Elizabeth Ellis is an assistant history professor, specializing in Early American and Native American history. She is a citizen of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. Prior to joining Princeton’s faculty this fall, Ellis was an assistant professor of history and the director of the Native Studies Forum at New York University.
The Daily Princetonian sat down with Ellis for a conversation about Native American History, her first few weeks at Princeton, and her research projects.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell us more about your background?
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Ellis: So Peewaalia or Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. My folks are in northeastern Oklahoma, kind of sandwiched in on the edge of Cherokee Nation. We're originally from Illinois. Peoria, Illinois is one of those parts of the nation’s homelands. The community was gradually removed to Oklahoma over the course of the 19th century.
DP: Did the removal inspire your research on Native American history?
EE: Yeah, it absolutely did. I'm of a different generation. But when I was growing up, I did not have any Native history in school, until I got to graduate school when I had my first Native history professor and took my first big set of classes devoted to Native history. I've done some independent study work as an undergrad, but it was really transformative and made me really like the teaching part of things.
DP: So, with your focus on Native American history, what topic interests you the most within that sphere? And why?
EE: I went to school in Louisiana when I was an undergraduate. I had the perception that all Native communities kind of looked like mine, that everybody had been removed from the east. Their stories did not look like my own, and they were having very different experiences because not all of them had treaty relationships. Many of us [who have treaty relationships] are dual citizens. So we have tribal citizenship and US citizenship. And that comes with certain kinds of protections for our lands, our peoples, our right to governance. That’s not true, necessarily, if you don’t have these kinds of federal protections. I think for Native people, a lot of the ways that we think about our obligations when we live on other homelands is you have to help the communities that you’re in, and you have to be responsible to the communities whose lands you are on. That ultimately ended up propelling me to go to grad school because [those] peoples’ histories, like my own, are not being told.
DP: What are some of the connections you’ve seen between history and what’s happening now?
EE: I think, today, so often when we talk about U.S. immigration and migration policy, we think of this as something that is fully the prerogative of the United States government and that they’re the only people who get to determine who comes to this land, who gets to belong to this land, and who has rights to this land. Looking really critically at this early American history, we can see these long histories of people migrating, moving, and specifically, this politics of Indigenous sanctuary where Native people very often offer[ed] hospitality to people who arrived in crisis, be those other Native people or European settlers. That unsettles a bit of our assumptions about who has rights to claim this territory and who gets to decide.
DP: So could you tell me more about your ongoing collaborative work, specifically with the Reclaiming Stories Project?
EE: We just started that a couple of years ago. Many people in my community went through federal Indian boarding schools. So in the late 19th and early 20th century, there were these federal attempts to reeducate Native people to make them into U.S. citizens. My great grandmother went through Indian boarding schools, and a lot of my community as well went either through Indian boarding schools or Indian day schools. By the time of my grandfather’s generation, there really weren’t any more people who spoke Peoria. So, the reclaiming Stories project is [about] Peoria and our sister nation, Miami, [highlighting] folks’ efforts to reclaim stories and culture history, and to rebuild in the aftermath of these forcible assimilation policies of the 20th century.
The project is a [collaboration between] Peoria and Miami tribal representatives, governments, and a couple of us academics. We're working with these very old hides — these are basically painted deer skins and other kinds of animal skins that are inscribed with old stories. [We] work with this group of hides, take the knowledge from those robes, and bring that back to communities to revitalize hide painting as a way to tell these stories to children within the community, as part of the larger work of cultural revitalization.
DP: To what extent are you involved with the Native American community on campus?
EE: I’ve met with some of the Native student leaders, I’ve met with some grad students. I’m hopeful that as part of Princeton’s commitment to Indigenous Studies, there’s a real commitment from the University to build Native studies and support Native students. And that will lead to more programming, more visibility, more kinds of thoughts and topics that are of interest to the students. I think generations of student leaders, the undergraduate student leaders, like Jessica Lambert ’22 who just graduated last year, have done a huge amount of work, as have the Native alums. So I’m a small piece in a much, much bigger process of strengthening this stuff at the University.
DP: What programs would you like to see?
EE: The students have been asking about a minor in Indigenous Studies so that students can get certificates. They seem really interested in doing independent research. I think for a lot of Native folks, you might go through a lot of college and not ever hit, in a deep dive, things that are relevant to your community. So the ability to study language or history or waterways, or any of these kinds of things, are things the students are really hoping to build.
DP: What classes are you hoping to teach related to Indigenous Studies?
EE: I’ve got an introductory course on the history of Native North America in the spring. I’m very excited about that. I think it’s been a couple years since there’s been a Native history class offered. I think we’re going to take a class trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, to get people to see that exhibit and think about public perceptions of Native folks.
DP: How have recent debates about cultural patrimony affected conversations around Native American art and artifacts?
EE: Oh, yes. So in the United States, after much fighting and many generations of settlers looting Indian burial grounds, really important objects that many communities think of as their direct relations ended up in museums. In 1991, the Native American Graves [Protection] and Repatriation Act (NAPGRA) was passed, because this looting had gotten so bad and there was such an outcry from indigenous communities and activists. What NAGPRA does is it says for cultural institutions, [like] big museums [or] big universities, the universities have an obligation to return funerary objects and objects of cultural patrimony — meaning things that are really important to the culture and identity of the tribe as well as all human remains — to Native nations.
DP: What other ways can Native people attempt to repatriate their objects?
EE: It’s very hard for Native people to exert their rights in ways that force, in particular European, nations to understand its Native value, and so I think a lot of what this relies on is popular protests and public pressure. I think that can be a very core point from allies. If you can convince a lot of people that this stuff really mattered and it was a bad look for places — like the British Museum or private collectors — to be holding onto stolen family members and/or objects, that might do some of the trick. But I actually think a lot of that pressure has to come from people outside of our nations who are familiar with the issues and are willing to work in solidarity.
DP: I've never heard of any of this before.
EE: That's a huge part of that, right? Native people are so invisible within the United States. We don’t do a great job teaching Native history, covering culture. For a lot of communities, it feels like getting visibility is such a hurdle. You have to do all this work just to first be seen as contemporary Native people, before you can make any kind of political demands. And that’s again where I think education and visibility is so important.
Even now, post-Standing Rock, we’re in a completely different generation, because I think, beforehand, there was such little visibility for Native people. Post-Standing Rock, the really intentional forcing of Native issues to the fore by Lakota, Dakota Cheyenne and other kinds of allied nations, women and youth in particular, but like whole nations, has changed the conversation; [we] understand that Native issues are ongoing, that some of these Treaty issues are unresolved, and that there are these very hotly contested topics. I think some of that has helped reframe things. I’m hopeful that we’re moving in a direction where there’s more visibility, and I would love for that to translate into real understandings of contemporary sovereignty.
DP: What has the process of reclaiming and reeducating the language been like? How have you been going about that?
EE: Our tribal language person has been doing an awesome job. We’re currently running the pilot. I think 59 other people, maybe 60 of us, are the guinea pigs for the first go through. The language expert is teaching this hybrid class, so half the class is online, some of it is in-person. There are language learners of all different levels, people who are still in their teens, people who are I think in their 60s or 70s, all different levels of education speaking.
Simone Kirkevold is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @simpne.b.k.