Q&A with James F. Brooks about “Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre”

On February 25, 2016, The Charles Redd Center for Western Studies annual Annaley Naegle Redd Lecture was given by James F. Brooks, a Professor of History & Anthropology at the University of California – Santa Barbara. He spoke on his recently published Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. Students and scholars of borderlands, indigenous, and southwest histories will be familiar with Brooks from his award-winning Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands andother important works. To accompany the video of the lecture, Professor Brooks was kind enough to also participate in a short Q&A below. Questions by Brenden W. Rensink, responses by James F. Brooks.

Read some of my own thoughts on the book at my “From the Bookshelf” series.


This project has been incubating for quite some time. Can you share with us its genesis? Is the book you ended up writing different from the one you had imagined at the start?

JFB: Virtually all of my writing to this point concentrated on conflict and accommodation across cultural boundaries. The Awat’ovi case suggested a story where I might explore the same within a cultural group – in that sense, Mesa of Sorrows (MoS) attends to long-term questions, and departs in particular ways.  As readers will see, however, it becomes a case of the social production of difference – heterodoxy in tension with orthodoxy, perhaps – that makes it in a similar vein of inquiry and thought.

The histories you tell in MoS unfold along a number of geographic, religious, cultural, and ethnic borderlands. What do you view as its most significant contributions to the field of borderlands history? How would you like to see scholars use this book?

JFB: I believe I employ the term “borderland” but once in this book, and only then to discuss the bridging position between the eastern and western Puebloan worlds that we see reflected in the settlements on Antelope Mesa.  So I’m not sure this is “borderlands history.”  It is certainly microhistory, of which I am an impassioned advocate (see Small Worlds: Method, Meaning and Narrative in Microhistory (SAR Press 2008).  Microhistory, emphasizing place, vantage, biography and narrative, seems to me our last best chance to rekindle relations with our non-academic readers, whom we’ve alienated with our historiographical and theoretical teapot tempests. It’s all and only about the stories. As the Swedish poet Malena Mörling writes:

The past has a story
as wide and as deep as the world.
Every word has a story
and every stone.    

MoS stands out in weaving together of narratives, sources, evidence from a variety of disciplines and timelines. You pull from contemporary interviews to deep archaeology and everything in between – traditional document-based historical sources, anthropological studies, oral traditions, even classical Greek literature. During a previous conversation, you termed this as “anachronic” history, “a swirl of past and present reflect, however poorly, alternatives to western linearity.” Can you explain this approach? It certainly couldn’t have been the simplest way to tell these stories, so what was the process that drew you to this kind of story telling? What do you think are the greatest benefits?

JFB: The evidentiary and narrative techniques in MoS emerged in the writing process, as I tried to find a way to capture the intimate connections between present and past that I heard in the sources.  I only learned after the fact that we have a word for this – anachronic narrative – which helps to explain how (among Hopis, but really, I think, universally) we struggle to deal with the fact that trauma has no linear logic.  It is always present no matter where one stands in the course of a life. 

After reading MoS I am questioning what I thought was a fairly good general understanding of the indigenous southwest. Whereas your previous Captives and Cousins brought order to a chaotic and complex historical landscape through the lens of kinship and slave trading/raiding, MoS seems to explode that ordered world back into chaos. Even on the Hopi mesas alone, you reveal a complex multi-ethnic world that defies easy categorization. Having gone through the process of researching and writing both books, how do you now view the region and its peoples? Do the historical worlds you explore make more sense the deeper you dig, or (like me) are you increasingly convinced of how much more there is that you don’t understand? Moving forward where are the key places (in time or geography) that you would like to see our fellow scholars dig (literally or figuratively) to bring greater clarity to the region and its history?

JFB: I’ve given up on any chance of gaining precision and clarity about history no matter where or when it unfolds; I do hope, however, that MoS will allow us to approach the past with deeper senses of irony and empathy, positions from which kindness and forgiveness are easier to access.

What methodologies that you employed would you like to see taken up by other borderlands or indigenous southwest historians?

We can’t write about the collision between Indigenous and Colonial peoples without reading and assimilating archaeology, ethnography, and oral history to our understandings.   The collaborative documentary and oral history project from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office and scholars from the University of Arizona – Moquis and Kastiilam: Hopis, Spaniards, and the Trauma of History (University of Arizona Press 2015) is a path-breaking example. So, too, is the case for the sub-field of Bioarchaeology, as evident in the work that Debra Martin and colleagues display in book like The Bioarchaeology of Violence (University Press of Florida 2012).

You published this with a trade press. Moving away from how you want your academic audience to receive it, what are the messages you hope “the public” will take away from this work? Specifically, I am thinking of contemporary resonances concerning tolerance, pluralism, historical trauma, etc.

You’ve pretty much nailed it in your question.  If readers find themselves thinking in more tolerant, pluralistic, and humble ways about our present after reading MoS, I will be grateful.

Beyond academic and general public audiences, there is one more significant audience – the Native communities who have familial or regional ties to these stories. How are you hoping this book will be received amongst those communities?

I tried to cover this in my dedication:

For those who survived.  For those who did not.  For those who bear the weight.

I am responsible for every word in the book, and their consequences.

For our readers, what are the key texts they should read in tandem with Mesa of Sorrows. Give us a short companion bibliography.

MoS features a fairly comprehensive bibliography, at least for a trade book.  The only work I wish I had included, upon reflection, is the collaborative classic from the late Bernard L. (Bunny) Fontana and Clifton Kroeber, Massacre on the Gila: An Account of the Last Major Battle between American Indians, with Reflections on the Origin of War (University of Arizona Press 1987) and its early attention to gender and violence.  This is especially so in that I would have wished to reference Alfred Kroeber’s comment therein: “Where fighting is involved, motivation becomes particularly elusive. The main thing seems to be that there should be war. . . . There is often a sense of foreboding or of the inevitability of what will happen.”  This is Awat’ovi’s story, in 37 words.

Categories: Interviews | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Q&A with James F. Brooks about “Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre”

  1. Pingback: From the Bookshelf: James F. Brooks – Mesa of Sorrows | Brenden W. Rensink

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