Indigenizing Colonization: How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Us Do Better When Looking to Colonize Other Planets

When you think of colonizing a planet, your mind may turn to a science fiction-like existence: new and cutting-edge technologies you could never have dreamed of; humans living in enclosed habitats; and harsh, unforgiving environments that must be tamed in order to survive. What you may not think of is that humans have done it before—here, on Earth.

I am a member of the Shinnecock Nation and a planetary scientist. Originally, I saw my native identity as extraneous to my scientific career. How could my indigenous knowledge ever help me when researching a completely different world? But the more I delved into my work, the more I saw there were problems that could be solved using “Two Eyed Seeing”

Two Eyed Seeing is a term originally coined by Mik’maw elder Albert Marshall and introduced to me by Dr. Roger Dube, a Mohawk Native from the Rochester Institute of Technology. The term refers to using western and indigenous scientific approaches simultaneously. The indigenous approach to science places an emphasis on observation and working in a way that is synergistic with what the natural world already offers, while western science follows the typical scientific method of posing a question and conducting an experiment. Importantly, because of the focus on synergy with the natural world, indigenous science generally has a lower impact on environmental surroundings when used responsibly.

Multi-colored red and yellow corn on a black tabletop
The multi-colored kernels of the Bear Island flint corn planted during the experiment.

The inaugural manned mission to Mars is expected in 2024 for SpaceX and in the 2030’s for NASA, and with humans reaching the Red Planet we may be headed towards colonization. The first step to approaching Mars’ colonization through a more indigenous lens is to remember that we must view the planet as a living thing and as a provider. In many North American indigenous cultures, we refer to the land that indigenous people inhabit as “Turtle Island”, a term that harkens back to a creation story1 which describes how we live on the back of a giant turtle moving through the oceans. In that sense, while you have been permitted to live on this being, you must also respect it, for it too is alive. Mars may not be as prolific a provider as Earth, but there are resources there that can be worked in tandem with rather than simply exploited. We don’t have to be a resource-hungry culture going from planet to planet using up everything that we can and moving on.

Every kilogram of resources imported from Earth costs large amounts of money, fuel, and time to reach Mars. If we brought fertilizer and soil there, both highly dense items, these would be literally worth more than their weight in gold. Thus, the respect for the resources on Mars becomes important not only from a moral standpoint, but also from economic and logistical standpoints. On Mars, water-ice is abundant beneath the surface, especially in polar regions. It can be melted for drinking, daily necessities and other purposes. It can also be transformed into rocket fuel by splitting the water molecules into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Building materials found on Mars, such as easily accessible iron from meteorites on the surface and regolith,  could be used to build habitats with 3D printing. Through an indigenous approach we can learn to utilize these resources while sustaining them for long-term growth and future exploration. Traditionally, many indigenous communities in the Americas grew their own food, amended soil naturally and organically, and were able to create a self-sufficient, near-vegetarian community. Corns, beans, and squash, known to many tribes as “the three sisters”, were grown together in a beneficial, symbiotic arrangement quite different from the monocrop, non-rotational farming that is currently popular in the food growth industry. The beans added nitrogen back to the soil to be used by the corn and squash, the corn provided a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash served as a living mulch that fought off pests with its prickly texture. These three foods together rounded out the complete nutritional needs of a human, however they were not the varieties you are used to buying in a grocery store.

Twenty-four small green pots with white labels sticking out of their tops, all are placed in black crates
Each pot had two seeds planted in it. The pots in the foreground have Miraclegro soil, the next set has MGS-1, and the last set has MGS-1C (the global mars soil simulant with clay added).

Due to colonization and the forced removal of native peoples, as well as the assimilation tactics used, most tribes no longer grow their own food and many heritage species have been lost. The switch to grocery store varieties has seriously impacted native communities, especially those in “food deserts” where the reservation residents do not have a true supermarket nearby. The increased sugars in today’s varieties, along with low food budgets forcing people to choose less healthy options has caused an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, with rates as high as 60% among the adults of some tribes. Traditional or “heritage” indigenous foods are higher in nutritional value and many were cultivated to be resistant to various specific environmental conditions. These resistances were developed over thousands of years of seed selection for desirable traits and this work can be utilized and continued in an off-planet habitat where a unique and unfamiliar environment will allow certain seeds to thrive and become the newly selected seeds.

According to a talk given at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference in 2020 by Dr. Gioia Massa of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the current focus for food growth in a Mars habitat is on crops that can be eaten fresh or, with the future addition of a heating apparatus, staple crops that can be consumed with minimal preparation and cooking. While using the three sisters as the main crops may not be viable for the early missions, as the post-preparation needs of a crop are fundamentally important to optimizing astronaut time, the variety of each of the crops considered, as well as the production methods, can be scrutinized as well.

