Go Deeper—Listen to Ashley Smith in conversation with Ashlie Sandoval about researching the powderhorn and ways to learn to see through erasure narratives
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: My name is Ashlie Sandoval. I’m a CHI Fellow here. And my work looks at race in the built environment. And Ashley Smith, thank you for having this conversation with me. Maybe you can introduce yourself briefly and then we’ll start.
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Hi to all of our visitors. My name is Ashley Smith and I too am a CHI Fellow. I work in Native American and Indigenous Studies. And most of my research takes place in Wabanaki territories in Maine and my hometown, which you’re about to hear a whole lot about.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: Great. Thank you. So today we’re looking at your object, the Powderhorn, that you found in the Mead Museum. Is that correct?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Yeah.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: How did you come across the Powderhorn?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: In starting to think about doing this virtual exhibit project, I was looking–I know that art collections at Amherst, we don’t have a lot of material, artwork, or objects from Indigenous peoples. And I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, you know, what does that mean? And in thinking about engaging with Indigenous history. And there is, some, I should say, really great work. We do now have a couple of works of art by Native artists. And that work is happening. But I was trying to think about how to engage in stories about home and land and place and Indigenous history. Rather than look for other objects, I started searching for keywords of places from home, and I started with the Kennebec River Valley. And so searching for the Kennebec River and the word Kennebec, which is both where I’m from and also where much of my work takes place as the location where the Nanrantsouak or Norridgewock village is located. Which is where sort of the focus of my latest project. And this pulled up very few things. But the couple of things that it pulled up were really interesting. And one is, you’ll see on my page, the image of the Homestead on the Kennebec. And the other was this Powderhorn. And at first I thought, I don’t know what I’ll do with this Powderhorn and I read the description and was like, oh wait! It belonged to–it’s called Powderhorn for John and Sara from Vassalboro, which is in Central Maine. It was made by a gentleman from China, Maine, which is also in the Kennebec River Valley, not far from Vassalboro. And this is a region that is central to homelands for Kennebec Wabanaki people on the Kennebec River. But also importantly that the Powderhorn was made for John, who was a soldier with Benedict Arnold in his ill-fated march up the Kennebec River during the American Revolutionary War to protect Quebec. And so those connections had me thinking a lot about this object and its role in this sort of moment in history. And it’s a moment in history that’s really, really important to both the history of Wabanaki presence in Kennebec homelands. And the way that the story of Benedict Arnold’s march has been told instead as a story that marks Indigenous absence.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: That’s a great place to stop. Because what struck me in your story was how Benedict Arnold’s remarks about Wabanaki presence in the area gets interpreted as an evidence of disappearance or ruin. Can you tell us a little bit more about who Arnold is interacting with in his stories and how you see this sort of ongoing Indigenous Native presence in his fictional history of disappearance?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: That’s a great question. So there’s–I think to tell that story, I have to say just a little bit about how much of a disaster this adventure or misadventure is for Benedict Arnold. Listeners, if you’re familiar with American Revolutionary War history, you might know Benedict Arnold in another capacity as a traitor. You know, often linked with ideas about treason. But at this particular moment in 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold is leading troops up the Kennebec River to attack the English at Quebec City. And he’s following this map that was made around 1760 by a gentleman by the name of Montressor, who had Native guides up the Kennebec River. And the Kennebec River, as I mentioned before, is Indigenous home territory, so there are Native people who know this land very, very well and know how to navigate it. And they had guided Montresor up toward Quebec and he made a map. The only trouble is he didn’t know where he was most of the time. And so the map that he made, I mean his journey went very smoothly, but his map was totally not accurate. So Benedict Arnold, on this trip, he actually has a couple of Native guides. One who is called Eneas in the journals. The other man actually isn’t named and this may be the person or a relative of the person who signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1713 from St. John’s. The St. John’s Native Committee. And while he has these Native guides, he