Linear Process (or let’s decolonize narratives of pandemics)

,The current title of my blog, But where do we go from here? has been inspired by a poem I found in the small book, Follow the Blackbirds by Gwen Nell Westerman:

Linear Process

Our elders say

the universe is a

circle.

Everything

returns to its

beginnings.

But where do we go

from here?

Where are

our beginnings?

Our parents were stripped

of their parents

names, tongues           prayers,

lined up for their meals

clothes               classes tests.

When it was our turn

to come into this world,

they did not know

what family meant

anymore.

They did not

know.

Yet even

from here,

we can

see that the

straightest line

on a map

is a

circle.

 

IMG_4749

Here you can listen to a poet herself reading from this collection (a different poem).

I came across this collection last December, at an amazing bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, when I parted my ways with Midwest and Minneapolis, on my way home from a 4-month Fulbright teaching gig at Winona State University in Winona (Minnesota). I was sure at the time that I would soon be back to further explore the independent bookstores and theatres of Minneapolis (which turned out to be a scenic city notorious for such pleasures) as well as to see old friends across the state of 10 000 lakes, from Duluth to Winona and beyond. I also had other plans in mind: during my stay, I came to develop a keen interest in all things Midwestern (from organic farming in Wisconsin to local scenes of rural art in Minnesota and to the life and times of Mississippi’s ongoing presence in Midwestern economy, literature, and art). My teaching obligations, although moderate and well-planned schedule-wise, didn’t leave me much time. Somehow, I managed to make it to the extensive collection of Midwest-related literature in Darrell E. Krueger library at WSU. There was, however, one domain that I could not really venture into based on literature only (or at least I felt it would not be appropriate and adequate): Native American presence in American society and culture. Throughout my 4-month stay, I managed to find a few connections that could possibly lead to the development of a future network that could one day get me the opportunity to start working on a subject related to indigenous art. I previously wrote an article on connections between electronic literature and vocalization in joiking, based on my experiences with Sami culture. I was also lucky enough to be able to see a bit of Inuit art while visiting Montreal twice (in 2008 and 2018), and I was regularly following Isuma TV, almost since their very beginnings. I was so thrilled upon having heard that they would be hosting Canadian Pavillion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennial, where I later spent a couple of hours watching their movies, including one of my favorites, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk). The whole idea seemed very complicated from the very beginning. For years, I had some other projects underway to focus on so the possible research project around the issues that I was interested in for a long time has been postponed almost ad calendas Graecas. First and foremost, I didn’t want to be neither a sort of a researcher-turned-cultural tourist nor a cultural anthropologist-on-the-go.

I could consider it then almost a lifelong idea that has been very slowly brewing up, circumstances permitting it may or may not come into being. I still don’t have specific questions to ask indigenous artists, and the theoretical framework has not been decided yet. Well, I have something provisionally and very roughly sketched – or rather, I thought I finally got a glimpse of it after having seen Julie Buffalohead’s exhibition in Minneapolis Institute of Art last December. I am also well aware that it is not entirely uncharted area, with quite an extensive list of literature available, most recently this excellent book by Jessica L. Horton. But I have to put the idea back on the shelf again where it will be waiting for better times and fortuitous circumstances (at least until I complete the book I have to write at the moment).

No wonder then that upon seeing the numerous great articles popping up here and there discussing different examples of the historical pandemic outbreaks, most notably the Spanish influenza of 1918-1920, I couldn’t help thinking that a similar form of the end of the world had already happened before to indigenous people across the globe, yet such aspect again gets rarely (if ever) mentioned in the current wave of interest in all things concerning epidemiology and virology. BTW: We’re exploring some of the narratives and imagery surrounding coronavirus in a Facebook group I started here. – Thanks to it, I am sure that I’ve seen the photo illustrating this article accompanying literally every single essay on historical pandemics. So far, I haven’t noticed, however, much reflection on (or even one comparison with) the large-scale outbreaks of smallpox, measles, or typhus that ravaged First Nations of America in consequence of the European conquer (the smallpox epidemics started as early as in 1518). The subsequent waves of diseases killed each time up to 30% of the population. The extensive and well-informed post on Wikipedia on Native American disease and epidemics quotes Yale historian David Brion Davis, stating that “the greatest genocide in the history of man. Yet it’s increasingly clear that most of the carnage had nothing to do with European barbarism. The worst of the suffering was caused not by swords or guns but by germs.” (I traced this quote to the article that appeared on Newsweek in 1991, in the context of AIDS). So asking questions and prophetizing on what’s next after the coronavirus pandemics, we could look back to the history as well – if we were only willing to decolonize our imaginaries and narratives of doom and gloom. The end of the world has already happened in a few places on the globe, and there are societies there which have survived. Why no to ask them what the living after the Apocalypse is like? If they are willing/able to share. I can’t help thinking that our future has been played out several rounds of it already but somehow we still can’t see it.

 

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