SIFK 2018-20 Postdoctoral Researcher Isaiah Lorado Wilner is a historian of knowledge with a specific focus on the influence of Indigenous knowledge on modern thought. Wilner developed a new method of research that mines a vast archive: the corpus of Indigenous narratives assembled by the anthropologists who traversed the globe during the age of empires, recording the lives of people they thought were on the verge of disappearance. Some of these records have been utilized for anthropological purposes, but nobody has studied the messages transmitted through this medium by the Indigenous people who appropriated the technology for the propagation of their ideas. To read these Native messages, Wilner reunites and decodes material, sonic, and embodied narratives that were stripped of their owners, severed from the mnemonic devices that archive them, and abstracted from the moments that encode their historical meaning.

Wilner will make use of this database of narratives to consider the globalization of Indigenous ideas about gifts through Western discourses of economics, ecology, and anthropology. Wilner’s next book will be a global study of potlatch, which means “to give.” Potlatch is a system of converting violent Self/Other relations into nonviolent Host–Guest relations that exerted a transformational force on thinkers ranging from Marcel Mauss to Georges Bataille, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The systems of narration, governance, and land use developed by the potlatch among Indigenous peoples on America’s Northwest Coast have redirected the currents of Western metaphysics, presenting visions of an alternative episteme and economics that inspire concepts of diversity, ecology, and shared survival today. Wilner traces the circulation of ideas about gifts between state and nonstate knowledge nodes, connecting history and anthropology. While at SIFK, he aims to complete an interdisciplinary history of the globalization of Indigenous knowledge that will connect the history of science, narrative studies, and ethnographic fieldwork to trace the dissemination of modern knowledge from nonstate people to the state

Related SIFK Courses

  • KNOW 21417: American Modernities (Fall 2018)
  • KNOW 40306: Race, Land, and Empire: History, Intersectionality, and the Meanings of America (Spring 2019)

Related Readings

Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas

Learn more about Isaiah Lorado Wilner.