One method that would save significant transportation cost and would put us a step closer to future terraforming would be to use a direct sow method of plant production; in other words, to use the soil available on Mars to grow the plants. The general martian soil is not hospitable to plants; it is sandy, low in nutrients, and in some areas has high levels of salts and perchlorates which are poisonous to the emerging plant life. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas which may be hospitable.

My main research focus is on the geochemistry of alteration minerals on Mars, specifically on clays. Clays were critical for the development of early life on Earth. Clay particles provide a high surface area and protective layers for microbes as well as a high level of preservation potential. For this reason, they may be the best chance of finding possible traces of former life. Clays may also be the key to the proliferation of life on the planet.

Eight small green pots with white labels sticking out of their tops. Two of the pots have small green sprouts
This photo was taken just as the last seedlings emerged from the clay amended mars soil (MGS-1C). The two in pot 4 and the one in pot 5 emerged earlier on, but the single seedlings in pot 1 and 2 can just be seen poking out of the soil by this time. All germinated seedlings survived healthily to the end of the experiment.

With the support of my PhD advisors Jack Mustard and Jim Head, I decided to test the viability of growing heritage crops in martian soils, and to determine if the soils with a large clay component would allow for viable plants to grow. The plant variety I chose was Bear Island flint corn, which was traditionally grown on islands with isolated ecosystems by the Chippewa/Ojibwa tribe and was ground into meal and flour. This variety was recently popularized within indigenous communities in the Midwest by the tribal food sovereignty activist Winona LaDuke because it is resistant to drought, high winds, and contains nearly 12% protein, more than twice the amount as other varieties.

I planted the corn in three soil types: MiracleGro Seed Starter Formula (a control for comparison), Exolith lab’s MGS-1 (a martian soil simulant representative of the general martian soil composition), and MGS-1C (an amended version of MGS-1 that contains 40% smectite clays and is representative of the soil at the Mars Perseverance planned landing site). The corn was kept in a grow chamber at ideal conditions for corn growth (65% humidity, 16 hours of light, and 22ºC), cared for daily by the wonderful folks at the Brown Plant Environmental Center, and never fed fertilizer or other additives. Other studies that have successfully grown plants in martian soils have mainly added nitrogen based fertilizer, which would be extremely expensive to bring due to its weight.

The seeds planted in the MiracleGro had an 81.25% germination rate (13/16); they germinated in only 4 days after planting. The seeds in the MGS-1 soil had a 0% germination rate (0/16); nothing was able to grow at all. Interestingly, the seeds in the MGS-1C had a 31.25% germination rate (5/16) and ranged in time to germination between 17-21 days. The published germination time for this variety of corn was 9-14 days under normal conditions, and admittedly these conditions were far better than normal. The published germination time is significantly more than that shown with the MiracleGro soil, but less than that seen from the MGS-1C seeds.

Three clear plastic cases in a grow chamber each with eight green pots inside
The potted seeds were placed in a grow chamber in the Brown Plant Environmental Center which was kept at 65% humidity and 22ºC with 16 hours of light. The trays originally had plastic lids to encourage the seedling germination, but after they began to emerge in each tray, the lid was removed as to not inhibit growth.

In martian-type soil with a clay component, the corn was able to germinate. This means that we can use the soils present on the planet rather than bringing in other resources if a landing site with sufficient clay content is chosen. The benefit of using certain heritage plants is their viability in difficult environmental conditions. Corn may not be a crop grown by the first missions, but looking past the common plant varieties seen today and considering traditional heritage crops will still allow knowledge of indigenous food practices to be utilized. By using a direct sow method, the plants that are grown in these soils will begin to produce seeds more adapted to the planet, continuing the centuries-old practice of selecting plants for hardiness. . 

Other native principles, such as using all parts of a resource, similar to the zero waste movement today, point towards a sustainable cycle where we could use the inedible parts of plants to compost and rejuvenate the soils, or perhaps even use pre-composted human waste to add fertilizer and increase rates of germination and growth. Native people speak about building for the seventh generation. Mars will eventually be colonized, so we should take steps now to ensure that it will be done in a way that we can be proud of seven generations later. I believe that by considering the people who were most affected by the colonization that occurred on this planet, we can learn the lessons we need to effectively and honorably colonize another.

You Are What You Do Not Eat: The Problematic Relationship between Fashionable Bodies and the Consumption of Food from Nineteenth-century France to Now

Content Warning: The content of this piece engages with the topic of eating disorders. 

