Humility in seeking other voices from the past

30 May

Jennifer Graber is working on a book about Kiowa history.

Looking at the papers of Parker McKenzie, a Kiowa linguist, she worries about her own blind spots:

McKenzie collected articles by professional historians, as well oral histories from his relatives that McKenzie transcribed and translated. The articles and the oral histories serve a corrective purpose. For instance, one folder in the collection includes an article on Kiowa drawing by a respected Smithsonian anthropologist. McKenzie scribbled corrections in the margins, offering alternative translations of Kiowa names and providing different dates for particular events. Another folder contains a 1949 interview with his mother, in which McKenzie recorded her perspective on an 1871 violent encounter that most historians call the Warren Wagon Train massacre. McKenzie’s account is titled “Qajai et Topai de Hejega,” translated literally as, “Chiefs they them imprisoned story.”
            After three days in the archives at the Oklahoma Historical Society, McKenzie’s corrective efforts left me unsettled. Isn’t it inevitable that I will end up as one more in a long line of non-Kiowa historians who McKenzie needs to correct? Won’t he be the ghost, looming over my shoulder, scribbling corrections in my margins?

Graber’s full reflections are here:

Religion in American History: Visiting the Archives: Or, Parker McKenzie Is the Ghost of My Next Book.

Humility is what I and Graber and all scholars of the past need. The work of research, the work of attentively searching and listening and pondering and rethinking is a particular kind of pilgrimage. The end point is not that what was the case might be understood in its entirety, but rather that it can be comprehended in a way that fosters redemptive understandings in the present for more rather than fewer people.

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