#AUPresses20 plenary

Catherine Cocks's picture

The Association of University Presses opened its annual meeting on Monday, June 15, with trenchant and inspiring plenary presentations from Cutcha Risling Baldy and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair under the title of “Give It Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty.”

Risling Baldy, who is Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk and an enrolled member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, is an assistant professor and chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her first book, We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women's Coming-of-Age Ceremonies, won the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association’s first book prize. Sinclair is Anishinaabe (St. Peter's/Little Peguis) and an associate professor in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. The co-editor of Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water and Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories, he is also the editorial director of the Debwe Series with Portage and Main Press and an award-winning columnist.

In these few short paragraphs it is impossible to do justice to these rich talks. Risling Baldy and Sinclair addressed what publishing means for Native scholars and communities and the role that university presses have played and should play in nurturing Indigenous voices. I will just offer a few points that stood out for me.

Risling Baldy noted that the publication of her book gave people in her community more confidence that they, too, can publish books. She encouraged university press staff to center Indigenous voices and scholarship, rather than those of non-Natives writing about Indigenous peoples. Because many Native scholars are new to academic publishing, editors and other press staff need to be aware that a process that seems very familiar to us may be opaque and alienating to first-time Native authors. Sinclair called for changes in the way publishers work with Indigenous authors as well, pointing out that most Indigenous scholars write for their communities as much as for other academics. As a result, university presses must recognize collective forms of authorship and commit to ethical relationships with both authors and their communities.

In addition to underscoring the importance of Native series editors in centering Indigenous authors, both speakers underscored the fact that Indigenous people have long been recording and passing down their wisdom for their own communities. Practices that non-Native scholars have portrayed as conversion, the adoption of European languages, and acting as informants for non-Native anthropologists and linguists were motivated by a commitment to preserve and teach Indigenous values and culture. As Risling Baldy said, that means we need to emphasize the persistence and resurgence of Native communities, rather than focusing on the genocidal violence of settler colonialists. Today, Native linguists are using the information collected by white scholars decades ago for the purpose their ancestors intended: passing Native knowledge and culture on to new generations. University presses can support these efforts through our publications, while striving to make our editorial practices more ethical and transparent in support of Native scholars and communities.


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A belated follow up on our post about the AUPresses 2020 conference plenary on June 15. In her presentation, Cutcha Risling-Baldy offered publishers five rules for working with Indigenous authors and publishing on Indigenous topics. You can read them—and her other suggestions—at her blog. The post is titled “Give It Back: Publishing and Native Sovereignty at the Association of University Presses Conference OR In Which I Remind Everyone That Andrew Jackson Can Go F Himself” and contains the full video of her planary.