As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one morning, I stumbled across an “inspiration” page. Among snapshots of long-limbed models posing in Parisian couture ateliers and close-up shots of clavicles protruding from power pink, feather-stitched garments, appeared images of decadent food—chocolate-covered croissants, overflowing cheese boards, and creamy pasta dishes. The page staged a clear aesthetic cross-fertilization between economic wealth, physical slenderness, and rich, “pretty-looking” food. The trickery and the dishonesty of this association lies in thinking of this fattening food as being consumed by the emaciated beauty who appears in the picture beside it. Although the women looked positively starving, the ostentatious display of food hinted at their supposed—probably contrived—bon vivant nature. Perhaps unwittingly, this entire page tapped into stereotypical representations of femininity in French culture, where changing fashion trends, cultural roles, and dietary regimes require that, while she must remain slender, the French woman never holds back.

Nuremberg and Venetian Women, Albrecht Dürer

The gazelle-like creature of the “ideal” model goes back to mid-nineteenth-century France, during which time both dresses and bodies were getting slimmer and longer. Women were becoming more active, leaving their stovetops for more enthralling pursuits. The corset’s tyranny was fading and women’s bodies were starting to be liberated from centuries of restraint and decades of containment. Paul Poiret’s designs were much more draped than they were structured, thus liberating women’s upper bodies and elongating their silhouettes. Coco Chanel made hemlines go up and waistlines go down, and clothing—rather than supporting and shaping the body—was slowly but surely reclaiming its own space. 

Meanwhile, although access to good quality food improved during the nineteenth century, the typical French diet remained meagre. In his book France Fin-de-Siecle, Eugen Weber describes the eating habits of the French as “a continuous fast” (Weber, 65). Fashion magazines and beauty manuals of the time encouraged women to not overeat: overeating was described as gastrolary — harmful to gut health — and perceived as greedy, almost immoral. In her Cabinet de Toilette, the Baroness Staffe recommends the following daily diet: a glass of milk for breakfast, an egg and a vegetable for lunch, and a light dinner that must exclude meat, liquors or wines, condiments, and spices. She even encourages eating to be done secretly, safe from the prying eyes of husbands or domestic servants. But around the dinner table, it was recommended that women continue to adopt the air and attitude of someone who both enjoys and engages in the arts of the table. 

In nineteenth-century France, economic wealth and access to food have always gone hand-in-hand. The type of performative eating on display at the dinner table was limited to the women of the bourgeoisie, those who could afford a great deal more than what they were encouraged to consume. In the nineteenth century, a slender figure could be obtained through voluntary self-inflicted hardships rather than through a painful remodelling of the body by items of clothing. As dangerous and unsafe as it was, a corset could have made a plump body look slimmer. As the corset fell out of vogue, it became harder for women to look thinner than they actually were, since food restriction required time, commitment, and consistency. 

Nowadays, fitness and Instagram models have attempted—sometimes with success—to restore the reputation of the corset’s cheap sister: the waist trainer. However, thinness achieved through food control remains a popular method. While the deformation of the body by fashion(able) objects sounds bad enough, a self-inflicted method of starvation seems even worse to me. Food restriction may cause irreversible damage to the organs and the flesh, including thyroid malfunction, severe dehydration, heart failure, and other complications. But in order to reach the highest peak of glamour, I argue that one must never make this sacrifice visible. A woman appearing to indulge in decadent eating is perceived as glamorous as long as she physically looks like she never does. 

We can observe the unfolding of this specific stratagem in modern fashion videos. The world renown fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue recently started publishing short videos of models getting (runway) ready, giving viewers a glimpse into what their daily lives look like. In a video showcasing the Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill, simply entitled “Bergdorf! Bodegas! Hot Cheetos!”, we see Hill lying on the floor of a luxurious fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York City’s most famous and costly stores. She is wearing a sumptuous baby blue gown covered in silver sequins and taffeta flowers, with a bowl of chips nestled between her breasts. “I can eat a whole bag [of Cheetos] in, like, one go,” she says after having already taken a bite out of a lobster sandwich. Suki Waterhouse, in Vogue’s “Diary of a Model” video, is seen ordering a grilled cheese and fries at a restaurant before going to a Jeremy Scott fashion shoot. In “How Model Birgit Kos Gets Runway Ready”, the twenty-four-year-old Dutch model enthusiastically asks for a plate of crepes. 

In none of these videos, however, do we ever see the models take more than one small bite of the junk food in front of them. Indeed, Vogue seems to force-feed the spectator with the distorted idea that stick-figure models eat vast quantities of food every day. The magazine also intends to trick us into thinking that these models’ staged behaviors are absolutely authentic. Could this be an attempt to make the women seem more relatable? Could it also serve the false depiction of the model-like figure as a surreal or unreal creature? A goddess whose body would not be subjected—like us—to the laws of nature? In any case, we are given an idea contrary to the familiar notion that a woman must suffer for beauty.

