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Reflections of a Fulbright Scholar

By Travis Franks, Graduate Teaching Associate at Arizona State University

I’m very thankful to have been asked to contribute to this new endeavor, ANZASA Online. Initially, I set out to write a blog post about the paper I delivered at the ANZASA biennial conference in 2017. There, on a rainy day in North Sydney, I presented a comparative piece looking at monuments and public memorial in my home state of Texas and in Texas, Queensland, based on ethnographic fieldwork I’d been doing while on a Fulbright fellowship. I remember being happy with the presentation, but, to be honest, the thing I most remember is the relief I felt when I improvised a joke about the relationality between settler nationalisms in Texas and Queensland and the joke landed. “It’s mateship, y’all,” I said and, mercifully, people laughed. Admittedly, it’s not great material, but I’ve found the expectations for quality stand-up routines to be fairly low at academic conferences.

I wanted to write about how it felt to present on the same panel as (and follow a fantastic presentation by) Clare Corbould. And I wanted to explain what it meant to have received an email from Paul Giles in which he apologized for not being able to catch up at the conference but wanted me to know that he enjoyed my work. That’s the same Paul Giles, of course, whose book Antipodean Australia I’d just discussed in my dissertation prospectus as one of the models for how I’d like to put together my own book eventually.

I didn’t end up writing that blog post, though.

What I’ve written here has turned out, I think, to be a love letter of sorts to many of the people who got me to that ANZASA conference last year. I want to tell you about important people in my life and, indirectly, get at what it has felt like and meant to do American studies.

I’m a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, studying comparative multi-ethnic literatures of the US and Australia through settler colonial and Indigenous studies paradigms. In truth, I’m a cultural studies scholar interloping in a literature program, partly because I’m mentored by Lee Bebout who trained in American Studies at Purdue, but also because, even as an undergraduate, I’ve been interested in texts in the broadest sense—objects that possess literariness and are storytellers but are not by strictest definition Literature. I had an aha! moment as an undergrad in Gene Young’s  survey of American literature class in 2007, when he included the folk tradition in the curriculum. He brought his guitar to class and played for us “Saint James Infirmary Blues” and “The Streets of Laredo.” He taught Bob Dylan lyrics alongside Robert Frost and ee cummings—not such a radical idea these days, but it was enough at the time to make me think to myself, “Hell. I could do this.”

I’ve been fortunate to have continuously studied under literary scholars who encouraged me to pursue less traditional literary scholarship. For the first class I took in Indigenous literature, Drew Lopenzina encouraged me to write about my family history rather than the novels we read in class. Like a lot of Anglo folks in Texas, I grew up with a Cherokee Grandmother narrative but knew nothing about the actual person or Cherokee culture. I worked through digital and physical archives looking for information about the woman I came to learn had been called “Indian” Jane West. I found very little in the way of fact, but like a lot of stories in Texas, the scarcity of facts hadn’t gotten in the way of a good story. It turns out that “Indian” Jane is somewhat famous, at least in the sense that, because she was married to one of the earliest land title grantees to settle Anglo Texas, she embodies two fantasies of settler belonging: the distant Indigenous relative and the pioneering ancestor.

For instance, a Texas lawyer running for the office of 151st District Court Judge included on his campaign website a document meant to ingratiate him to voters based on his “deep roots” as a seventh-generation Texan. Among the “heroes” in his lineage, the candidate lists “James Hampton West and Jane Ann Walker aka Indian Jane West.” There were many other such claims on databases like ancestry.com and the records kept by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The entire story is, of course, too long to relate here, but suffice it to say that, as far as I can tell, most of the evidence about Jane’s indigeneity appears to stem from a handwritten census from the 1870s in which the occupation listed for the then-elderly Jane West might, if you squint just right and maybe hope hard enough, might read “Indian.” You might also look at it and see the word “Infirm.”

What I remember most about this project are the talks I had, most of them by phone, with several women in my family. I talked to my mom and Aunt Lori in person, but I called my Aunt Connie and my Great-Aunts Lola and Bobbie, the latter of whom I’ve never met in person. Those last three are a good deal older than my mom and her sister and, sadly, Connie is gone now. I remember being on the phone with her and hearing her laugh before she asked, “Wouldn’t it have been something if any of us had thought to do this while the old ones were still around?” It would have, but I’m grateful that my academic interests led to my asking her while I could.

