A Conversation with Robbie Richardson

Monday, Oct 11, 2021
by Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies

Robbie Richardson, a member of Pabineau First Nation (Mi’kmaw) in New Brunswick, Canada, and an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, specializes in 18th-century British and transatlantic literature and culture. His research into interactions between Indigenous and European cultures connects interests in Indigenous studies, art and material culture, the history of museums and collecting, and the literature of empire.

His book The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2018) examines representations of North American “Indians” in novels, poetry, captivity narratives, plays, and material culture from 18th-century Britain, and argues that depictions of “Indians” in British literature were used to critique and articulate evolving ideas about consumerism, colonialism, “Britishness,” and, ultimately, the “modern self” over the course of the century.

Richardson received his Ph.D. in English and cultural studies from McMaster University, followed by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellowship through the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. He came to Princeton after seven years based in London, teaching at the University of Kent in Canterbury and Paris.

Over email, Richardson discussed his current project, his research and teaching in Europe and at Princeton. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

Are there differences useful to note in how Indigenous peoples are and aren’t present and engaged with in settings where you’ve researched and taught?

There are some important differences. This is particularly evident in the museum setting; while it is far from perfect, curatorial practice in North America tends to at least attempt to integrate Indigenous voices and expertise. European museums often do not feel obliged to do this, and as a result, can feel like unreconstructed celebrations of empire or fraught fetishizations of “primitive” peoples. Their shortcomings have made them rich places to bring students and critique the institutions, of course, but they need to change.

In Britain and on the continent, the romanticized, New Age representation of Native peoples as closer to nature and thus more authentic is still a pervasive idea, while our current lived realities are of less interest. But there are some excellent scholars trying to fix this; one of my former colleagues at the University of Kent, David Stirrup, has run a massive grant called “Beyond the Spectacle” that looks at Indigenous visitors to Britain, and he’s brought over many Native artists and academics to speak at events.

Another important difference is that European institutions do not typically have Indigenous people working or studying at them, though the same can be said of many places in North America. But change is slowly happening here, and here we can be more directly engaged with Native nations.

Have you noticed differences or continuities in awareness, discussion of empire (specific empires and empire as a state and cultural practice)?

I was surprised when I first started teaching in the U.K. in 2013 by how little British students knew about empire. I’ve seen that awareness grow somewhat, but this has produced a reactionary response from some politicians, who see this awareness as some kind of attack on the past and the noble British nation. It’s all a bit depressing, but I’ve been impressed by the critical thinking skills and interest in learning more from young people.

Needless to say, British students typically know very little about Indigenous North American people. Yet this is also true in North America itself; students here are aware of things like land acknowledgements and some Indigenous-related political movements, but typically don’t know that much about the material reality in a lot of communities. And I think it’s important to understand that the United States too is an empire, built on stolen Native land, with continued interests that heavily impact the rest of the world.

Archival surprises, confirmations, disappointments, shocks, delights? You note on Twitter a marvelous record of weather.

Yes, I found a flower in an 18th-century journal, and I’m pretty certain it hadn’t seen the light since whatever day it was collected in the 1740s as it was stuck between pages. I felt an incredible connection to a past world in that moment, amazed that such an ephemeral thing could sit so long in those pages.

Very recently I came across a handwritten note in the British edition of a captivity narrative from the 1760s. The narrative was written by a man named Henry Grace, who claimed to have been captured by my Mi’kmaw ancestors and cruelly treated by them and other Indigenous nations. But someone wrote on the title page of this edition in the 1760s: “This Henry Grace, I have seen — And I believe him to be a worthless Dog, & that half this story is false.” I haven’t been able to confirm this statement, but I long suspected it to be the case and this was quite a fascinating and satisfying thing to find!

What are some (dis)continuities between your first book and your current project?

My first book was focused on representation, and wasn’t very concerned with centering Indigenous voices and agency. This was because the representation of North American Indigenous people in 18th-century British texts has often been dismissed as being a minor feature of the period and I was looking to prove that wasn’t the case. They played a key role in how the British understood themselves.

