Tattoos and Material Hospitality: Zara Anishanslin on “Writing the Body: Native Textualities”

Were I to continue the bad pun that began yesterday’s post, I would write something about this second day of material culture fare being so rich as to cause indigestion. Or (to be more properly early American in the analogy), I’d term it so rich as to cause gout. But such an invocation of physical discomfort fails entirely to do justice to today’s panels and papers.

The morning panel “Writing the Body: Native Textualities,” engaged a genre of material culture studies dear to lit scholars’ hearts—material texts—in surprising and fruitful ways. Mark Mattes, Melissa Gniadek, and Marin Odle all addressed what respondent Phillip Round referred to as the “material practice of textuality” by looking at “texts” inscribed in ink on notes and bodies. Mattes looked at a note composed by Native American Captain John Logan in 1774. Written in gunpowder, tied to his war club, and left in the home of the white colonist he’d just brutally killed, this text details the reasons for the killings (kinship losses Logan suffered at the hands of whites). Mattes reads this boldly signed note as a material text that is example of an act of history making by Native Americans. Gniadek also looked at interactions between Europeans and indigenous people, but her paper took a “Pacific turn” to the Maori in New Zealand. Through the lens of an aptly named, 4-inch tall children’s book “The Little but Affecting History of Mary Howard,” Gniadek unpacked the cultural messages found in this didactic book published in New Hampshire, a cautionary tale that describes a good little English girl taken to New Zealand who ends, after a series of wild misfortunes, living among Maori with half her forehead tattooed, before returning to white, civilized, England (where her curls will hide—but never erase—her tattoo). Odle, in a brilliant paper, also explored tattoos as ambiguous physical signifiers. Her look at tattoos in eighteenth-century America highlighted the ambiguity of a physical marker than could simultaneously denote male status and honorifics to Native Americans and be seen as markers of shame by Anglos. Odle’s paper uncovered these ambiguities and cultural mistranslations not just through documents, but by focusing on the material process of tattooing itself. Together, these vivid papers raised absorbing issues of hybridity, legibility, and translation. What is legible in a material text? And to whom? How do indigenous and European people in colonial sites read material texts like tattoos differently?

Another paper in the afternoon panel, “Material Hospitalities” by Alena Buis revisited many of these same themes of hybridity and interaction between indigenous and colonizing people by examining seventeenth-century buildings in New Netherland as “Un-Houwelyk,” or “un-homely” spaces. Looking at domestic spaces in New Netherlands as a contact zone for the exchange of labor and trade between the Native Americans and Dutch, Buis argued that these were “interstitial spaces” for the exchange of production and hospitality (and/or othering); spaces that complicate notions not just of Native-Dutch exchange, but of gender as well. Thinking of spaces as sites of hybridity just like tattoos and texts, what in such interstitial spaces were legible? And to whom? How did native and European people read such spaces differently?

On the same panel, Leah Giles also explored issues of gender and materiality. Giles looked at how elite women in Washington, D.C. used objects like pianos and harps to foster hospitality and politics in the early republic. Such musical instruments were “material expression of hospitality” in the hands of the genteel and skilled. Giles’ paper raised (for me, at least) the ever interesting question of whether sensory history is to be included in material culture studies. Is music material culture? Is sound? What are the limits of how we define the “material” in material culture?

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