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Skeletal Testimony: Bony Biopolitics in the Early Atlantic

Takahata, Kimberly

“Skeletal Testimony: Bony Biopolitics in the Early Atlantic” argues that colonial descriptions of Indigenous remains throughout the Atlantic World compose two archives: textual representations and physical remains. Because these remains explicitly demonstrate a relationship between embodied life and writing, they enable analysis of how settler writers depicted them and how Indigenous communities care for them. Emphasizing these moments through what I term “skeletal testimony,” I ask the question: what care resulted in the appearance of these remains, and how does this recognition change how we read these texts? Examining reports, histories, natural histories, speeches, poems, and engravings from New England through Suriname, I establish how colonial authors used formalized conventions of natural history empiricism and firsthand narration to represent Indigenous remains as collectible bones, often citing and reproducing one another’s work throughout the eighteenth-century Anglophone colonies. These descriptions figure remains as arising naturally and spontaneously from the landscape, enabling colonists to claim land and histories as they erase living Indigenous persons from these spaces.

However, without pointed and prolonged physical care, many of these remains would have disappeared. By identifying the tension between this physical preservation and textual descriptions, I contend that these remains always attest to communities and carework, constituting a structural grounding to colonial texts, even as they attempt to obscure such relations. This emphasis in turn facilitates “narrative repatriation,” in which these narratives can be formally and thematically returned from colonial texts to ongoing histories of Indigenous life, a process most clearly demonstrated by formal reworkings and textual citations by Indigenous writers like William Apess. Because this reclaiming does not require political or historical recognition by colonial persons (a contrast to physical repatriation), narrative repatriation thus serves as a creative process of returning and belonging. Ultimately, “Skeletal Testimony” reckons with erasures—real and supposed—of colonial archives, providing a model for navigating settler colonial texts across the Atlantic World. I recalibrate how we do “early American literary studies” by insisting that we must always think about texts and bodies together, mobilizing this relationship to contribute to interdisciplinary conversations about how to respect Indigenous relations between the living and the dead.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Arsic, Branka
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 10, 2020