That term paper for Drew submitted, he then asked me to serve as his research assistant for a project he had been meaning to do on the state prison’s cemetery, which was just a few blocks from campus. There, in the center of the grounds, is a gravesite unlike any of the others in the cemetery. It marks the one-time burial site of Kiowa chief Satanta, who died while imprisoned in 1878. As a result of our collaboration, Drew and I made our way north to Lawton, Oklahoma, and Fort Sill to meet with Betty Washburn, one of Satanta’s descendants and the person most dedicated to recovering his legacy from multiple forms of colonial suppression. That work, along with the earlier term paper on my family, evolved into my master’s thesis, which was essentially a cultural studies project on representations of Kiowa and Comanche peoples in Texas’s literary tradition.

A few years later, already a couple of semesters into Ph.D. coursework at ASU, a faculty member who knew that I was working with settler colonial theory asked if I’d be interested in meeting Patrick Wolfe, the Australian anthropologist who essentially formalized settler colonial studies as a distinct sub-discipline (a fact he was never all that comfortable acknowledging, it turns out). Pat was visiting campus to give a talk at the request of the American Indian Studies program and, somehow, I had been unaware. Thankfully, I was able to meet with him and, as luck would have it, the faculty member meant to join us (and, I assume, act as a buffer between Pat and I, this ardent fan-boy graduate student) had to cancel at the last minute.

I’ve told the story of our meeting in a recorded talk you can access here (start at 22:45), but, in short, our half-hour chat over coffee turned into a semi-regular correspondence and, I like to think, a friendship. Regardless, his letter of recommendation was instrumental in my receiving the Fulbright to study in Australia, and the importance of his work, coupled with his untimely passing, resulted in my becoming friends with scholars in Australia and the US who knew him better than I had the chance to. As it turned out, Pat was already gone by the time I finally arrived in Brisbane in late February of 2017. But as a token of my appreciation for his kindness and dedication to social justice, I had a small tattoo done on the back of my arm that quotes the closing he used on every one of his emails. It simply reads “Go Well.”

As a first generation college graduate and, now, a doctoral candidate, I’ve gotten accustomed to my family and friends asking what it is, exactly, that I do. It isn’t always easy to explain. A few years back, having just finished reading through Gerald Vizenor’s Manifest Manners (and feeling perhaps a bit too proud of that accomplishment), I insisted to a family member that there was really no such thing as an Indian per se. The response I got back, without the least bit of irony was this: “Trav, there’s always been cowboys and Indians on TV.”  If it’s sometime difficult to explain how I do American studies, that statement reminds me precisely why I do American studies.

A last thought. For all the times that reading and writing draw me into necessarily isolated spaces, I’m also reminded of the ways in which this work brings people into my life and, often, brings closer those who have long been in it. That’s true of the scholars I met through organisations like ANZASA and NIRAKN, including Andonis Piperoglou, who, like me, presented at both organizations’ conferences that year. By the time we reconnected in Sydney for ANZASA, we were already mates. It’s also particularly true of the team at AustLit, who provided me with an internship in digital humanities during my Fulbright trip. AustLit’s director Kerry Kilner and UQ’s David Carter helped me to develop an online exhibition on Australia’s Contemporary Settler Literatures, but more than that, they helped me grow as a thinker, researcher and writer.

As I look back over this post, however, I see my mother in so many of these stories. She rode with me to the State Library in Austin to look for genealogical records on the Wests. On her own, she reached out to contributors on ancestry.com and exchanged information, and once, while on a business trip, she went out of her way to visit the West family cemetery in Atascosa County. She even flew to Brisbane to visit during my Fulbright year, at a point when I absolutely could not have been more homesick. She’s the one who taught me to love stories, so it seems only right that this one should ultimately be for her. Every word, and all of my love.


Image Notes: Texas, Queensland. Courtesy of Goondiwindi Regional Council: https://www.grc.qld.gov.au/texas

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