their remnants, and the traces of their memory. Moreover, the word's internal juxtaposition—grounded earth, dynamic works—indicates these structures' synthesis of artistry and engineering: projects in applied science staged as ceremonial complex, social forum, sports or civic arena, busy marketplace, artistic workshop, open air theater in the round, square, or octagonal.1"
Our plays and scenes for "Indigenous Knowledge, Contemporary Performance" used a dramaturgical model based on the deep structure of mounds and earthworks. The Choctaw characters I created layered different kinds of stories, one on another, as if layering different soils to build a mound. The effect was often surprising and dynamic.
Georgia is teeming with mounds and earthworks sites, including Kolomoki Mounds in Blakely, Etowah Indian Mounds in Cartersville, and Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, the largest Mississippian mound in the southeast. (Only an hour and fifteen minutes from Atlanta.) If you have some free time while in Atlanta, consider visiting one of these amazing sites. After all, the very name "Turtle Island" connotes a vast effigy mound emerging out of the water.
At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association, LeAnne Howe will read from her latest works on Friday, November 9, 2018, at the lifetime member reception and at the presidential address.
1 "Earthworks as Indigenous Performance." In the Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalization. Ed. Helen Gilbert, J. D. Phillipson, and Michelle Raheja. Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool Press, 2017. 291–308.