As a fashion scholar and a freelance model myself, I find it to be the most extraordinary insult to the legitimacy of the fashion industry to make fashion enthusiasts believe these icons are no different than the girl next door, to make it look like the woman who embodies timeless, mysterious, modern beauty standards also has fingers covered in Cheeto dust. This is not to say I wish for Vogue to showcase proudly starving models, nor do I assume that models who claim to eat nothing other than kale and lettuce are lying. I think that fashion should avoid going out of its way to convince us that traditional beauty standards can be achieved through unhealthiness and excess. I believe this process actually takes away from the enunciative role of fashion as an elaborate creative system, both capable of producing beauty and rendering us sensible to it. Instead, it convinces us all that fashion beauty standards are attainable, even and especially when one engages in excess, and reminds us that a true mark of effortless elegance—in good old French tradition—is to seemingly engage in excess without ever truly doing so. 

The Hebrew Bible from Below and Beyond

The Hebrew Bible serves as the foundation of several modern religions, from Judaism to Lutheranism. The study of this ancient text is a complex and multi-layered discipline, embracing methodologies from a variety of fields and drawing influence from as many places as it reaches. Bias in biblical scholarship is widespread, affecting both scholarly training and commonly used sources, meaning that certain viewpoints are often privileged over others. In particular, scholars of the Hebrew Bible often overlook the role of Egyptian historical actors and non-elites of the ancient world. One way to ensure the inclusion of such traditionally marginalized voices  is to employ socio-anthropological and historical-critical methods in biblical scholarship.

A green and blue map of the regions of ancient Israel with each location labeled in French.
The regions of ancient Israel (labels in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Scholarship of the Hebrew Bible focuses primarily on analysis of the Bible as a composite text,  a collection of originally independent stories combined into one document long after the historical period each tale claims to describe. One theory used to describe the text’s composition  is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis posits the existence of four independent, original sources known as the Jahwist (Yahwist), Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly texts, which were later combined within the Pentateuch to form the Hebrew Bible as it is known today. Scholars argue that each of these original source texts contains a specific agenda and a particular perspective. In order to determine the cultural context which informs each individual text, scholars must choose what kinds of comparative evidence to foreground in their research, introducing another layer of bias into the study of the Hebrew Bible.

Many biblical scholars approach their research from the standpoint of either archaeological or textual evidence. The refusal to integrate the two approaches often means that scholars lack a complete picture of a particular text’s history, which might be achieved by using all the available evidence. Due to the standard path laid out for a biblical scholar-in-training, the most common sources for comparative evidence, both textual and archaeological, include Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and eastern Syria), and the Levant (modern Israel, western Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey). This choice of geography, made by generations of scholars, is predictable. Textual comparisons between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example, are numerous. Yet the refusal to integrate archaeology and textual criticism into biblical scholarship, as well as the continued focus on comparisons with the Ancient Near East, has meant that the Bible’s connection to other ancient cultures remains under-scrutinized.

The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel
The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel

While textual comparisons with Mesopotamian materials are useful, it is important to recognize the potential biases of Mesopotamian authors. These writers likely represent elite scribal and political classes, with the requisite wealth and status to be exposed to language learning in an advanced professional position. But what about the non-elites? Do their lifestyles reflect the influence of the conquerors of their land coming from far-off Mesopotamia? To untangle this complexity, we must incorporate comparative materials from other cultures bordering the Levant and Mesopotamia to elucidate the lives and beliefs of the non-elites within ancient Israelite society. If the texts reflect upper-class biases, how can we discern elements of the lifestyles of non-elites, particularly those that are influenced by a foreign entity?

Foreign powers in the ancient world tended to display tactics of political imperialism, economic imperialism, and cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism can be used as a lens by the historian to examine the impact of a foreign culture upon all levels of society. In modern terms, cultural imperialism is most commonly used to describe the influential media of world powers, such as the United States, infiltrating daily lives and influencing cultures across the globe. For instance, the term was used recently by the president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in regard to Netflix. The term can, however, be used to discuss the ancient world, and provides an important framework for examining how foreign powers outside of Mesopotamia exerted great influence over the Levant during the biblical period.

My work on multiple archaeological excavations of Iron Age Israelite sites (c. 1000-586 BCE), primarily domestic areas far from ancient cities, suggests the value of new perspectives. Early on, I was struck by the absence of material culture in these sites related to Mesopotamia, in comparison with fairly regular finds of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, objects. While Mesopotamia is cast as the enemy in the literature of the Israelite period (c. 1000-586 BCE), the Levant was under Egyptian control during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200 BCE) and is simply closer to Egypt than to Mesopotamia. Why, then, do we continue to rely almost solely on Mesopotamian materials in comparative work when the archaeological evidence frankly demands a focus on Egypt? The reality is that, by the time the Hebrew Bible was being composed, Egyptian rulers had lost much of its influence in the region and was not a political threat in the minds of the biblical authors, except for a brief period in the late seventh century BCE.  Remnants of Egypt’s powerful distant past remain in the minds of the authors, represented in stories such as the Joseph novella.  Unfortunately, arguments about Egyptian influence on the Hebrew Bible tend to lead to meaningless debates, resulting in the few new perspectives regarding the impact cultural contact with Egypt and other neighboring societies on the people of the Levant and on the content of the Hebrew Bible.

