Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Present Company Excepted...

Dr. Daniel F. Littlefield Jr.
Speaking with a descendant of  Cherokee "Rich" Joe Vann

A respected teacher, author and historian spoke at the recent 5 Tribes Story Conference, and what a surprise to see the disrespect he experienced from a member of the teaching community at Bacone College and from speakers on the panel with him.

I’m sure Dr. Littlefield attended the event at the request of the organizers for his knowledge and expertise on the “history” of the so called Five Civilized Tribes known as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. It is also safe to assume he accepted their invitation with the full knowledge his contribution to a conference with the theme of "fiction" writing and story telling" was not exactly his area of work but he attended despite these difference for what I believe is his never ending support for the Native American community as it wrestles with the issues of history, culture and identity. Dr. Littlefield has contributed mightily to the body of work that now exist so citizens in all the five tribes have his ground breaking work to lean on.

What I observed on the last day of the conference was enlightening and sad only because I watched how this fine man was rudely treated by fellow panelist and a “speaker in the audience” who described himself as an educator at Bacone College. I would think if he were not directly addressing Dr. Littlefield as someone who was “non-Indian” incapable of writing about “Indians” because he was not Indian or traditional or someone who “lived an Indian” lifestyle, the phrase “present company excepted” should have been used to qualify his remarks.

The constant interruption of Dr. Littlefield when HE was asked a question smacks of the kind of disruptive behavior one might expect from children but these were grown men who each time the professor began to speak in my opinion deliberately and rudely responded to the question that was intended for Dr. Littlefield. It was incredible to watch! When the co-panelist finally allowing Dr. Littlefield to speak; one pulled his hat over his face I suspect to conceal his laughter while the other “flopped” in his chair as if to demonstrate his impatience with whatever it was Dr. Littlefield was going say.

How Dr. Littlefield could graciously and calmly allow the two participants on the stage to go on with their response and not object would have been beyond my patience so I have learned a great deal from his cool demeanor in dealing with the childish behavior that was unbecoming of people who are educators. Quite frankly, it was a sad day for the faculty of Bacone and truly unfortunate for a man of Dr. Littlefield’s reputation.

Dr. Littlefield has done more by publishing the history, culture and preservation of the Five Civilized Tribes, their history of enslaving people of African and African-Native descent, while maintaining academic excellence these gentleman may want to emulate.


  1. I just read your article, and yes, I did attend that session also, and I felt that indeed the blatant hostility shown to the professor was unusual and unfortunate. Interestingly, I recall that Dr. Littlefield had earlier been identified as being Cherokee, which he had corrected the day before on another panel. But I wonder ---had he not made that correction, would he have gotten that treatment? If not---=-was the hostility towards Dr. Littlefield because he was white? I ask, because several of the storytellers themselves indicated that they have white mothers.

    That of course leads to another question---when is scholarship considered valid?
    Does scholarship have a color? Would the "worth" or "value" of his scholarship have been considered more "legitimate" if his racial background was different? There was the suggestion I recall later that "only Indians" can write about Indians---which means that sound research methods should be discarded because of the racial makeup of the author. I think the references were made to the "non-Indians" who write about Indian history, and/or culture.

    From another perspective, I think about many scholars who specialize in history and culture of other groups. Example---

    Those in America who study ancient Greece—are their works illegitimate because they are not Greek? Should the works of Dr. Ira Berlin (Univ. of Maryland) and his sound scholarship on the institution of American Slavery be discarded because he is not a descendant of slaves? Hopefully we are not going there, and hopefully that was not suggested by those who chose to be rude on the panel to Dr. Littlefield. Ironically those showing the blatant disrespect were also men of the academy.

    But for us----as learners we have to move beyond color and appreciate content. And we have to keep in mind that the conference was not a conference for historical scholars. The conference was a story tellers conference. Their focus is fiction---stories that reflect some aspects of the culture, but fiction nonetheless. One writer I know describes fiction as "things that never happened to people who never lived." One of the interesting remarks came from one of the storytellers was that a storyteller is a "Liar" using one of the dictionary definitions of a story teller. The word Liar even appears on his tribal license plate.

    But--the greater lesson for us as those who have ties to the same Indian communities as the speakers, is that there are stories---our stories that are yet to be told. And our people lived in those same Indian communities.

    I do like to embrace the theme from the plenary speaker------there is a need for a "coming to the table moment." True, there was no great effort to interact with some of us although we were already on the proverbial cultural bridge, and true few hands were extended to us, especially from the storytellers themselves...ahh but we are people of patience.

    And we have work to do and stories to tell, ourselves.

  2. Angela thank you for the salient points you make, your observations point out just how far we have to go in order to discover our shared past and "bridge" the divide that occurred many decades ago. That is why it is also important that I don't leave the impression that the 5 Tribe Story Conference was not a learning experience regarding storytelling and writing.

    This incident in no way reflected the entire program and it would be unfortunate if anyone drew that conclusion; it is not my intent to denigrate the conference or the organizers. For the record, I had a great time and enjoyed myself and the people I met immensely. Fact is, if I have an opportunity to attend future conferences I would not hesitate going.

    I also agree, we have a responsibility to tell the story of Indian Territory African and African-Native descendant people.