Category Archives: Q&A

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.

LGBT Pride

GaySeattle-Atkins (2)Happy Pride Month! With the Seattle Pride Parade right around the corner, we’re bringing Gary L. Atkins’s award-winning Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging back into the spotlight.

In 1893, the Washington State legislature quietly began passing a set of laws that essentially made homosexuality, and eventually even the discussion of homosexuality, a crime. A century later Mike Lowry became the first governor of the state to address the annual lesbian and gay pride rally in Seattle. Gay Seattle traces the evolution of Seattle’s gay community during those one hundred turbulent years, telling through a century of stories how gays and lesbians have sought to achieve a sense of belonging in Seattle.

These stories of exile and belonging draw on numerous original interviews as well as case studies of individuals and organizations that played important roles in the history of Seattle’s gay and lesbian community. Collectively, they are a powerful testament to the endurance and fortitude of this minority community, revealing the ways a previously hidden sexual minority “comes out” as a people and establishes a public presence in the face of challenges from within and without.

Gary L. Atkins is professor of women and gender studies at Seattle University. His most recent book is Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore.

Today, we talk with Professor Atkins about the process of writing Gay Seattle and its contribution to the community.



What inspired you to get into your field?

GA: Ever since I was in third grade, I’ve been compelled by writing as well as by understanding the history of how different places, people and imaginations came to be. That gradually translated into an interest in journalism, especially in nonfiction creative writing.

Why did you want to write this book?

GA: I moved to Seattle in 1978 and, of course, I immediately wanted to know more about both the geography and the history of the Northwest. Over the years I kept reading—but the customary history books all left out any stories of lesbians and gay men. I didn’t find anything that reflected who I was . . . or who the generations of lesbians and gay men who had come before me were.

Describe the process of writing this book.

GA: Because I am very interested in geography and architecture and how both influence people’s imaginations, I actually began by just walking around. Even though I had already lived in Seattle for fifteen years by the time I began the book, I wanted to deliberately see what were both the existing spaces in which gay men and lesbians had settled and created their public gathering spots, as well as spaces I had heard about. Then came the usual journalistic research approaches: sweeping city and university libraries for any information; digging through microfilm of criminal cases to turn up who had been arrested for crimes like sodomy; visiting county, state and federal archives for reports on things like treatments at mental hospitals. Intermixed with that were interviews with any of the “old-timers” I could find. I conducted many of these, but I also involved students in my Seattle U classes.  After all the reporting came draft after draft after draft of the book. The whole process took about ten years from its start in 1993 until publication in 2003. Although, of course, I was still teaching fulltime.

What do you think is this book’s most important contribution?

GA: It reports and describes a saga that had been overlooked in other stories of the Northwest at the time of publication: the efforts of those who had been criminalized and treated as sick for their sexual desires and their loves to instead create their own community and to establish themselves publicly.  

What is the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

GA: Although the general histories of Seattle documented the old police payoff system that existed for decades until the 1970s, no one had really tracked how that affected the development of the lesbian and gay bars—and so the development of the gay community—in the city. As I worked through archives, grand jury reports, and newspaper stories, it gradually became apparent that the payoff system had fostered the community, but ironically, I also found out that it was a particular gay bar owner who had eventually helped bring the whole system down. By then, for all practical purposes, he had disappeared from the city. So one of the most fantastic experiences I had was simply seeing an old phone number on a document, and it was actually still his number. I was able to track him down on Camano Island and then conduct interviews with him.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?

GA: One of the most surprising things was that students at my own university, Seattle U, helped launch the LGBTQ civil rights effort in Seattle back in the 1960s, although in a rather negative way. From the oral history interviews that one of my students conducted, we discovered that SU students had harassed gay men who were living next to the university and who sometimes dressed in drag. The students threw rocks at their home, which prompted the men to race after them in drag, causing the police to intervene and the drag queens to tell their stories to a radio station. Out of that came organizing efforts for the old Dorian Society, which was the first really long-lasting gay rights group in Seattle.  The gay men met with the SU president at the time and were apparently told they should move. Resolutely, they responded that he should instead tell his students to stop throwing rocks. I guess you could consider that one of many little “stonewalls” that started happening in Seattle well before the big one back in New York.