My current project is focused on a different archive: the vast amount of Indigenous material culture from the Americas and the South Pacific brought to Europe up to 1800. These objects themselves are evidence of Indigenous agency and are an intervention into the thought of the period. What can their entangled histories teach us about knowledge in the long 18th century, and about cultural perseverance and survival?

In regard to Indigenous/settler encounters, understandings of the other, of their own and others’ pasts, presents, futures, what makes c. 1800 a useful defining boundary (presuming it’s useful)?

I have to admit that I’m increasingly moving away from periodization when it comes to Indigenous cultural expression, but at the same time it can be useful to map connections in unexpected ways. I think that the turn of the 19th century, or perhaps a bit earlier, marks a shift to a much wider romanticizing of Indigenous cultures in British and American writing. We might call this “imperialist nostalgia,” in which the colonizer mourns the cultures it has destroyed. For most Native nations, it marks the beginning of an even wider scale dispossession, especially in America. It’s when people started to think we were disappearing in a “languid decline to annihilation,” as the British antiquarian and former colonial governor Thomas Pownall wrote in the 1790s. Which we were not, of course.

A step back to the present: you’ve written about, participated in contemporary music. What should we be checking out?

Yes, it’s true! I played drums in an instrumental band called Giant Sons, and currently play in a London-based band called Post-Skeleton. The singer is from New Jersey, funny enough. I’m not sure about our future but I’m hoping we can continue transatlantically somehow. We have released one single online, and have a few more tracks recorded.

How does Indigenous studies as a discipline relate to Indigenous peoples? What would you like to see included in academic discourse that’s presently absent?

I recently came across a Native studies book published c. 2009 in Canada, and not a single contributor was Indigenous; this kind of blew my mind. I think the discipline, and indeed academia more broadly, needs to have more Indigenous scholars, who have living connections to Indigenous communities. To my mind, Indigenous studies should amplify the needs of these communities and nations wherever possible. There can be a tendency for people to center themselves, or for others to elevate the voice of one Indigenous scholar, but this doesn’t do anything to help living communities or promote Indigenous knowledge and struggle.

What work do you see Princeton particularly able to contribute to support Indigenous peoples and studies?

I have been so impressed by the good will of colleagues and students that I have met at Princeton, who are doing so much work to address the relative absence of Indigenous people and topics at the University. The student groups Natives at Princeton and the Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition are doing excellent advocacy and outreach work, and I have a lot of hope in the future of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP). We need to build the University’s offerings of Indigenous topics, and increase faculty numbers of Indigenous scholars. I see so much potential in collaborative work too, in which we bring in Indigenous artists, elders, activists, and other non-academics, to have important conversations about learning, solidarity, and decolonization.

Are there items in Princeton’s library and museum holdings you’ve encountered that particularly relate to your research? That suggest new directions?

I’m very interested in the collection histories of some of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican materials; I don’t know much about them yet but it’s definitely a direction I want to go in. I’ve already had librarians to one of my classes, showing some of the early materials related to North American Indigenous peoples, and there are some serious treasures there. And I’d like to mention that curators and librarians at Princeton have been so helpful and supportive, and are invested in developing the collections to highlight Indigenous cultures and knowledge.

The library holds an 1825 manuscript of Mi’kmaq hieroglyphics, a written language partly introduced by Jesuit missionaries and partly based on pre-existing cultural practices. This is a remarkable and beautiful thing, and I can’t quite explain how it feels to see it.

What are you reading, writing at the moment?

I am writing a few different chapters and articles, mostly focused on Indigenous objects and what they signified to both Native and European cultures. I’m really interested in the history of collections and the movement of Indigenous objects across time and space. I’ve also written a couple of pieces on decolonization in universities, including one for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Some books I have read / am reading: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, Lynn Festa’s Fiction Without Humanity, Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, and Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (which has led to me re-reading quite a bit of Frantz Fanon!).