As a historian of Native American history I have three major conference options to present research and meet people in the field: the Western History Association, Ethnohistory, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Each of these conferences have their perks and their uses—the WHA combines all topics of American West history, Ethnohistory is the traditional home for the study of Native Americans that combines anthropology and history, and NAISA highlights the growing field of indigenous studies which includes topics outside the US. Ideally I’d go to all three but given time restrictions and money being a thing, I always have to pick. For the last few years I’ve attended NAISA because it falls at a nice spot in the calendar, right after the Spring semester ends in either May or June. In contrast Ethnohistory and the WHA have always been competing, falling 1-2 weeks after one another in October or November. In 2014 I attended the WHA (because honestly Newport Beach, California was a nicer trip than Indianapolis) and last year it was Ethnohistory (because my paper got accepted not because of the location in Las Vegas).
This year I had originally planned to skip both of them. I wasn’t presenting at either and because I was teaching a course for the first time I didn’t want to sacrifice a week out of class, so it seemed the best option was to camp out in Stillwater and silently loathe everyone singleing updates from Saint Paul or Nashville. But having gone to conferences on a semi-regular basis for the last few years there was something unsettling about suddenly not being at one. And there are always benefits to being at a conference even when you’re not presenting, namely you can see current trends in the field and it nevers hurts to allow people to put a name and face to research. Ultimately after going back and forth on the issue I settled on the WHA because it’d also allow me to do some dissertation research before the conference.
The research was a success but the more important thing is the conference was too. On Friday I ended up presenting my dissertation research in a five minute lightning talk, and received feedback on it from a number of prominent scholars in western history, including Yale University’s Ned Blackhawk, whose Violence Over the Land was a seminal work in pushing me to pursue Native history. Not only did I get feedback on the research but all four commentators provided invaluable advice on how to present it, especially for when I get to the point where I’m on the job market and giving job talks. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come along had I taken the easy route and stayed in Oklahoma.
The conference also provided the opportunity to experience some Native sites in the Twin Cities, including a visit to Franklin Avenue, the heart of Minneapolis’s Indian community and the place where the American Indian Movement got it’s start. Amazingly, during the tour our group wandered into Pow-Wow Grounds Coffeeshop and found Clyde Bellecourt, one of AIM’s founders just hanging out. Bellecourt, undoubtedly overwhelmed by all these historians suddenly appearing in a coffee shop, was also glowing to have the ability to talk to people and spread the story of the American Indian Movement, or at least part of it. While I didn’t get to spend much time with him, it was an experience to meet someone I’ve written about and to see that the stories are true, Bellecourt has boxes of AIM pamphlets at the ready in the back of his car should the need arise. Even better, Bellecourt ended up coming to the American Indian Historians lunch on the last day of the conference and not only provided a wonderful welcoming speech and prayer but graciously hung around afterwards to talk with anyone interested. So obviously I took a photo.
There were also the various panels which highlighted new and inspiring research, meeting other grad students focused on the US West and Native Americans, and some side perks like attending a Minnesota Wild/Toronto Maple Leafs game. While I’m sure Ethnohistory will be just as engaging and inspiring and I’ll be sad to miss it, the WHA was a more than worthwhile expense. And I’m not sad about that. Yeah it cost money making my credit card look less than pretty, and yeah I had to work to change some stuff to accomodate my absence from class, it was all ultimately worth it. And that’s the important thing, if you’re in grad school, at any level, regularly conferencing on a national level should be a given. While you should ideally be presenting regularly (and then turning those presentations into articles), attending a conference just to attend can also be extremely beneficial. Grad school’s tough with finances and time commitments (especially if you’re working another job), but it’s a job and it takes commitment. So if you’re a grad student on the fence about heading to a conference, or you’re thinking it’s not worth the added expense, realize you’re probably doing yourself a bigger disservice by staying home.