This year’s Pride Parade will take place on Sunday, June 24th in downtown Seattle. Learn more here.

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Check out more books like Gay Seattle in our Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies catalog.

Q&A with ‘Risky Bodies and Techno-Intimacy’ author Geeta Patel

Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy traverses disparate and uncommon routes to explore how people grapple with the radical uncertainties of their lives. In this edgy, evocative journey through myriad interleaved engagements–including the political economies of cinema; the emergent shapes taken by insurance, debt, and mortgages; gender and sexuality; and domesticity and nationalism–author Geeta Patel demonstrates how science and technology ground our everyday intimacies. The result is a deeply poetic and philosophical exploration of the intricacies of techno-intimacy, revealing a complicated and absorbing narrative that challenges assumptions underlying our daily living.

Today we talk to the author about her book, publishing soon in our Feminist Technosciences series. 

What inspired you to get into your field?

Geeta Patel: I don’t have a field in any strict sense, although most of my friends now would think of me as a literary ‘type.’ I, however, don’t think of myself that way. I compose in visual metaphors, and the way I look at things askance, as though they were transparent and opaque at the same time, is as a scientist who loves poetry.

I grew up in a family full of women doctors, which along with the push toward science if you grew up in South Asia and had even a vestige of a brain, meant I ended up being saddled with science, specializing in the sciences from when I was eleven years old. But I loved all the sciences, particularly ‘the natural sciences’ with the kind of curiosity of many eighteenth-century scientists. In that period ‘scientific’ curiosity leaked out into more than what we would now call science. It embraced poetry, literary prose, questions of politics, the ways in which money and goods moved, finance, drawings, maps, and instruments. A sort of porous curiosity, rather than directed curiosity along blinkered pathways. Eighteenth-century journals, as well as the South Asian magazines of my childhood, had tidbits on science, poetry, politics, fiction, oddities from the ambit of the political, and off-kilter instruments of measurement. This is what I grew up reading and it is was as though they all belonged in the same place and together made sense.

So when I think of what my ‘field’ consists of, it lives at the cusp of all these things. Where more than one intellectual formation or terrain fades into each other, informs each other, pushes at each other, and inflects each other. And a field formation gets taken up in such a way that it makes an assumption in another field discomfiting. One such place I approach/broach that in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy is the technology of time.

What would you have been if not an academic?

GP: Probably a health practitioner, a healer.

Why did you want to write this book?

GP: I wanted to sit with, ponder, think about, and ruminate on the places, moments, pauses, and sudden jolts where I stopped thinking. Where my capacity to envision something else failed me, felt as though it had faded from my grasp. Many intellectuals imagine this as the horizon towards which one ambles, gallops, or comes up against in some putative future. When I was writing my previous book on the Urdu poet Miraji, I came to see it as he had, and how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had, as that which is inside what we think, visualize, do. The bedrock of belief lives where we come to a grinding halt, and we find ourselves in a double bind—facing what we must let go of, but can’t. How could we, following on Michel Foucault and Marcel Mauss, understand these as technologies that make us who we are, which are the armature of our very ordinary, everyday habits?

I also wanted to mess with what had come to be conventional ways of bringing intellectual fields together. I wanted to make that broaching or bridging awkward—and this is what I practice in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy. What would chemistry do to transgender possibilities in South Asia? What would it mean to transmute the aesthetics of linear time to lay out the gatherings that took on the resistance to a film on sexuality? How would the historical congruencies between these events and the fights over insurance in the Indian parliament give us insights? Allow us to delve into the modes through which financing loss became the conduit to grapple with the political desires that undergird nationalism? In the process how would science emerge in writing about events that might, in some simple way, not be said to be scientific (in the ways we now see science)?