The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)
The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)

I argue that Israelite cultural identity is more closely related to that of Egypt, especially at the lower echelons of society. In fact, Egyptian-style scarabs, scaraboids, and Bes figurines are central to local Israelite domestic religion and culture. This is in stark contrast to the portrait of Israelite culture painted within the Hebrew Bible, which displays a gradual shift to centralized worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, particularly under the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This shift is, in my opinion, solely textual, based on the specific religious and political agendas of the scribes who authored these biblical texts. As members of the Jerusalem elite, the scribal school saw as its enemies the Neo-Assyrians and, later, the Neo-Babylonians of Mesopotamia, who threatened to overtake their position in Israelite culture. At the same time, however, Israelite domestic life amongst the populace continued to function as it had for several centuries. This continuation represented not the Mesopotamian culture that threatened the elites but rather a local identity that reflected many aspects of neighboring Egyptian culture, lingering after years of Egyptian rule.

The archaeological record displays Egyptian cultural imperialism reaching down even to the lower rungs of society. The prevalence of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, material culture, like the examples mentioned above, points to influences from the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors which is not echoed by political powers in Mesopotamia. While biblical scholars will likely continue to use Mesopotamian material as a key point of comparison, we must be aware that influences from other powers such as the Egyptians and the Hittites may not always be reflected in the textual record.

I identify as a historian and scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, though many in my field would avoid such a title. Employing both literary and historical methodologies provides a framework for incorporating additional evidence into the study of this ancient text. I study the complex creation of the Hebrew Bible in conjunction with a variety of textual and archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct the historical, social, and political realities of the period. This extra-biblical evidence is extensive, including texts written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, multiple stages of the Egyptian language, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and other languages that range in time period from about 3,000 BCE to the 1st millennium CE. By incorporating this additional material, I seek to understand groups that are often overlooked in traditional analyses but have important perspectives to offer on the historical context of the Hebrew Bible’s creation. Rather than continuing to search for comparative evidence in the literature of Mesopotamian elites, we must recognize the global character of the Ancient Near East as well as its deep local social networks of actors. Drawing on historical methods like cultural imperialism and focusing on traditionally overlooked cultures encourages scholars to think about the Hebrew Bible from below and beyond.

Fake News and the Agency of Women in Viking Age Iceland

[A note on pronunciation of Old Norse: ‘ð’ and ‘Þ’ are both pronounced ‘th’; ’æ’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’; ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘y’.]

We live in an era of ‘fake news.’  Fraudulent Facebook accounts and alternative facts have shined a new spotlight on the importance of equal and uncompromised access to the truth. Are biased information sources purely a modern symptom of today’s politics and the unregulated wilderness of the internet? The women of Viking Age Iceland might beg to differ. At times, disinformation and false reporting were utilized to devastating effect in the sagas recorded by medieval Icelandic authors. Even within this temporally distant and culturally distinct context, we can examine how fake news was wielded against medieval women in explicit efforts to undermine their agency.

In 1000 CE, on a small, glaciated island almost a thousand miles from mainland Europe, news meant oral testimony carried on horseback from homestead to homestead, or ferried across storm-tossed oceans on the tongues of travelers. In a world of slow, oral news, far removed from the infrastructure of modern media, we can revisit basic questions about the dissemination of information we moderns might take for granted. What was newsworthy? Where did news come from? Who was responsible for its circulation? How was information verified, and who was able to access it? All of these questions are difficult for scholars of the Viking Age to answer; written sources of the period are few, and those that do exist don’t privilege oral news. In other words, no letters, newspapers, or notice-boards tell us how information was presented in 11th-century Iceland. 

With limited contemporaneous textual records of Viking Age Iceland, we have to turn to alternative sources to piece together answers to these questions. What we know about the lives of Viking migrants and Icelandic settlers around the turn of the first millennium comes primarily from archaeological sources, genealogical records, and the later Icelandic sagas. The sagas were written in Old Norse during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, two or three hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, by Christian clerics, or other church-taught men, in large vellum manuscripts. The sagas relay entertaining legends of Icelandic settlement and details of fiery family feuds, but they are a problematic source for a historian of the Viking Age, given the centuries-wide gap between their creation and the time being described. Whether or not the sagas can be treated as settlement-era sources, they can tell us what 12th-century Icelanders believed or hoped life was like for their ancestors, and they can reveal the attitudes and morals of their later (elite, male) authors.

As is the case for many medieval written sources in Western Europe and beyond, the sagas and other Icelandic texts of the period privilege the actions and perspectives of men. Icelandic laws, first written down in the 13th century but likely codified in an oral tradition much earlier, suggest that women had little de jure authority, though they did have the right to divorce their husbands (for, among other reasons, wearing low-cut shirts). 

