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Reclaiming Native Space

Natchee Barnd documents a cultural resurgence

By Theresa Hogue, OSU News and Research Communications

When Natchee Barnd was a senior in high school, he would sit in the back of his history class with a friend from the Black Student Union and quietly critique the Euro-centric curriculum. During lunch, he’d head to the school library and pore over books that featured people of color in primary roles, creating his own brand of independent study to supplement the narrow viewpoint he was receiving in
his classes.

“We had this parallel, shadow curriculum,” Barnd recalls. “It gave us this sense of empowerment.”

Colin Cole, left, a Ph.D. student in education, talked with assistant professor Natchee Barnd during the spring 2017 Social Justice Tour of Corvallis. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

Barnd was looked down on by many of his peers as a dumb jock, a quiet football player from the other side of town who was bussed into the mainly white high school in Northern California. His own neighborhood was a rich mix of Southeast Asian, African, Latino and Native American, but he saw little of that reflected in his textbooks or in his classmates. So he began creating his own space, where the stories of black poets and Native American artists intermingled to give him a much richer world view.

Now an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at Oregon State University, Barnd is fascinated with how colonized spaces can be reclaimed by indigenous people through art and storytelling. Much in the way that he rejected the narrow, ethnocentric viewpoints he was taught in school and filled it in with a broader perspective, indigenous artists and groups are defying the boundaries imposed upon their lands and culture by outsiders. Instead, they are using their stories, their history, to establish and reclaim their own spaces.

Native Geography

Native Space is published by OSU Press.

In his new book, Native Space: Indigenous Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism (OSU Press, 2017), Barnd explores how North American Native people have sustained and created indigenous geographies in settler colonial nations. He does so by examining approaches to this reclamation of geography, from place names and signage to paintings and public sculpture.

One example he cites is Cherokee, North Carolina, the tribal headquarters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Street names use a combination of English, Cherokee and Cherokee syllabary (the written symbols that represent syllables in spoken language). “By virtue of their public function and purpose,” Barnd writes, “bilingual sign systems inherently and publicly help tribal communities negotiate the relationships among culture, language and geography.”

Barnd is not enrolled with a tribe but has indigenous family connections and roots. He first stumbled across the idea of cultural geography when completing his dissertation (Inhabiting Indianness: US Colonialism and Indigenous Geographies) at UC San Diego. An emerging field, cultural geography looks at how cultures and societies shape landscapes and vice versa. Language, religious beliefs, practices and structures, Barnd says, can inform how space is perceived and used.

“‘Inhabiting Indianness’ refers to the ways that everyday citizens deploy notions of ‘Indianness’ in the creation of white residential spaces and in reasserting national and therefore colonial geographies,” he writes. Among other things, Barndt documents and analyzes the use of Indian-themed street names throughout the United States and compares them to street names referencing other racialized groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

“I was trying to deal with how art spoke to the notion of space or geography, or how art gives meaning to that relationship between people and the physical world outside,” Barnd says. “Everything that we see, essentially we’ve created. That’s true of place names too. What’s the relationship between naming spaces and crafting particular kinds of spaces you want to have people experience, and how does it create or reflect our identities?”

In his book, Barnd uses personal narratives to examine the stories of indigenous communities. He compares narratives of a famous Kiowa warrior,

Set’tainte (or Satanta), one from a white and another from a Kiowa perspective. He focuses on Native artists who use their work to address issues of indigenous geography and the making and unmaking of Native space.

In the spring 2017 Social Justice Tour of Corvallis, students offered stories about the city’s multicultural heritage. Speakers included Isamar Chavez, a student in Ethnic Studies presenting on the life of Ruth Nomura, a Japanese-American woman who graduated from OSU in 1930. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

Differences can arise in how ethnic or cultural groups view space. Borders imposed by a dominant power often cross or divide broader areas, which indigenous groups may regard within their own cultural context. Even the place names given by one group can impart a different meaning. A war hero who lends his name to an academic building might also have a history of causing harm to Native people. A common street name may use a term that is offensive to a group of color or supplant a Native name used for centuries before the arrival of white settlers. Names can simply proclaim what is worthy of remembrance and what is not.

The ways in which indigenous space has been colonized are numerous, but that’s not Barnd’s primary focus. To spend time and energy critiquing and criticizing the actions of colonists simply places the focus and interest on those white settlers, he says. He is more interested in indigenous movements to reclaim spaces and exert power over their own stories.

With Justice for All

This link between space and stories is also evident in a project he’s been leading for several years at Oregon State, the Social Justice Tour of Corvallis. Created as a project for his Ethnohistory Methodology Class, the tour is led by students and combines a physical tour of Corvallis overlaid with stories of underrepresented peoples and tales generally lost to history. The students do the research and weave the narrative from historical documents, poetry and in some cases, fiction writing based on real experiences.

“Part of my work involves figuring out how to mix poetry and geography and art in a way that makes sense to understanding space,” Barnd says. The tour does so in a way that helps participants look at familiar landscapes in a new way.

“When we stop at the ‘great white founder’s’ house, I want to dig and find the story of the Siletz woman servant or maybe the wife or the daughter that did something different,” he adds.

Speakers at the 2017 Social Justice Tour of Corvallis included Alex Riccio, a master’s student in interdisciplinary studies, discussing an anti-apartheid campaign at OSU. (Photo: Theresa Hogue)

The response from tour participants has confirmed Barnd’s hopes. “They’ve told me that knowing this makes them look at this place differently, that this story tells them there are things here they can latch onto — that this space can be and has been different than what they had previously understood or experienced.”

Social Justice Tour in Portland

Barnd’s next project is a book titled A People’s Guide to Portland and Beyond, which highlights lesser known sites of social justice and oppression across Oregon’s largest city. He has contracted with UC Press for the work. Much like his Corvallis tours, the book will highlight stories of underrepresented groups and give readers a new way of perceiving the familiar streets of Portland.

Barnd has also been part of the group investigating the potential renaming of several buildings on the Oregon State campus whose namesakes’ legacies are being questioned in light of modern values. He said that it’s important to provide the space for people to challenge place names and to be willing to change them, if appropriate.

“You want to create a particular relationship with that space and that history. It makes sense to be thoughtful about what our process is for naming and how frequently we might want to revisit that process,” he says. “Because things change, our understanding changes, people’s histories change. Of course we should be flexible. Otherwise we’re in danger of thinking about space or an name as fixed, and it’s not fixed.”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.