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

GP: Everyone, feminists, science studies aficionados, cultural studies scholars, media studies scholars, finance practitioners, political theorists, literary theorists. In India I have found the audience to include artists, film-makers, fiction writers, poets, and non-academics.

What is your next project?

GP: I have many ongoing projects. One is a book on Ismat Chughtai, in particular on two of her short stories. That book interrogates the lineages of historical realism in South Asia. It brings quantum and relativity as conduits through which I can grapple with the desires that readers ferry along with them as they read fiction and mine it for information. One is a book on 1950s and ‘60s billboards in Mumbai, and I look at what they reveal about advertising, fiscal fantasies, national sentiment, and nationalist aesthetics in post-colonial states. Another is about the long history of pensions and insurance in South Asia. One of the first of its chapters rethinks the eighteenth-century history of capitalism through colonial pensions.


Geeta Patel is associate professor of both Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures and of women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is author of Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry.

Q&A with ‘Tracing Autism’ author Des Fitzgerald

In Tracing Autism, Des Fitzgerald offers an up-close account of the search for a neurological explanation of autism. As autism has gained cultural prominence with more diagnoses and more controversy, its biological causes remain elusive.

Through in-depth interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, Fitzgerald examines what it means to do scientific research in the ambiguous terrain of autism research, a field marked by shifting horizons of uncertainty and ambivalence. He draws out how autism scientists talk and feel their way through their research, demonstrating its profoundly affective character, and expanding our understanding of what is at stake in the new brain sciences.

Today we speak with the author about his book, published this summer.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Des Fitzgerald: I’ve always been pretty comfortable describing myself as a sociologist. I actually entered university (in Cork, Ireland, where I’m from) to study literature, but fairly quickly realized that I had zero interest in spending my life as a literary scholar. I dropped out for a few years and came back to study sociology—and have been pretty happy ever since. It’s a cliché, but I like that we are empirical, and actually in-touch with things in the world and the issues of the day, but we’re also literary and philosophical too. I like that in sociology departments (in Britain at least) you’ll still find people who are basically continental philosophers, as well as people who are super-positivist big-data number crunchers. I think our field often suffers in policy and public debate for being neither one thing nor the other—not having the cultural weight of the humanities on the one hand, or the perceived instrumental value of the natural sciences on the other—but this neither-one-thing-nor-the-otherness is what I like most about sociology. Some days it’s the only thing I like about sociology. Within the discipline, I’ve always been interested in how sociology grapples with the material world: I wrote my undergrad thesis about architecture, and was actually barely an inch away from becoming a museums studies person as a master’s student. Thinking about how the body gets torqued in the contemporary life sciences, and especially in the neurosciences, has been really fruitful for me on this score. I can imagine myself working on other things, but I’m going to mine this seam for another couple of years yet, I think.

Describe the process of writing the book.

DF: Honestly, it might annoy some people, but my memories of writing this book are all highly pleasurable. I don’t at all mean to diminish anyone’s struggles, and I know lots of people find writing hard and painful in various ways, but I also feel that sometimes too much of the discourse around academic writing, and especially PhD writing, is about the alleviation of pain and anxiety. Maybe we don’t talk enough about the savoring of pleasure, and about how lovely it can be, actually, to spend time writing a thesis or a book (again, I acknowledge: that pleasure is of course entangled in the multiple kinds of privilege that I embody, but it’s pleasure all the same). The year or so in which I wrote the first draft of this book were probably the happiest twelve months of my life – if I could whistle (which I can’t), I would have whistled going into the office every morning. The rewrite, much of which took place over one winter at Cardiff Central Library, was also pretty good. In terms of process, I essentially collected data over a twelve-month period, and then really sat down and wrote the book, fairly methodically, chapter by chapter, over the course of another year. The actual core argument—centered on the image of tracing—emerged halfway through, and appeared only fitfully in the first version. It was only when I went back to rewrite the manuscript some years later, having done a lot of other things in-between that I was really able to articulate what I wanted to say about neuroscience, and how badly it had been construed in and by the social sciences. The gap between dissertation and book was important, I think—I needed a few years to make sense of what the dissertation had been trying to say.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

