Skip to main content

Using the Land and Language as Archives

Research & Inquiry

Prof. Christen Mucher's research on Indigenous history

Head shot of Professor Christen Mucher

Published July 21, 2023

Associate Professor of American Studies Christen Mucher grew up in Southern Ohio, a region covered in Native American earthworks, formerly called "Indian mounds." Yet, when she was young, an authentic history of those sites—and the people who built them—was nowhere to be found.

“The earthworks were described mostly as mysterious,” says Mucher, who teaches courses at Smith on early American history and Native studies. “As in, ‘well we don’t really know’ where they came from.” Thankfully, she adds, “hypotheses about aliens and giants that were taken seriously in the 19th century” are now seldom heard. But the true history of the earthworks remains largely absent in the public sphere.

In graduate school, while studying pre-Columbian history, Mucher noted the “voluminous historical work done on the ancient Maya people. And I wondered why don’t we have that in the U.S.” for people indigenous to North America?

That question has inspired Mucher’s scholarship, including her 2022 book, Before American History: Nationalist Mythmaking and Indigenous Dispossession, and a 2021 co-edited volume, Decolonizing “Prehistory”: Deep Time and Indigenous Knowledges in North America. She is currently embarking on a new project as the recipient of a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship. 

The $276,000 foundation award will support Mucher in retraining in Earth science and Indigenous languages, with the goal of recovering “some of the histories and voices lost to colonialism,” according to her proposal.

Her project, “Learning Ancient Histories of Eastern North America Through Earth Science and Indigenous Knowledges,” will involve a year-long residency at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where Mucher will study Earth history and Anishinaabe language. In addition, she will conduct research in French and Canadian archives for colonial-era accounts of Indigenous language teachings.

Here's what Mucher had to say about her fellowship.

Where did you get the idea for the Mellon Foundation project?

“I’ve been teaching a course at Smith called Native New England and one of the things that has always been a problem is finding enough to teach about the region that is not explicitly focused on colonial history. I realized I wanted to write about the so-called land deed for this area, in which settlers claimed to have bought the land on which Northampton, and Smith College, now sit. I did a lot of research on who the [Indigenous] signatories were and what I could learn from their names and the way they signed the alleged document. At the same time, I got extremely interested in the hydrology of the area and started learning all I could about the Connecticut River in this region. But I soon realized I didn’t have the language skills or the science skills I needed to be able to fully tell this story. So, when the opportunity came for Smith faculty to submit proposals to the Mellon Foundation, I applied and my project was selected.”

How will you go about your research?

“The Mellon Foundation grants are for training in a field different from your Ph.D. I got my Ph.D. in English, and I will be retraining in Earth science and Indigenous studies. My first step was a two-week immersive course in Abenaki language at Middlebury College. That is the local language of people who live in Vermont and on the other side of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. I don’t plan on becoming fluent, but instead on using some knowledge of that language—one of the original languages of this land and related to the large [Algonquian] language family in the Northeast—to begin trying to understand the land and its past in new ways.

Next year, I’ll go to the University of Minnesota to take courses in Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), another of the Algonquian languages. I’m also going to be taking classes in their Earth history program, which is focused on a systems approach. It’s not just learning geology, but all of the things you need to understand the history of Earth—like plate tectonics, hydrology, and climate change from 10,000 years ago!”

What gaps do you hope your research will help to fill?

“One of the gaps is a needed conversation across STEM and the humanities, certainly at Smith but also more generally. Especially since the pandemic, I think we’ve realized that scientists need humanistic skills in order to connect and communicate effectively with the public, and ordinary people need a better understanding of the way science works in our lives. The other thing I am very much committed to is doing this work from an Indigenous studies perspective. I am not Indigenous; I am a settler. But we all have a responsibility to learn about the original place and peoples where we are. I teach that pretty explicitly to my students.”

What do you hope to bring back to Smith as a result of this project?

“I’m in American studies, and for the past couple of years I’ve been doing more in a field called feminist science studies and also Indigenous science studies. I’ve been learning about that on my own and by co-teaching a course with a visiting scholar, which has been packed every time we’ve taught it. One of the things I hope to do with this project is to solidify my ability to teach that course and also to continue offering courses that bridge the humanities and STEM. I think students appreciate it when I can demonstrate that there doesn’t have to be that strict divide. There are multiple and interdisciplinary ways of thinking. I also want to design some new courses, such as one on ancient America, based on my Mellon project. That would be thinking about histories from a deep time perspective; understanding the land and language as archives.”

Professor Mucher will be giving a virtual book talk on Thursday, Sept. 21, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society.