On Naming and Remembering

by Daniel Cobb, author of Native Activism in Cold War America; The Struggle for Sovereignty

“Say Their Names” has become one of the most potent aspects of the ongoing struggles against racism, state violence, and sexual abuse in the United States and the world over. It has been deployed in opposition to police killings of African Americans, the violation of international human rights, and, most visibly of late, sexual predation.

“Say Their Names” is vitally important because it refuses erasure. By acknowledging the persistent presence of people who might otherwise be rendered invisible, it empowers the targets of disempowerment.

And as #MeToo continues to demonstrate naming emboldens others to shatter a pernicious silence that can only be sustained as long as people subjected to violence and abuse feel isolated, humiliated, guilty, and ashamed. We might hear in #MeToo, then, the words “Say My Name,” which encourage others to break their silence by conveying messages such as “It’s Not Your Fault” and “You Are Not Alone.”

In this way, naming demands that we not only recognize but also remember and, as a consequence of both, take responsibility.

As an historian, this strikes a resonant chord because the work of people in my field is really about memory, about remembering. Our scholarship plays a role in conveying to others a sense of whose lives matter, what events should be considered significant, and why. With this comes the responsibility that inheres in having made decisions about what stories to tell, how to tell them, and why they matter.

I grappled with these questions in writing my first book, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty, which I published with the University Press of Kansas in 2008.  The book focuses on the period between the late-1950s and late 1960s, and I defined it this way because I wanted to recover stories of American Indian activism during an era that had been overshadowed by the founding of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Trail of Broken Treaties and Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover in 1972, the confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973, and the Longest Walk in 1978.

The popular and scholarly fixation on these later events contributed to AIM and Alcatraz being defined as the “beginning” of American Indian activism and to the perception that the 1970s were the 1960s in Native America. During an interview I conducted with him in October 2001, Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., put it this way:  “What you’re talking about really is moving everything that happened in the Seventies into the Sixties and pretending that it happened then.”

By concluding with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, I chose to end where most histories of twentieth-century Indian activism begin. It did so to decenter (without diminishing the significance of) the more familiar stories mentioned above. In so doing, I hoped that it might restore the presence of at least some people, places, and events that had been all but erased.

Reinterpreting this critical period in American Indian history did other memory work, as well. Native Activism intended to challenge conventional narratives about the Sixties in the context of United States and global history, which I consider incomplete if Indigenous experiences are designated as peripheral or marginal.

Indeed, I came to realize that the individuals, ideas, events, and issues in Indian Country were at once shaped by and gave shape to the other histories of which they were a part—from the struggle for black equality and the War on Poverty to the youth movement and decolonization. They were at once distinct and inseparable.

Since the publication of Native Activism, I have continued exploring this theme. In Say We Are Nations, a primary document collection, I illustrate how, from the late nineteenth century to the opening decades of the twenty-first century, American Indians, Kanaka Maoli, and citizens of First Nations have rhetorically and literally connected perennial concerns over treaty rights, land, and sovereignty to other domestic and international concerns, events, ideas, and movements—a strategy Vine Deloria, Jr., described to me as “talking the language of the larger world.”

I have come to see all of the individuals featured in both of these books as part of a much older, vastly more expansive, and ongoing Indigenous political and intellectual tradition of countering colonialism—of demanding not only recognition but also remembrance and, as a consequence of both, the taking of responsibility. By speaking to the persistence of individuals, communities, and nations that might otherwise be rendered invisible, they empower the targets of disempowerment. If settler colonialism, to paraphrase anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, seeks to destroy to replace, these voices refuse such erasure.

Given that we are now moving into the final years of a decade marking their fiftieth anniversary (and because of the profound sense of déjà vu inspired by our present moment), there could be no better time to remember the 1960s. There could be no better time to say the names of people whose lives defined the Sixties and to reflect on what meanings they hold not only in the context of their time but in the context of our own.

For my part, I’d like to share the names of some of people that I wrote about in Native Activism in Cold War America, knowing only too well how many more could be included and deserve recognition.

And so to D’Arcy McNickle, Helen Peterson, Clarence Wesley, and Joe Garry

To Georgeann Robinson, Lacy Maynor, William Rickard, and Ed Dozier

To Bob Thomas, Mel Thom, Browning Pipestem, and Clyde Warrior

To Herb Blatchford, Sandy Osawa, Billy Frank, and Bruce Wilkie

To Angela Russell, Frank Dukepoo, Jeri Redcorn, and Fran Thom

To Gloria Emerson, Shirley Hill Witt, Dorothy Davids, and Della Warrior

To Francis McKinley, Phillip Martin, Forrest Gerard, and Helen Scheirbeck

To Vine Deloria, Walter Wetzel, Wendell Chino, and Jim Wilson

To Bob Satiacum, Roger Jourdain, Ronnie Lupe, and Cato Valandra

To Tillie Walker, Mattie Grinnell, Martha Grass, and Rose Crow Flies High

To Charlie Cambridge, Kathryn Redcorn, Gerald Brown, and Hank Adams

To Victor Charlo, LaDonna Harris, Iola Hayden, and Phyllis Howard

To Esther Ross, Patty Baker, Al Bridges, and Sam English

To Janet McCloud, Andrew Dreadfulwater, Bob Dumont, and Jack Forbes

To the few I have named and the many I have not

To those gone and with us still

As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the 1960s

I remember you.

Daniel M. Cobb is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in North American Studies, University of Helsinki, 2017-2018