DF: Anyone who’s interested in understanding what contemporary neurosciences are actually like, how they work, and want to  hear the voices of some of the people who make them up. I’m not shy about saying that there is a serious attempt to make a contribution to some strands of contemporary social and cultural theory—studies of affect, of course, but also wider attentions to materiality, especially as that materiality gets crystallized in the objects of the life sciences—but I’ve worked hard to write it in a fairly approachable and easygoing style, and to cleave pretty closely to what the people in the interviews are actually saying.

What would you have been if not an academic?

DF: I actually asked some colleagues this a couple of years ago, and it turns out that many academics nurture surprisingly well elaborated alternative-career fantasies. My own is artisanal café and bicycle-repair shop owner—which is a fantasy that I like to maintain despite not knowing very much about coffee, or anything at all about bicycle repair. More seriously, I would say that I have never been the kind of person who can only imagine a fulfilling intellectual life in and through the university, or while being acknowledged as that still fairly recent historical figure, “an academic.”  Not to be po-faced about it, but I think the question of how to craft intellectual and scholarly futures in the absence of the university is going to be a big question in the coming years: “what might you yet be” is probably a better way to put this question than “what would you have been?” And of course many people at the sharp end of the academic job market have already started to craft responses to this issue. I definitely don’t invest all of my intellectual hope in academia.

What are you reading right now?

DF: The truthful answer to this, of course, is “lots of Twitter with special attention to the quality and frequency of my own mentions.” But I do manage to read other stuff too.  I’m currently coauthoring a new book on urban neuroscience and am trying to think about the ways in which the study of the city and the study of the body might have gotten into one another historically—so I’ve been reading a lot of late-nineteenth-century urban studies literature. My favorites so far are W. E. B. Du Bois’s brilliant and pioneering study, The Philadelphia Negro (I’ve also enjoyed Aldon Morris’s excellent recent reclaiming of Du Bois’s legacy for sociology, The Scholar Denied, which all sociologists should read) and Seebohm Rowntrees’s surprisingly, and deeply, weird monograph from 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life. Charles Booth’s more famous Life and Labour volumes turn out to be more of a drag than I anticipated, and Booth himself not especially pleasant company as an author or editor (although obviously I still like the maps). For vaguely work-related pleasure-reading, I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression and McKenzie Wark’s General Intellects. For other kinds of pleasure, someone recently recommended Octavia Butler to me at a conference and I am getting really into her Dawn series at the moment.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

DF: I think what I have been trying to say, with various coauthors in the last couple of years (in particular, with Felicity Callard in the book and papers we wrote together on collaboration, and with Nikolas Rose and Ilina Singh in the papers we wrote on urban sociology) is that we have not at all understood the life sciences in general, and the neurosciences in particular, in sociology, medical anthropology, and science and technology studies. Too many of my colleagues still think neuroscience is either a crudely reductive would-be science of everything, or, even worse, some kind of running-dog of neoliberalism working hard to individualize and cerebralize social life. But it seems to me, and Tracing Autism is where I think I make this case most forcefully, that actually, when you get outside the journals, and the press releases, and the media pronouncements, neuroscience is a much more modest, ambiguous, complex,  interesting, emotional, and (in the best sense of this word) weird practice than we have really understood. Recognizing the complex ways in which social, political, and neurological lives are caught up in one another, and how much of social life is lived in and through the body and brain, and vice versa, there are loads of ways in which social scientists, STS scholars, and life scientists, can work together to get some more compelling analytical and methodological grip on the present. I’ve said versions of that—with colleagues—elsewhere, but I think the central contribution of Tracing Autism is to show, in detail, and with lots of good data, just what kind of practice cognitive neuroscience is, and can be, when it encounters a human phenomenon as complex and fraught as the autism spectrum.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your field and what you do?