Despite the fact that women had fewer rights and limited access to wealth or education, the Icelandic sagas are notable among other medieval sources for their rich depictions of outspoken and intimidating woman characters wielding de facto power within the family and sometimes in society at large. The 13th-century Laxdælasaga, or Saga of the Laxdalers, is so sensitive to the experiences of women that some scholars even suggest it may have been written by a woman. 

Whether or not it comes from a woman’s hand, Laxdælasaga revolves around a host of complex women characters. Many episodes detail the frustrations of navigating social, legal, and physical structures created by and for men. One of these obstacles is the process of obtaining information, a relatively tedious project for everyone in the medieval world, but particularly so for women living on isolated farms, where news traveled only as fast as the fastest Icelandic pony could tölt

Generally confined to the home and discouraged from travelling on their own, women probably relied on male visitors to relay news from the outside world. Middlemen controlling women’s access to information results in notable and familiar problems for which we now have modern buzzwords, such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, ‘fake news.’ 

Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is one of the protagonists of Laxdælasaga, a beautiful and intelligent farmer’s daughter who nonetheless has difficulty finding and keeping a good man. Her first marriage to Þorvaldr is brief, unhappy, and ends in divorce. Her second husband, Þord, drowns at sea. Finally, Guðrún meets the dashing saga hero Kjartan Óláfsson. They flirt in secret, defying her father’s wishes, and fall passionately in love. 

Before they marry, Kjartan tells Guðrún he wants to seek his fortune in Norway. Angry, Guðrún demands that Kjartan take her with him on the voyage.

“Guðrún said: ‘I want to go with you this summer. Then I could forgive you for arranging this trip so suddenly. After all, it isn’t Iceland I’m in love with.’ ‘It can’t happen,’ said Kjartan. ‘Your brothers are young and your father is old, and there won’t be anyone to take care of them if you leave home. So, wait for me for three winters.’” [Translated from Old Norse by the author]

Kjartan’s decision to sail to Norway alone, despite Guðrún’s request, is a catalyst for the tragic conflict that occurs later in the saga. Like all good romantic dramas, Laxdælasaga involves a love triangle. Guðrún loves Kjartan, Kjartan loves Guðrún…and so does Kjartan’s closest childhood friend, Bolli. Because of their friendship, Bolli accompanies Kjartan on the journey to Norway, but he doesn’t forget about the woman left behind.

Though Kjartan doesn’t explicitly point to Guðrún’s gender as the reason for refusing to bring her along, his dismissal of her desire to travel highlights a clear division between gendered spaces in medieval Iceland. Women tend to the home while men are left to farm, to fish, to study, to vote, and to travel abroad. Kjartan reminds Guðrún of her responsibility towards her younger brothers and elderly father, who will be left unprotected if she were to pursue her desire to travel. 

Emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as grounds for impeding her movement appears in many modern studies of the migration of women. For example, women who emigrated from the country of Georgia in the 1990s were vilified for leaving their families behind. Referring to the “feminization of migration” in Georgia, social scientists Hofmann and Buckley observe, “most respondents described it as unnatural, challenging the male role as breadwinner and female responsibilities for childcare and eldercare.” The clear delineation of gendered occupations is deployed as a barrier to women’s movement outside the home as much today as it was a thousand years ago. Confinement to the home means prohibition from male spheres of political, social, and economic exchange—more often than not, the places where news happens. 

The knowledge and experience gained from travel abroad are traditionally available only to men. In Laxdælasaga, the first thing Kjartan and his followers do when they arrive in Norway is ask other men for tíðindi, or tidings. They catch up on the gossip, such as it was in early medieval northern Norway, undoubtedly including plenty of rumors about who won what battles, the best English beaches for landing a raiding party, and who the king’s sister currently favors. Disinformation and fake news, as we’ll see later on, can be a powerful tool of political and psychological maneuvering in a world without third-party fact-checking services. As the saga continues, Kjartan cozies up to the Norwegian king and starts to make a name for himself as a competent warrior and all-around Icelandic heartthrob. 

Bolli returns early to Iceland, leaving Kjartan at the Norwegian court. He heads straight for Guðrún, armed with all the instruments of modern psychological warfare. Bolli deliberately turns Guðrún against her former lover, describing how Kjartan is enjoying his newfound fame in Norway. He insinuates that Kjartan’s heroic qualities have caught the eye of the king’s marriageable sister, and implies that Kjartan has forgotten Guðrún and their old attachment. 

Guðrún at first refuses to believe him, but Bolli enlists the help of her father and brothers, who together spin stories about Kjartan’s reprehensible behavior and undermine Guðrún’s convictions, until she begins to believe that Kjartan is not the man she thought he was; a classic example of what would today be termed gaslighting. Without any way of communicating with Kjartan, and unable to travel to Norway to ascertain the truth for herself, Guðrún is coerced into marrying Bolli instead.

