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Coffee, Collaboration and CAIRNS: Two French Scholars in Lakota Country

Céline Planchou, PhD

Research Fellow, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

February 6, 2018

The current research project of Céline Planchou and Sandrine Baudry is a collaboration which stems from their respective research fields at the time they met, during their Doctoral studies. Céline, then a doctoral student in American Studies, concentrated on a historical and political analysis of the federal-tribal-state triangle through the specific example of Indian child welfare. Her work involved fieldwork in Minnesota and South Dakota. As for Sandrine, she was using a multidisciplinary approach, between History, American Studies and Ethnography, to study socio-political dynamics around urban public space, as applied to the case of community gardens in New York City.

Once we were both done with our Doctoral research, we started discussing possible projects we could work on together, that would combine Native and Urban Studies, and not simply apply one to the other. We wanted to research Native American issues in a way that would engage an understanding of how settler colonial cities and Native people have interacted over time. With that idea in mind, we needed to choose a case study; the choice of Rapid City first stemmed from Céline’s prior knowledge of the area and Sandrine’s desire to focus on a smaller city than in her previous work, and it soon became clear that, since the city was built illegally on the Great Sioux Reservation, and has a high percentage of Native Americans living there today and nurturing strong relationships with the reservations around, we seemed to have found a potentially rich area of study for our purpose: analyzing the urban planning history of a small city, focusing on the socio-spatial dynamics of Native visibility (physically as well as discursively) in urban space.

We took our first trip together to Rapid City back in 2015 to verify on-site the validity of our choice. What struck us during that first visit was the discrepancy between the seemingly increased opportunities for Native American visibility with the renewal of Downtown, the creation of Main Street Square, the popularity of Art Alley, or the then-named Gathering of People, Wind and Water, now Native POP, and clearly enduring racial tensions, particularly embodied that summer by the Lakota 57 hearings. We felt confident, after that first visit, that beyond the historical perspective, with which Céline was already familiar, our work could provide a contemporary analysis of the place of Native Americans in urban renewal and urban economic branding, around this tension between historic racism and a current demand for Native art and culture by tourists from all over the world.

We gave our first talk on this project last September in Limoges, France, on the ways in which two historical narratives (that of the “hardy pioneers” defeating all odds to build the city, and that of the original occupants being forced out of their land) are inscribed in Rapid City’s public space through art, toponymy, historical markers, etc. The talk, given in the context of a conference on space and identity, received very positive feedback. Indeed, if American Studies scholars, geographers, historians, and sociologists in France, as well as in the US, have often focused their work on the place of minorities in cities, they have done so almost exclusively for immigrant groups; it was thus of interest to discuss a case where the minority in question is actually the first occupant of the space studied.

During our second trip, in the summer of 2016, we met with Eric Zimmer who was of great help with our project. During an enriching conversation over a nice lunch, he told us about the CAIRNS Research Fellows Program, adding his voice to that of different local residents who had already mentioned Dr. Craig Howe, CAIRNS and Wingsprings. After a few failed attempts at navigating the geography of Martin, SD, which included grasping clearly non-European markers such as “226th Avenue” in an area where nothing remotely resembling our mental image of an avenue could be found, we finally managed to meet Craig on-site. In the course of half a day on this beautiful and inspiring land, talking about research with Craig and then-employee Tyler Young, and enjoying “a few” cups of coffee, we felt both welcome and energized by this concept of a live-in research center. In the spring of 2017, Sandrine had an opportunity to spend several days there, and despite the howling of coyotes and the rattling of snakes, she enjoyed the luxury of both a peaceful environment conducive to writing, and the constantly challenging conversation regarding research on local issues and Lakota culture. Other shorter stays with various guests, basking in the sunset, starlight and prairie wind, have confirmed for both of us the generous welcoming offered to all at Wingsprings and the constant opportunity to exchange thoughts openly.

For us, being research fellows at CAIRNS represents a great opportunity to discuss our work with the other fellows, as well as Dr. Howe, and to access the resources in the Wingsprings library. This provides us with a local perspective, and allows us to keep in touch with our research field even while in France. Indeed, geographical distance, and the difficulty to find time and funding to travel to South Dakota, are a major hindrance to our research, which can be only partially compensated through a review of newsfeeds, social media activity or scientific literature. On the other hand, we hope that our particular situation will allow us to bring to the CAIRNS team a European perspective, both through our own scientific lens, and through reports on activities regarding Native Americans here in France. For instance, a recent “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People” brought together in Paris Native activists from the United States – including South Dakota – as well as French Guyana, to discuss issues of decolonization and environmental and capitalistic threats to their lands and cultures. The event will be the topic of our next report on this site.