DF: I think a lot of people, looking at the sociology (or anthropology) of science and medicine, or at science and technology studies, from the outside, still see them as working through some kind of 1990s-style social-constructionist culture war, or at least as practices for bringing the natural sciences down to size in some way. I will say that is not always a misconception—and frankly I despair a bit when I see colleagues, in sociology especially, rehashing fairly tired tropes about big bad biology. But by and large this is not where things are at: it’s true that some people are never going to leave the twentieth century, and good luck to them, but the most creative and interesting working happening in these fields, right now, is work that is trying to inhabit, make sense of, and create new paths through, the multiple intersections of these two domains. I’m not sure that’s always as visible to people on the outside as maybe it should be.


Des Fitzgerald is lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University. He is the coauthor of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences.

Q&A with ‘Dismembered’ coauthors David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins

Today we speak with coauthors David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins about their book, Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights, published this spring. Florangela Davila, writing in Seattle Magazine, calls it “a first-of-its-kind book that looks at tribal disenrollment.”

Since the 1990s, Native governments have been banishing, denying, or disenrolling citizens at an unprecedented rate. Nearly eighty nations, in at least twenty states, have terminated the rights of indigenous citizens. This first comprehensive examination of the origins of this disturbing trend looks at hundreds of tribal constitutions and interviews with disenrolled members and tribal officials to show the damage this practice is having across Indian Country and ways to address the problem.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your field and what you do?

David E. Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins: The conflicting stereotypes about Native peoples are always an obstacle to understanding. Indians are: extinct/corporations; poverty stricken/rich; addicts/mystics; craven opportunists/naive naturalists.

People who don’t know anyone Native swing back and forth between these ideas depending on the argument they are trying to make. This reliance on racist views obscures the real work being done by Native peoples and governments. There are only a handful of Native political scientists and it’s our job to provide the best level of research and writing possible so that Native governments, and those who interact with them, have the tools and knowledge they need for effective and long-lasting good governance.

Why did you want to write this book?  

DEW & SHW: We wanted to call attention to the wrongs happening under the guise of sovereignty. Native people are very proud of their sovereign status yet, in some instances that has been used by scoundrels as an excuse, a shield behind which they destroy political opponents, enrich themselves, or take revenge for old grudges. Allowing sovereignty to be used in this way diminishes and endangers its power across Indian Country. Many are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be seen as questioning a Tribe’s sovereign authority to decide for themselves who does and does not belong to their nation. Unfortunately, this attempt to protect sovereignty through silence—hoping the issue will just go away—ends up eroding it for everyone. Our book is an attempt to bring the facts behind these shameful actions to light so that they can be discussed and addressed in the open.

What do you think is Dismembered‘s most important contribution?

DEW & SHW: We want to educate everyone about the issue of disenrollment and encourage Native people to examine and appreciate the power of citizenship and sovereignty. The people, not the government, hold true sovereignty, thus it cannot exist without human and civil rights.

The power to define citizenship is critical to the exercise of sovereignty for Native Nations. That said, the tools and the concepts utilized by many Tribal governments are those they inherited from the US Federal Government. Traditional means of governance did not include making distinctions about belonging based on blood quantum, genealogy, or enrollment records.  These are standards set by a government with the goal of eliminating or assimilating Native people.

In the 1990s, a woman who was stripped of her Tribal citizenship contacted David. He had heard of banishment—a temporary punishment for wrong-doing—but the idea that a human being could be stripped of their citizenship, their Tribal identity, was shocking. He began to keep a file on the issue. At first, the practice wasn’t widespread and seemed to be confined to a few California Tribes, but his file began to grow.

