Turning Reality Into History Lessons

moundvilleThe local newspaper recently ran a story about the annual festival held at Moundville, located not far from Tuscaloosa — a large park and archeological site (associated with what is called the Mississippian culture, and complete with large platform mounds on which various sorts of structures were once built). Its decline is thought to have occurred around 500 years ago, but prior to that it seems to have been a major metropolitan center; my own University’s Anthropology Department, which offers a specialty in archeology, has a variety of digs taking place there.

The Tuscaloosa News article opened as follows:

The culture students have been learning about in textbooks jumped off the pages and into reality Wednesday at the Moundville Native American Festival.

“(The books are) an interpretation,” said John Standingdeer, a Cherokee from Whittier, N.C. “As you’re reading it, you can read what it says, but you don’t really get a feel of who people are or how they’ve lived or what they think…. I speak with a voice of the modern time, but I speak with a deep memory and deep respect of the ones who have gone on before.”

Standingdeer came this year to participate in the festival’s living history area, where he speaks about life in Moundville many years ago while dressed in period attire.

As identified by Vaia Touna in a recent post on this site, the interesting thing here is not just how many of us would not take this particular time-traveling claim all that seriously (i.e., we’d see the juxtaposition between book learning and real, deeply-felt, living history as a mere rhetorical technique to authorize the latter over the once/still dominant former, all of which is intertwined with issues of contest, power, voice, and thus identification; in a word, many of would say it is all interpretation and that it is all carried out from a contemporary position — whether “dressed in period attire” or not), but how some of us do take other no less time-traveling claims far more seriously — like, say, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice or an English Professor going on about what some long dead author “meant.” Touna’s point, as I read her, was that how we adjudicate between these two deserves a little attention.

I’m currently finishing a paper for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), a major international conference meeting this year in Baltimore (near the end of November), for a panel on explanatory issues in Christian origins research. It’s a challenge to make this very point in a setting such as that, in which scholars who, on the one hand, pay very careful attention to issues of theory but nonetheless seem to think that if they just gather enough evidence — evidence that is not just tattered, torn, and incomplete but inevitably always in the present, in front of the reader’s own eyes, and thus decipherable only as a result of translation and interpretation, games that invariably follow modern rules — they can make better or worse claims about some dusty but apparently actual ancient past that somehow caused this or that to happen, leading all the way up to the present.

How we don’t see this as adding up to just another origins tale, no less dressed up in period attire, is the puzzling thing — especially when those telling it keep repeating that they are not theologically invested in the Christian narrative.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

(Read a report on the session here.)

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