Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Traditionally, Disability Was Not Seen as Such": Writing and Healing in the Work of Mohegan Medicine People

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Traditionally, Disability Was Not Seen as Such": Writing and Healing in the Work of Mohegan Medicine People

Article excerpt

The article traces representations of illness and disability in the writing of Mohegan medicine people from the eighteenth century to the present-from the missionary Samson Occom's herbal, which recorded indigenous remedies for imported diseases, to medicine woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel's speculative fiction, which portrays indigenous cultures accepting disability matter-of-factly. Mohegan writers have understood illness and disability as products of settler colonialism, both materially and discursively. In their writings about traditional ethnobotanical knowledge, they represent shifting indigenous responses to the colonial project of pathologizing indigenous bodies and nations. These responses include complicated strategies of disidentification with disability, as captured in Zobel's statement that "traditionally, disability was not seen as such."

This article takes up a statement that we allude to in our introduction to the present special issue-the belief, widely shared among indigenous people, that "traditionally, disability was not seen as such" before colonization. The idea that certain modern identities and problems have been culturally imposed upon indigenous people is echoed by indigenous intellectuals, both inside and outside of academia, across a wide array of national contexts, histories, and topics. Many have argued, for instance, that sexism and sexual violence are colonial imports.1 Others contend that homophobia was unknown in some pre-colonial cultures, that male/female binaries have displaced older, more fluid approaches to gender and sexuality.2 Still others maintain that before European invasions, indigenous communities stewarded their environments with better regard for long-term ecological sustainability.3

These claims have elicited some skepticism, again inside and outside of academia. It is, of course, foolhardy to generalize about all indigenous cultures, or to imagine some universally shared prelapsarian time before "all contact." It is likewise important to acknowledge that European colonialisms were not everywhere and always the same. However, as a scholar who identifies with the central projects of Native American and Critical Ethnic Studies, I do accept the charge to redress histories of erasure and marginalization, especially through research that describes and contributes to decolonization in that sense described by the Critical Ethnic Studies Association: "a generative praxis of worldmaking." I do not dismiss out of hand scholars who, like the anthropologist Shepard Krech, have sought to "debunk" the idea that precolonial societies were somehow "better."4 But as someone who looks to Native intellectuals- and texts-for their understandings of traditional and colonial histories, I prefer to tease out the pre- and anti-colonial challenges to beliefs and practices that, in the end, are bad for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. This is not a question of romanticizing indigenous cultures or taking any individual Native person's assertions uncritically. It is, however, a question of what stories we choose to tell, and why.

In this article, then, I tell a story about the specific cultural locations of Mohegan medicine woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel's claim that "traditionally, disability was not seen as such." These locations include the Mohegan tribal nation (located, in turn, in what is now the state of Connecticut) and a distinctive Mohegan literary tradition: the writings of medicine people. Mohegan medicine people have been some of the tribe's most prominent and prolific authors since at least the eighteenth century. Today, in fact, Melissa Zobel5 is one of the most prolific Native authors in the northeastern United States. In some ways, it is curious that so many Mohegan medicine people have also been writers, since many medicine people are extremely protective of sacred knowledge, unwilling to speak of it, much less write about it. But the writers I discuss do not set out to "document" sacred knowledge for posterity, nor certainly for the consumption of outsiders. …

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