actually isn’t following them. He’s trying to follow the map. And this leads to lots of trouble. The other thing that is important to know is that the English are reluctant to adopt Indigenous ways of navigating the waterways. And so they’re pretty ill-equipped for this journey. They have too much stuff. Their boats are too big. They’re not able to easily navigate the waterways or the portages around the falls. And so what happens is they have to stop a bunch of times. Their boats capsize, their food gets wet. They find themselves in different places, you know, boiling their leather of their clothes and killing their dogs in order to have something to eat. So it is quite a disaster. And one of the places that they’re forced to stop is at what Arnold calls Norridgewock Falls, which is a series of falls right at the site of where Nanrantsouak or Norridgewock Village had been located until about ten years prior. And they have to stop because one of their boats capsizes and they also can’t navigate the falls and have to hire Native people who apparently were following them and had been following them since about Fort Western, which is present day Augusta, Maine, that they ran into a group of Native people who–men–who, the physician who’s with him I believe it is, writes, “are very well dressed, with painted faces,” suggesting that this is perhaps a group of warriors who are patrolling and maybe keeping an eye on Arnold and what are they doing in our territory? kind of question. So they have these men following them who they then hire to help them move these giant boats and all their stuff. They also hire oxen from local farmers to help them move these boats. So they end up spending six days at the former village of Nanrantsouak. And Arnold actually writes in his journal, quote, “Here is some small vestiges left of an Indian town destroyed by the English about ten years since, the foundation of an old church and altar, the monument over Fort St. Francis. The founder of the church and the whole tribe, we are told, are extinct except two or three.” And this to me is really quite striking because you have this place that was recently inhabited until he mentions ten years prior, although had been very famously destroyed in a massacre attack by the English in 1724. But at this moment, it had been resettled a couple of times. And so at this moment in 1775, it actually only been not inhabited for about ten years. But he’s presenting it like a ruins. And then also claiming that the whole tribe we are told are extinct except two or three, which makes me ask, “well who’s telling them this?” But also who are all of these Native people who are following him up the river, who are his guides? Of course, Eneas maybe is coming from Saint John, but he knows the area very well, which indicates to me perhaps he had relatives from there. But as they go just a few days later, they come across a wigwam, a home of a Wabanaki person, who turns out to be Natanis, who is a very famous Norridgewock leader who had signed many treaties prior to this moment. And at some point, Arnold claims that he’s the last of the Norridgewocks, which maybe you’ve heard before. This is a kind of a common refrain of “the last Indian”, “the last of the Mohegans”, which is an interesting claim considering that Natanis apparently had a brother who, if we connect back to the Powderhorn again in Vassalboro, the stories apparently there, there’s folk stories in Vassalboro that suggests that Natanis and his brother spent quite a lot of time in Vassalboro trading there. And which suggests to me interestingly enough that the owner of this Powderhorn, John Gatchel, who was on that expedition, who lived in Vassalboro, very well could have known Natanis. And then one more step is further up the river and into the Chaudière, they also meet up with, depending on which person’s journal you read, either 40 or 70 Native people within these lands. And so that raises some questions about, you know, oh, they’re all extinct. There’s just a couple of them around. And striking to that word, “extinct,” as opposed to the pastor is dead or people have been killed, right? So there is an indication of real violence in the space too that’s important to acknowledge. But there’s some absurdity that’s almost comical as you read this claim of extinction up against all of these Native people in Native homeland that they’re interacting with on this journey.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: That’s great. That’s so strange that these sort of points of presence are then inverted as a type of signifier of disappearance or absence or the last one. Do you find this to be common in journals or in objects of this period that you’ve come across in your research? Or how does this–how do you see this sort of coming together in more sort of public history? Is this something–a practice–that you still see happening today, where sort of points of presence are actually used or marked as a type of absence or disappearance?