Julie Fisher

The Subaltern Speaks

In teaching early American history, I am forever trying to include multiple perspectives to complicate student’s notion of “the single story” or the idea there the past is just one narrative to be learned. In particular, when teaching the history of early America, I incorporate a variety of approaches to engage my students with alternative narratives, particularly what an indigenous perspective of colonialization might look like. I designed this lesson to surprise them with an indigenous authored document from 1666 and what we can learn about the political and social world of the writer. Most students are not expecting to read a letter from a man who was both native and a student at Harvard and a minister and a translator. This letter, however, also forces students to grapple with the challenges inherent in any primary source. In this letter in particular there are vague threats and insinuations that cause students to pause and speculate about the letter’s purpose. This activity challenges the students to contend with indigenous figures as complicated political actors instead of passive victims or stock characters from the first Thanksgiving myth. Translation theory drives the discussion as students attempt to sift through the translator’s project for the letter and identify who the author(s) of this letter are. Rather than couch discussions of this letter in terms of loss, I ask students to use the translation to gather clues about the life of the translator. Ultimately, students learn that complexity awaits them when any primary source presents itself.

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