The reasons given were all over the place. Some were accused of treason for voicing disagreement at open council meetings. Disenrollement—or, as we began to call it, dismemberment—was also an efficient means of dealing with whistleblowers. If someone uncovered corruption involving those in power, the Tribe found a reason to get rid of them. Elders, children, native language speakers, former chairs, and council members—no one was immune. A common assertion was that these people lacked sufficient blood quantum or were dually enrolled in other tribes, but the problem was that record keeping by the federal government was terrible. Even the lucky ones who were able to offer what was considered official proof of their rights to belong were confronted with changing rules. No sooner did they provide what was asked than they were presented with another arbitrary road block. One family was put through the horrific experience of exhuming their great-grandmother and grandmother for DNA testing. The tests proved they belonged, but the Tribe disenrolled them anyway.

Perhaps, even more shocking than this cruelty was posthumous dismemberment– stripping the dead of their Tribal identities. It’s a very efficient means of getting rid of trouble makers or trimming your rolls. If you traced your heritage through your grandpa and those in power decided your grandpa wasn’t an Indian, then all who descended from him were automatically out.

Some people are enrolled fraudulently. In a very few instances people deliberately have lied or forged documents but these make up only a small portion of the disenrollment cases.

Cast-out people had nowhere to turn. Tribal governments said that as a sovereign nation, it was right and proper that they have the ability to define their membership, just as any other nation. Their Tribal Courts offered no relief. Those systems have come a long way since that time, but many were (and many still are) beholden to the Tribal leadership. They were unable or unwilling to rule against their own sovereign government in favor of an individual that government had decided to terminate. Judges who tried to do so were fired and replaced with those more amenable to the status quo.

Disenrollees lost their citizenship, which may just sound like a shame to most people who take their US and state citizenship for granted. US citizenship can’t be taken away and, after all, the dismembered are still citizens of their states and the US, but in reality, losing citizenship is deadly. Folks lost their health care, access to education, jobs, homes, even their family members as the process split households—one brother was in, the other was out.

Ultimately, there is no due process.  These people can be labeled and accused of anything and they have had no rights, no means with which to fight back. A few hard working attorneys, like Gabe Galanda and Ryan Dreveskracht, have started to make a real difference—they were able to prevent the disenrollment of a group of folks from the Grand Ronde Community in Oregon and are fighting for the Nooksack 306 here in Washington. That gives us hope.

How did you come up with the title?

DEW & SHW: Tribes tend to call their citizens members, a term that came from the federal government that serves to diminish the importance of belonging to a Tribal Nation. It sounds more like joining the Rotary than being part of a nation. But we felt it important to deconstruct and reuse the term. The feelings these people described were so agonizing, as though they were physically cut off from the body that sustained them. Tribal nations, too, suffered when they cut off living beings that are the true embodiment of their sovereignty. That is why we refer to these people as dismembered.

Describe the process of writing the book.

SHW: David had more than 20 years worth of stories in his file and a network of friends who had been dismembered. He had also written articles over those years. Together, we wrote more articles and began to conduct formal interviews. Marty Two Bulls, an incredibly talented political cartoonist, contributed his work. The tireless Gabe Galanda, one of the few attorneys to take on the cause of disenrollees, shared photos from a social media campaign he and Louie Gong designed to call attention to the issue.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing the book?

DEW & SHW: Perhaps the most shocking thing we learned was the amount of money outsiders were making from fomenting discord within Tribal Nations. Non-native attorneys who keep the conflicts going in order to bill more hours, outside consultants—self-professed enrollment experts—who organize seminars or directly advise Tribal leaders on ways to “clean-up their rolls,” financial advisors who calculated how much further per-capita payments would go if membership were to be reduced.


David E. Wilkins is the McKnight Presidential Professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor of American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Shelly Hulse Wilkins is a partner with the Wilkins Forum and specializes in tribal governmental relations.

‘What makes work meaningful?’: Q&A with ‘The Social Life of Inkstones’ author Dorothy Ko

The following interview originally appeared at Barnard News and is adapted and used with permission. (Courtesy of N. Jamiyla Chisholm, Barnard College, New York City.)


To honor Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Barnard College professor of history Dorothy Ko offers a peek into ancient and modern-day Eastern culture and politics.