When Kjartan returns to Iceland a few months later, he is distraught to discover that Guðrún is married to his best friend. News of his arrival and the truth about his stay in Norway reaches Guðrún, revealing Bolli’s deceit. She confronts her husband about his campaign of misinformation, but he demures: “Bolli declared that he had said what he knew to be the truth.” You can almost imagine the deafening shrug. Here, news is weaponized against a woman by a man armed with the facts and determined to twist ‘the truth’ to his own ends. 

Kjartan, dead on the lap of Bolli. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Resentment rages between the three characters, even as Kjartan moves on and marries another woman. After a series of escalating offenses occurs over several years, Bolli, egged on by his brothers, finally takes up a sword against his friend. Kjartan, refusing to fight, casts away his shield and allows himself to be fatally stabbed. Bolli takes the dying Kjartan in his arms and pours out his remorse at being driven to such a terrible act. Soon after, Kjartan’s sons avenge their father by killing Bolli. 

The tragic conclusion hints at an unexpected but relatively lucid Viking Age moral. A great deal of grief originates from Bolli’s decision to modify facts, and from Guðrún’s isolation from the masculine realms of movement and information exchange. If Guðrún had accompanied Kjartan on his journey as she requested, if she had been supplied with all available information or been able to verify the news she received some other way, the saga’s tragic conclusion might have been avoided. Based on the arc of this episode, it would seem the author of Laxdælasaga regards the obstruction of a woman’s movement and access to information as inappropriate and potentially perilous. Manipulation of facts and deliberate misinformation leads to two deaths and an unhappy ending for everyone involved. 

Other brief but telling episodes in medieval Icelandic literature hint at a tacit approval of the movement of women. We see Viking Age heroines throughout the western diaspora (Iceland and the British Isles) commissioning their own ships, setting out on long journeys, and striving to form their own networks of information exchange through kin and marital ties. It may be that these women are simply literary figures playing out imagined fantasies that would never have been possible for real women of the time; or, perhaps these examples reveal some awareness of the importance of the agency of women. 

In this modern era of fake news and alternative facts, we might do well to remember some of the simpler lessons of Icelandic history. Honesty, as a medieval Icelander would probably tell you, is the best policy. Obscuring the truth leads only to blood feud and bitter regret.

Karia, Then and Now

The Cows of Alabanda

For historians, it is easy to view the past as a hermetically sealed world, like a petri dish that we can subject to tests and analyses without fear of contamination. However, this failure to admit that we are implicated in the very thing we are trying to study can allow ideas and practices to fester, unnoticed until some jolt forces us to confront them. Too often, however, this perpetuates problematic ideologies and ignores the fact that many of these historic sites have a modern presence — with modern people living modern lives — too. It wasn’t until I had the chance to travel to the places I had been studying that I received such a jolt that led me to question my role within my field, and my field’s role in the world.

Well, how did I get here?

On a hot afternoon in June of 2017, I found myself wandering over the remains of Alabanda, and around the small cluster of houses of the modern village of Doğanyurt that perch atop them. Alabanda was an ancient city in the Southwest corner of what is now Turkey, and through the centuries was inhabited by native peoples, Greeks and Romans before being abandoned. 

When returning from my research in the field, I found some buildings, a tomb, a theatre, the course of a wall running up over the hillside; the blare of the call to prayer. For someone who studies the ancient Aegean World, it was an idyllic end to the day.  

Image of the ruins of a Roman Theater in Alabanda. Photo taken from above with rocks and dried shrubs in the foreground. Semicircular stone structure with trees in the background in the middle of the image.
Alabanda. View looking down at modern village over the ruins of a Roman Theatre (Photo by author)

When I headed back to my rental car, I found a local farmer was watering a small herd of cows nearby. Summoning up all the Turkish I had learned over the past year, I greeted him with a simple “Merhaba!” (Hello).

He seemed nonplussed that I should know even that much Turkish, but we managed to strike up a very simple conversation. I asked him what he thought of the ruins, and the fact that he lived on top of the ruins of a 2000 year old city. 

“Not much,” was his philosophical reply. He explained that he and his father had been employed to help excavate the city whenever the archaeologists came by, but beyond that, he did not profess any particular attachment to the heaps of stone and brick.

“And you,” he rejoined, “what brings you here?”

I struggled to formulate an answer. To be sure, in Turkish, I only had the vocabulary of an 8 year old, but as I stood there face to face with this man and his cows, it wasn’t my vocabulary that made it hard to formulate my response. What indeed was I, an American student from Suburban Philadelphia doing wandering around this out-of-the way village in southwest Turkey? 

Reflecting on this experience has opened a whole host of other questions about my position in my field and in the world, as well as the responsibilities someone who studies people long dead has to the living. 

