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Northwestern University

Pocahontas and so much more

Assistant Professor of English Kelly Wisecup advances Northwestern’s work in Indigenous Studies

Kelly Wisecup brings rich stories of the nation’s past to life, challenging what we thought we knew about the likes of Pocahontas, early American medicine, Native American culture and more to share tales rooted in truth rather than convenience.

Fresh off finishing her first academic year as an assistant professor in the Department of English, Wisecup, representative of Northwestern University’s increasing push into the field of Indigenous Studies, discusses her longstanding interests in Native American literature and what Indigenous Studies can teach us about our past as well as our present.

What sparked your intrigue in the field of Indigenous Studies?

I grew up in the Midwest and experienced living in places that have been Native lands for thousands of years, visiting places like Fort Osage in Missouri and taking historic tours on the Lewis & Clark Trail. What I found was that only one side of the story — the colonial side — was told, and it seemed odd to have these incomplete histories. In my scholarly work, I became interested in finding the untold parts of some of these stories.

How would you characterize the overarching goal of your research work?

In many respects, I’m trying to transform the idea of the archive. They are not just special collections, but living people. I’m digging into archives and finding things that can change our understanding of literature, but I’m also working with and talking to tribes to create a more complete picture.

How does your research weave into the classroom?

In the classroom, I’m eager to help students discover the full story behind the disconnected, incomplete narratives they have been told. I also want them to read with a critical eye for what’s missing. Chicago is one good example of these present but overlooked stories: it’s a city where native people have lived and continue to live, but where their presence is largely overlooked.

Let’s talk about Pocahontas. What don’t we know about her?

In 1616, the year of William Shakespeare’s death, Pocahontas traveled to London. To some, this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, but Pocahontas saw a greater, diplomatic purpose to her trip, which included several appearances at the court of King James I and meetings with influential Londoners. During this trip, she also sits for an illustration, the only drawing made of her from life. What’s fascinating about the drawing is that it suggests how aware Pocahontas was about how others viewed her and how active she was in trying to shape perceptions of America’s Native people. She’s careful about how she’s clothed to give signs of royalty, which directly counters the conventional view of Native Americans at that time.

Why is Indigenous Studies such an important area to study and teach?

Our understanding of this place — whether we define that as North America, the United States or even Evanston — is incomplete without an understanding of Native American literature, history and culture. Indigenous Studies is important to understanding each of our places in the world today and what this world will look like going forward.

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