According to the Library of Congress, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month takes place in May for two reasons: May 7, 1843, marked the immigration of the first Japanese citizen to the U.S.; and on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed, mostly by Chinese immigrant workers.

Credit: Marvin Trachetenberg

Dorothy Ko explores the subjects of gender and body in early modern China. In her books, Ko unravels the complex worlds of Chinese footbinding (Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding), fashion (Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet), and feminism (Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China). Her latest, The Social Life of Inkstones: Artisans and Scholars in Early Qing China, introduces the West to the world of ancient Asian stones and includes close to 100 images (see slideshow below). Ko explains the significance of this highly specialized art form.

What exactly is an inkstone and what is its significance in East Asian culture?

An inkstone is a piece of polished stone about the size of an outstretched palm. Before the invention of fountain pens, let alone laptops and iPads, every student, writer, or painter in East Asia had to grind a fresh supply of ink at the desk by dipping an ink-stick in water and rubbing it on the surface of the stone. This process was as instinctive to them as recharging our iPhones is to us. Day in and day out, the writers and painters developed deep attachments to their implements. More than an instrument for writing, the inkstone was a collectible object of art, a father’s gift to his school-bound son, a token of friendship, and even a diplomatic gift between states.

Why is this tool so unfamiliar to Western civilizations when it has represented so much for the East for more than a millennium?

Europeans drew ink from an inkpot so they had no use for an ink-grinding stone. Nor did the early European collectors appreciate its subtle beauty as the Chinese connoisseurs did. The color of the inkstone tended to be deep purple or black; it is small and does not display well in a stately home or fancy apartment. So it is no wonder that there is no notable collection of inkstones in Europe or America.

Your book shines a light on craftswoman Gu Erniang who became famous for her inkstone-making skills, which were refined between the 1680s and 1730s. What made her such a standout?

Her extraordinary skills. Gu Erniang was a remarkable woman who thrived in a field dominated by men; she became more famous than her male colleagues. Her name was associated with technical and artistic innovations as well as refined taste. It is also interesting to mention that she enjoyed more gender freedom than her genteel sisters in that she could receive male patrons in her studio to discuss commissioned projects face-to-face.

How has the significance of inkstone artisans changed over time?

Gu Erniang was one of the first inkstone makers in China to attach her signature mark on her work, suggesting a heightened respect that exceptional artisans like her enjoyed. Today, because the inkstone is no longer a functional object, all inkstone artisans have to present themselves as creative artists.

What interests you most in this topic area and what are some of the biggest “ah ha!” moments you had conducting research for the book?

I love all the modern conveniences we enjoy but increasingly feel the need to look back and reassess the heavy price we pay for such “industrial development” or “progress.” I became interested in the craftsmen because theirs was a sustainable livelihood that was environmentally responsible. Through their eyes, I arrive at tentative answers to my big question at the moment: What makes work meaningful? The craftsman’s answer: Making one-of-a-kind objects with attention and skill in a collaborative environment. Craft makes us more human by inspiring us to strive for perfection.

How does the research conducted for this book connect to research from your previous publications on footbinding and Chinese feminism?

As a historian of gender, I’m sensitive to power inequalities and trained to analyze the operations of power. In the same way that I had retrieved women in Chinese history in my earlier books, I set out to retrieve the artisans from erasure in the hands of male scholars. Little did I know that the latter turned out to be a far more difficult project.

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Q&A with ‘Queering Contemporary Asian American Art’ editors Laura Kina and Jan Christian Bernabe

This Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month we are excited to share special features with authors and editors of new and recent titles that celebrate Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

Today we speak with Queering Contemporary Asian American Art editors Laura Kina and Jan Christian Bernabe about their groundbreaking volume, published this spring, and corresponding website.

Queering Contemporary Asian American Art takes Asian American differences as its point of departure for bringing together artists and scholars pushing back against normative assumptions, expectations, critiques, and practices within Asian American art and visual culture. Taken together, these nine original artist interviews, cutting-edge visual artworks, and seven critical essays explore contemporary currents and experiences within Asian American art, including the multiple axes of race and identity; queer bodies and forms; kinship and affect; and digital identities and performances. The interdisciplinary and theoretically informed frameworks in the volume engage readers to understand global and historical processes through contemporary Asian American artistic production.