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: That’s such an important question and I’m really glad that you’ve asked it. And I think this is one of the things that in my work I’m trying to untangle, is how is it that these sort of narratives of Indigenous absence and erasure persist even when they’re being faced with evidence that directly contradict them? Whether that be direct descendants, who, obviously their very existence is proof against the claim of erasure. There is a lot of great work that has inspired me by other scholars. And one such piece that I would direct listeners to is the work of Jean O’Brien, whose book, “Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England,” really, she spent a lot of time looking at this very question in historical production in the 19th century in southern New England and how southern New Englanders were able to convince themselves and others through these narrative practices of proclaiming English firsts, Indigenous lasts and their narratives that rhetorically replaced Indigenous people with English people on the landscape in all these myriad ways. And so that study is really powerful and really influential to me. But one of the things I find really interesting is that those practices were already happening so early. So we’re seeing it in 1775 and she’s looking at the 19th century. So I’m seeing it also with the very production of American nationalist historical narratives around the time of the American Revolutionary War. And then how those are continued to be perpetuated. So that part of how this happens is the way that people are redefining what it means to be Indigenous in Indigenous spaces so that Natanis, for instance, for example, becomes–he’s the last Norridgewock and then he, in one of these journals, it states that he later moves to Penobscot. So there’s almost a belief that by moving to Penobscot that he stops being a Kennebec person. And so that traditional movement through traditional homelands becomes redefined by English and later Americans, Anglo-Americans, as end moments, as ruptures, as changes, and that redefine people’s affiliations or even their identities. They cease being Native, they cease being from Kennebec, they cease or they become something else. And so that way you have somebody like Natanis is the last. And he has a brother. Maybe his brother is being defined as being from somewhere else or something like that. So there are these ways in which, you know, even that presence then gets defined in a way that enables the absence idea to continue. And that’s a lot of the work of kind of decolonizing those narratives and finding other perspectives and other ways of understanding these stories that I think is really important.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: Thank you. Which brings me to another question, how do you find sort of stories like the ones that we’re doing now and sort of this interview itself about this object of the Powderhorn? Do you find these stories sort of reversing the process and actually representing a type of Indigenous or Native presence? Or do you actually find it pointing to a process of erasure and drawing our attention to that to that process itself? Or is it doing something of both?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Yeah. I think that there are different perspectives on what this work of decolonizing, of reclaiming, of telling stories in a different way in trying to address some of those, what we would call “settler colonial violence” is. There are different perspectives on what work needs to be done. For myself, I’m really interested in kind of a two-pronged approach, if you will. And I take this sort of the mother of decolonizing methodologies, Linda Smith, and her work where she’s–I think that her text, “Decolonizing Methodologies” really pushes us to do kind of the both and. The taking a look at kind of Western historical production and looking at it really closely and unpacking the ways that it’s wrapped up in colonial power, settler colonialism, and sort of show its contingencies and the “how did we get here?” So that to me is unpacking. How does the erasure happen? How does it function? What is the social structures that enable it and perpetuate it? And how do we start to take that apart by understanding better how it works? The other side of that is, how do we tell stories from an Indigenous perspective for Indigenous peoples, for Indigenous purposes. Some of my work is engaged with that as well. From this perspective or this particular approach to like this one object, I’m really thinking about how race situating the object in the sort of story of all of these relationships and this actual movement through space, and not just what this object might signify about the American Revolutionary War. But really, what is this place where the object comes from, the person who holds it? What are his experiences as he moves through the Kennebec River Valley? And what we see when we start to look at that, those experiences, and the people he’s interacting with and Benedict Arnold is interacting with, is just how richly inhabited this land is still by Indigenous people at this time. And that, you know, even the settlers are constantly still interacting with Indigenous people just as they are today. And so that starts to one, undo that erasure narrative, but also thinks about, well, what does it mean to be immersed in Indigenous space, even as the process of settlement and colonization is unfolding?
