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COLA's Life & Letters features Q&A with History graduate student Cameron Strang

Posted: May 6, 2013
Cameron Strang. Photo courtesy of Renata Keller.

Cameron Strang. Photo courtesy of Renata Keller.

Published by Molly Wahlberg, Life & Letters, May 6, 2013.

Cameron Strang, a doctoral student in the Department of History, has been generating a great deal of interest among fellow historians with his research on skull collecting and scalping in the early American borderlands.

He argues that science of the nascent United States was not exclusively from institutions in the Northeast, but that it incorporated local knowledge first developed in the southeast borderlands – Florida, Louisiana and the Caribbean. His research shows how a mix of European, African and Native American cultures shaped both science and territorial expansion in the United States.

We caught up with Strang to learn more about his research experience in the College of Liberal Arts. For more about his work, visit the Department of History’s website.

Please briefly describe your research on craniometry.

I study craniometry (skull measuring) and phrenology in the context of interracial violence in Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835-42).  There has been a lot of good scholarship on skull collecting and craniometry in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the ways in which European and Euro-American medical men used the crania of non-whites to promote and legitimize their own supposed superiority. U.S. army surgeons and other whites fighting in Florida collected Seminoles skulls through acts of violence against living and dead Florida natives and used them, ironically, to define the Seminoles as a violent people.

But what I think is most interesting about my work is that it shows how white men were not the only people who collected human remains and used them to generate new knowledge and ethnic identities. The Seminoles performed acts of postmortem violence so that they, and their ancestors, could remain in Florida. Scalping whites was not only a means of resisting Anglo-American imperialism: Seminole spiritual and intellectual leaders incorporated scalps into rituals meant to ensure that the spirits of deceased Florida Indians — particularly those who had been scalped, disinterred or decapitated by U.S. military personnel — could remain with their living kin in Florida.

The Second Seminole War was the defining moment when the diverse Indian groups in Florida came to see themselves as a coherent ethnicity, and the collection, circulation and ritual uses of scalping encouraged this process.  The war reduced approximately 5,000 natives in Florida in 1835 to a group of a few hundred who established new communities in southern Florida. These communities were also ritual centers that brought disparate Indians together because they offered individuals the opportunity to appease their dead and, thus, perpetuate personal and social bonds with them. In the process, living Indians forged new connections with each other and assimilated their dead relations as integral members of the Seminole communities that remained in the peninsula. Seminole scalping and white skull collecting were intertwined and parallel processes: fighters on both sides collected enemy remains and presented them to leading medicine men who displayed them in centers of ritual and knowledge and gave them meaning.       

What spurred your interest in this area of research?

My work on craniometry and scalp collecting is part of a larger project on science and U.S. expansion in the southeast borderlands, the former Spanish and French territories that are now the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. I hadn’t planned to do anything with skull collecting when I set out for a year in the archives during 2010-11, but I knew a little bit about this topic from conversations with a good friend in UT’s history department, Christopher Heaney, who is doing fascinating research on the history of skull collecting in Peru. Thus when I came across several archival sources about skull collecting and phrenology in the Gulf South, I stopped to give them a closer look. Without Chris’s work in mind, I probably wouldn’t have pursued these sources or done any research on the connections between violence, human remains and knowledge production.        

What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?

Meeting other scholars and having the chance to live in a lot of different places. The intellectual community at UT is great, but I think that it’s important to make contacts with people working at different institutions throughout the country and the world. I was lucky enough to visit several archives during the research process, and it is striking how small and interconnected the national community of historians actually is. I doubt this comes as a surprise to anyone, but sitting alone in some random archive in a place where you don’t know anyone can be a pretty lonely experience.  Meeting friends along the way is essential.  

What surprised you during the research process?

The sheer bulk of historical sources and the many interpretations they make possible. I’ve heard that only about 10 percent of the data that historians collect during an archival research trip will find its way into their writings. This is true enough, but it might also be true that we are only able to explain or appreciate about 10 percent of the potential richness of the few sources we actually include. This is a bit deflating: It makes me doubt whether the ways we write about history will ever come close to the past’s richness, a richness that I think historians can sense as they write but must inevitably reduce to coherent arguments and practical word limits. But it is also stimulating. It means that no matter how widely or deeply we look, there is always more to know about the past and new ways of thinking about what we think we know.

Why is it important to study the history of science in early America?

American science has become such a powerful force in the world and is an essential aspect of why the United States has become a global superpower.  But it is easy to assume that both of these processes — the rise of American science and the rise of American power — were inevitable.

Studying the history of science in early America helps destabilize these teleological views, particularly when we approach this field from new perspectives. By focusing on the southeast borderlands instead of eastern cities like Philadelphia, the idea that the genius and hard work of a handful of eastern Anglo-American scientists produced and spread “American science” begins to unravel. Territorial expansion during the early national period ensured that the national scientific community was in fact a multinational network of Native Americans, Spanish and French Creoles, and African Americans. U.S. imperialism may have done more to engender the rise of U.S. science than vice-versa.

What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?

Come up with a research topic that is broad enough that it leaves room for you to incorporate the surprising and fascinating things that will pop up during the course of your research. You are going to find things and develop ideas that seem really out there or like they don’t fit with your work or anyone else’s. At least for me, these turned out to be the things that I became most interested in pursuing and that have generated the most interest from other historians. On a more daily level, I’d advise incoming students to be involved with as many things as they can. For example, go to all the talks in your department, even if they seem to have little to do with your own work. You never know when you’ll hear something that sets off a light bulb and gets you into some new topic or perspective. And, of course, work hard and be nice to people.

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