Even if the history of the American West was not written by the victors, the fact that it is written at all—or rather, that it has come to be regarded as an overwhelmingly literary matter, built upon textual records and textual narratives—already marks a victory for settler colonialism. Is it possible to write a truly revisionist historical account of the colonial era? Here, I consider this question through an examination of rock art from the American West, produced by indigenous artists who were iconographically archiving their own entanglements with the European invasions and the fast-changing fortunes of other native societies. In doing so, my focus is upon the so-called Biographic Tradition of rock art, which appears up and down the North American continent, from Alberta to Coahuila. How we read this corpus of images, I argue, is linked to larger questions of historical method, the relative priority of text versus image, and non-settler ways of knowing the past.
Bio:Dr. Severin Fowles is Chair of American Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, New York. His archaeological research takes up questions of religion, visual culture, landscape, indigeneity, and settler colonialism in the American Southwest. Since 1996, he has conducted archaeological fieldwork in northern New Mexico each summer, directing projects ranging from excavations at a large 13th century Ancestral Pueblo village, to landscape surveys in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, excavations at a Spanish colonial village, and excavations at a 1960s hippie commune. His first book, An Archaeology of Doings: Secularism and the Study of Pueblo Religion (2013, School for Advanced Research), explored the changing “religious” worlds of Pueblo communities in northern New Mexico from the eleventh century to the present, drawing on this history to critically reevaluate the secular premises that adhere to archaeological claims about religion. His second book, Comanche Afterimages: Visual Culture and History in Northern New Mexico (in prep), builds from a decade of landscape surveys in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, in the course of which he and his colleagues have discovered a major distribution of elaborate early eighteenth century rock art panels in the Plains Biographic Tradition style. Working collaboratively with members of the Comanche Nation, he is using this iconography and its associated archaeological traces to write a new history of 18th century New Mexico that foregrounds the political agency of indigenous Plains actors. His most recent research initiative is a study of indigenous agricultural landscapes in northern New Mexico, conducted in partnership with Picuris Pueblo.
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