Getting into Classics

Here at Brown, I am in the Ancient History Program, which is co-sponsored by the Classics and History departments. I identify more with the Classics department because that is the world I have lived in, well, half my life I suppose. I had the fortune of being able to take Latin classes starting in 7th grade, and even Ancient Greek in 9th. I stayed in Classics because I had good teachers and liked learning the languages. It wasn’t till the end of college that I really became interested in studying history, rather than literature. 

More and more, I became interested in studying the native inhabitants of what is now modern Turkey. Now these peoples have long been known to Classicists but only indirectly: here is no surviving literary tradition in their own languages so much of what we think we know about them comes from Greek and Roman sources. Unfortunately, the one-sided and often prejudiced views of the Greeks and Romans seeped into later views of the natives (as Edward Said documents, Orientalism has a long pedigree). 

Map of Ancient Anatolia, depicted with land in shades of ivory with ocean in brown.
Map of Ancient Anatolia © Finley, M. I. (1977). Atlas of classical archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The upshot is that we don’t actually know much about these peoples. With my research in the Ancient History Program here at Brown, however, I am trying to rectify that situation by looking at other kinds of evidence, such as material culture and the small amount of inscriptions written on durable materials that has survived. But in order to do this, I have had to step beyond the bounds of what most consider the traditional turf of Classics.  

Classics is usually defined as the study of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, their history, culture, literature, etc. For centuries, it has been a cornerstone of elite, liberal education in the West. As such, it has remained a generally conservative field, slow to adopt innovations in theory and practice. Moreover, it has a lot of colonial, racist, and sexist baggage: the Spanish conquistadors saw themselves as new Romans, bringing civilization to the New World; the Nazis idealized the ancient Spartans as models for the Ubermensch; and the Alt-right is using Stoic philosophy to “prove” that women are irrational and emotionally unstable.

Scary stuff, and not something that makes one proud of one’s field. But as one who loves my field nevertheless, and wants to help it change for the better, I see setting a new research agenda as one small way  to tackle this baggage. At least, this is what I thought as I headed to the coast of Turkey in 2017.

Colonization of the past 

On the one hand, I felt I had to attempt to slough off my field’s colonialist baggage by focusing on other ancient Mediterranean cultures besides the Greeks or Romans. Post-colonial theory has made its way into Classics, and with it the realization that — surprise, surprise! — the Greeks and Romans may not be the best sources of information about all the peoples they traded with, fought, and conquered. So I hope that in my research, I am helping to de-center the Greeks and Romans.

But on the other hand, while trying to escape the colonialist perspective of our sources, am I just perpetuating the colonialist practices of western academia? One of my favorite quotes is L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But just like any country, the past can and has been colonized. In this case, I am talking about the process by which American and European scholars claimed Greco-Roman history as their own, thus denying it to the modern inhabitants of places like Greece and Turkey. So, when I went to Turkey just to look at its ancient monuments, and asked people if they cared much about them, was I not just perpetuating this trend? 

Fringes of Classics 

Even apart from these questions, my choice to study the ancient inhabitants of Turkey has consequences for my possible career in Classics. Although  the field is trying to evolve, I still feel very much like this research lies on the fringe. Even to my own colleagues I often have to explain a lot (like, why DID I take a class in Hittite, a language even older and deader than Latin?) And yea, it makes me nervous about the job market; what school needs someone to teach their students about the Lydians, Karians or Lykians —  names no one has heard of? It may be hip to say you’re studying “ancient subalterns,” but can you make a career out of that in a field that in many ways is still focused on a canonical set of texts?

Is this a pigeon? meme, with a man in glasses gesturing toward a stone structure with Greek letters and the caption reading "Is this classics?"
Well, is it? (Meme modified by author)

Now I admit, researching on the fringe has pushed me to make connections with other departments; I’ve taken classes in Archaeology and Assyriology and the connections I’ve made with people in those departments have meant the world to me and my research. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I came to Brown was the promise of low disciplinary walls — and in this I have not been disappointed. I do believe there is much to be gained in questioning disciplinary boundaries. 

So, to end this the way I end all my papers: I don’t have any clear-cut answers. 

As with any career, being an academic requires a balancing act between the practical and aspirational. What I can say is that it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of being a grad student, focusing only on what you are doing and not thinking about why you are doing it and who it might affect. 

Karia, Then and Now
Karia, then and now.Left, a carved stone from the temple to Zeus at Alabanda; right, a shop in the resort town of Bodrum. The axe was a symbol associated with Zeus in ancient Karia. (Photos by author).

At Alabanda, and everywhere else I visited in Turkey, I could not escape this question of who; for everywhere around me, people were making their living on its ruins, through tourism connected to it, and under biases baked into it. The question of who owns that past and who gets to shape it is far from academic.