Why did you want to put together this book?

Laura Kina and Jan Christian Bernabe: Most of the contributors of Queering Contemporary Asian American Art met at a 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities supported summer institute entitled “Re-envisioning American Art History: Asian American Art, Research, and Teaching” at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. There we discussed the ways in which we could advance the field of Asian American art history through our teaching, writing, and curatorial projects.

We were very fortunate to have listened to a lecture on “doing” Asian American art history by the late Karin Higa. In her lecture, she described those of us invested in the field as “the termites of art history.” It was a call to critique and nibble away at what we call in the book “the white hegemonic pillars of art practice, history, and criticism.”

We wanted to heed Higa’s call to find innovative and timely ways to work on Asian American art history and thus formed a group at the seminar called “Que(e)rying Asian American Art,” for which the title of our book is named. We saw intense interest by the members of the group to think about the ways in which queer theory could inform Asian American art criticism.

In many ways, the discussions we had during the seminar and at many conferences after the seminar had ended informed the creation of our book. We like to think that our book is a product of our termite activities.

What was it like writing and putting together this kind of volume?

LK & JCB: The process of writing the book was extremely intense but exhilarating! We invited seven authors to write critical essays for the anthology and in total we interviewed 17 artists, from emerging to established in their careers. We started the process of interviewing during the summer of 2014 with genderqueer and transgender artists in Chicago: Kiam Marcelo Junio and Greyson Hong, respectively.

We worked together virtually and in coffee shops throughout Chicago in the two years of the book’s production, and we made a point of organizing panel discussions at academic conferences with the various artists and scholars involved in the book as. There was a lot of transcription of interviews involved as well as selecting artwork to be in the book. Our last interview was in spring 2016 with Tina Takemoto, a San Francisco based artist who self-describes as a “queer, gender queer, gender nonconforming, Asian American dyke.”

What do you hope is the book’s most important contribution?

LK & JCB: We hope our book builds on a queer of color critique and advances the field of Asian American art and contemporary art. The book is a call to build queer coalitions of resistance, to push back against the dominant “model minority” paradigm in Asian America of assimilationist “good” behavior—of not making waves and being silent and complicit in the face of anti-blackness, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth that pervades US culture.

What is your next project?

LK & JCB: We are currently curating a virtual exhibition inspired by our book for the Center for Art and Thought called “Queer Horizons.” In this current moment of political and cultural transformations, especially affecting people of color and LGBTQ communities, the show seeks to envision what a queer futurity looks like. This idea of a queer horizon, borrowed from the late Jose Muñoz, proposes what he calls “a greater openness to the world.”

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

LK & JCB: The artwork is the most important thing. On a basic level, we just want to introduce the important work of the artists and scholars in this book to a wider audience. On a broader level, we want to inspire readers to form their own queer coalitional politics; we are writing to bring together feminists and queer of color artists and scholars to take up our “termite activities” and keep on nibbling at the hegemonic foundations of art history.


Laura Kina is an artist and a Vincent de Paul Professor of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University. She is the coeditor of War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art. Jan Christian Bernabe is the operations, new media, and curatorial director at the Center for Art and Thought. The contributors are Mariam B. Lam, Eun Jung Park, Alpesh Kantilal Patel, Valerie Soe, and Harrod J Suarez. Featured artists are Anida Yoeu Ali, Kim Anno, Eliza Barrios, Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, Wafaa Bilal, Hasan Elahi, Greyson Hong, Kiam Marcelo Junio, Lin + Lam (H. Lan Thao Lam and Lana Lin), Viet Le, Maya Mackrandilal, Zavé Martohardjono, Jeffrey Augustine Songco, Tina Takemoto, Kenneth Tam, and Saya Woolfalk.