Decolonial Public History and Shared Authority

The winter issue of The Public Historian  contained an article by Katrine Barber titled “Shared Authority in the Context of Tribal Sovereignty: Building Capacity for Partnerships with Indigenous Nations.”  Barber’s article addresses the challenges of Indigenous and non-Indigenous public history projects, historical colonial practices, and the idea of shared authority and decolonial public history practices.

Decolonial spaces have been written about and practiced in a number of different fields (namely art, sociology, and oral history) but this was the first time I’ve seen a decolonial practice merged with public history instruction and practice.  Barber describes decolonial public history as a a methodology that “abandons faith in the superiority of the dominant culture, acknowledges Indigenous communities and their histories, engages Indigenous experts identified by their communities, respects tribal protocol and governance, and develops narratives that debunk and oppose those that naturalize the colonial past.”

Using this definition of decolonial public history as a starting point Barber goes on to discuss the challenges of redeveloping historical narratives, the need to acknowledge the current atmosphere of colonialism, and hurdles in developing Indigenous/non-Indigenous partnerships.

The examples employed by Barber in her discussion of historical contact narratives and the shifting of perspectives in these narratives is particularly telling.  She compares the standard entry for the Lewis and Clark expedition — “Lewis and Clark arrive in Chinook terrritory on the north side of the Columbia.” with a revised text that shifts the narrative perspective.  The revised text moves readers away from the typical exploration narrative and focuses on the experience of those people already living in the area: “Four Chinook Indians paddled a canoe filled with wapato root to meet the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who had entered Chinook territory on the north side of the Columbia River for the first time.  Expedition leader William Clark alerted the men that they did not have anything with which they could trade at that time.”

This example brought home the potential impact of shared authority on historical writing and the benefits of approaching public history from a decolonial perspective.  The article left me examining my own public history practice, particularly given the work I do with Residential School Survivors and reconciliation.  What preconceived notions and practices am I bringing with me when I approach a community project? And how can public historians generally learn more about fostering decolonial spaces. Barber’s work is well worth a read for those interested in Indigenous history, community collaboration, and decolonial spaces.