A Traditional Chief of the 21st Century

Curator's Note

Listen: this is the sound of indigenous leadership in the 21st century. Lynn Malerba is the first female chief of the Mohegan Tribe in almost 300 years. She has spent much of her life in the land around Mohegan Hill--the historical center of the tribe, and home to the Mohegan Church. Surrounded by the state of Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe is a sovereign, federally recognized Indian Nation with its own constitution and government. While its best-known enterprise may be the Mohegan Sun casino, the tribe also owns and operates a number of other ventures benefitting both the tribe and the community at large.

I launched my radio show, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” in February 2007. I wanted to highlight this region, where I now reside, and its indigenous people. I especially wanted to discuss their ongoing political resistance to settler colonialism, something they share with indigenous people worldwide (hence, the phrase “and Beyond”). I was able to claim independent media as a site for engaging critically with issues of land desecration, treaty rights, political status questions and cultural revitalization.

This particular segment speaks to the importance of lineage and kinship, survival and the maintenance of tribal traditions. Selected by the Mohegan Council of Elders, Chief Malerba was inducted at a ceremony at during the Tribe's homecoming weekend on August 15, 2010. In the interview, she explains how her mother and other female leaders in the tribe set an example for her leadership. Chief Malerba is also a great-granddaughter of a sachem, which made me reflect on what it means to come from an unbroken chain of connection to one’s people, long before any casino, and still have to face the central myth of settler colonialism, that of the “vanishing Indian.”

Ojibwe historian Jean O'Brien has successfully unpacked that myth in Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Parsing hundreds of 19th century New England local histories, O’Brien shows how white settlers effectively installed themselves as the "first" Americans, while [often repeatedly, over decades] eulogizing Indians who were allegedly the "last" of their tribes. Thus, white Americans asserted their own modernity, while denying it to indigenous people.

This podcast speaks, boldly and unapologetically, about how New England’s Native people have evolved with changing times, showing adaptation and innovation. The full interview, and others in the series, can be found here.


As you know, I'm a devoted fan of your podcast, assigning episodes regularly in my classes. When I started thinking about proposing a theme week for IMR, I was thinking about "Indigenous Politics from Native New England and Beyond" and also "Red Man Laughing" (Ojibwe comedian Ryan McMahon's podcast, out of Canada). I had finished a podcasting workshop last summer at the U of Denver, and I wanted to get some people to help me think critically about the medium and the craft as well as the content. So much scholarship on (and consumption of) Native cultural production is still heavily rooted in the visual: documentary films, visual and material arts. Charles Hirschkind's notion of an "ethical soundscape" (which I invoked in my response to Lindy Hensley's post, on Monday) still really resonates with me. In the United States and Canada, indigenous sound is mostly silenced in our "ethical soundscapes"--unless you make a point of listening for it, as Jon Hill explained in his great piece (Thursday); or you live in or visit a community where you're exposed to the kind of songs that Ann Spinney described (Wednesday's post). I now think of inaudibility as a form of acoustic colonialism. Like you, I've also been paying a lot of attention to the news from Gaza as of late; and when I watch live footage from that place, I am horrified by the constant buzz of drones. Those drones apparently stay in the air 24/7--what a terrifying, totalizing way to layer acoustic domination over all the other forms of colonial policing, territorialization, and destruction. When a listener steps into a powwow arena, or a Native concert venue, when she dons headphones or cranks up the speakers to hear your podcasts or Skookum Sound System on soundcloud, she experiences a little reversal of that acoustic colonialism. And (thinking here of Beth Dillon's totally winning piece, from Tuesday), maybe acoustic space allows for a little more suppleness in generating new counterpublics: maybe it's all remix and mashup.

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