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: Great, thank you. You sort of touched on this and spoke about it. But what do you think that the role of public history is from an Indigenous perspective or for Indigenous people can play in sort of reversing this type of erasure or in having us really relook at these spaces and places from a totally different perspective, maybe directing our behavior in different ways? In other conversations that we’ve had prior, I remember you talking about in the area of the Powderhorn, that there’s a trail that people can take to follow Benedict Arnold on his excursions. What are maybe different ways we can actually see that area, different activities that we can have around these public histories that can sort of, I guess, get rid of these fictional histories about the disappearance of Indigenous people?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Yeah, that’s– I want to kind of start in the spirit of the both and. I want to start also, one by saying, I think that engaging with Indigenous communities for whom these places are still homelands and having those kinds of conversations and seeing what sorts of things might Indigenous community members want to see happen in these spaces? What sort of public, maybe public history or our interpretation or whatnot. And those are some of the things that I’m interested in working on into the future as I develop these projects further. But also to acknowledge that Indigenous people–that sort of second part of that two pronged approach, that’s sort of doing work by and for Indigenous people–that Indigenous peoples in this part of Maine are already doing their own work of reclaiming connections and gatherings and having their own conversations that aren’t necessarily about settler issues, but that are really about Indigenous revitalization, reclamation. And so that is already happening with or without settler engagement. And I think that’s really important to acknowledge. But there is a space potentially with the right kind of collaborative and relationship-building work, I think, for potential events, public history projects, or ways of re-engaging with collections, objects. One thing that comes to mind is the way that the stories that are linked to objects like this Powderhorn or local stories about relationships with some of these Indigenous spaces but that have become ways that locals themselves relate to these places, kind of absent of Native people. Such as, one of the things that I’ve studied is the way that locals tell stories about collecting, like arrowheads and things like that. That those are stories that rely on the idea of Indigenous absence. Even though they themselves don’t have anything to do with Indigenous absence, they are being used to create a local identity. Or the Powderhorn that’s being used to create kind of a nationalist–the same with the story about Benedict Arnold’s being in this part of the world, being used by locals to say like this important American Revolutionary history happened here. And so to claim local heritage to national heritage. But what’s missing from that is a real engagement with the Indigenous history and ongoing presence and relationship to land in that space. And part of that is perhaps telling some of these stories and re-interpreting this moment in history in a way that’s meaningful to locals. Because I will say this moment that I quoted from Arnold’s journal, “Here is some small vestige lecture than Indian town,” that refrain is used over and over again in local histories or on monuments that were placed as recently as 2012 at the site of Norridgewock. In order to claim that Indigenous peoples were gone. They were framed in a way to say that. And that’s just not actually even Benedict Arnold’s experience. So I think that there’s lots of work to be done. That some of it is about dismantling sort of the way that we think about these histories. That is about, you know, doing our own homework and thinking about new perspectives for how to read these stories. And some of it is about collaboration, relationship building, and working together to see what else might be possible between historians, locals, Indigenous communities, et cetera.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: Ashley, that’s great. Thank you so much for introducing us to this object and having us think about the Powderhorn in a completely different way. And just introducing us to this history. Is there any last words you want to leave for our listeners?
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Oh, that’s–Yeah, I think I just want to encourage everyone to think about these stories, received stories that have become so common in the way that we imagine the world and our place in history and our place and relationship to even these very familiar places. The site where Benedict Arnold stopped up the Kennebec River is my hometown, and that’s imagined in particular ways where I’m from. But to start to question, you know, “what might be the things that I don’t know, that I don’t know,” right? What might be some of the frameworks here that are shaping the way that I’m thinking about objects, landscapes, that I don’t actually realize that there’s a lens that I’m looking through, and what might it look like to ask a different set of questions? Or to take–for me, I often think about, let’s–rather than taking this sort of absent story for granted, if I start taking for granted, like this is Indigenous space, and then start asking, “well, if this is Indigenous space, then how is it possible that so many stories say that it’s not?” Then I start to get a more complex understanding of those interactions, the politics that produce these stories. And I start to get to see the pieces in a new way. And I think that’s work that everybody can be doing.
>> ASHLIE SANDOVAL: I love that. I love that, that we start from the point of presence and then rethink through these spaces in history. That’s fantastic.
>> ASHLEY SMITH: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. And I just want to say thank you to everyone who is listening. And yeah, I hope that you’re able to get something interesting out of this story and out of the objects that we put together for you to explore.