Friday, July 8, 2011

So What Exactly is a "Cultural Broker" and Why Are They So Important?

In an earlier submission to this blog, we introduced the term “Cultural Broker.” We thought it might be good to take this opportunity to expand on our definition of what a Cultural Broker is and why we feel they present us with the best interpretive strategy for studying the regional events and changes in western New York to be covered in our upcoming exhibit. Within his article “Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics (1988),” Daniel K. Richter explains that in the past, an all-encompassing historical narrative that includes the three key elements of the local community, wider developments and differing perspectives has proved elusive (40). Richter suggests that the study of “Cultural Brokers” has provided a much desired “synapse” between the three elements that had, until then, been so desired (41). Based on Richter’s advice, we have also chosen Cultural Brokers as the focus of our upcoming exhibit since their stories will help us to tell not only the story of the individual, but also of diverse communities and wider events.

We will therefore be using Cultural Brokers as an interpretive strategy for studying and presenting the events and changes occurring in the Genesee Region of western New York from 1650 to 1810. Their individual stories will enable us to tell not only the much broader story of the struggle for empire between the Dutch, English, French and later the Americans, but will also help to explain how this Euro-American imperial struggle ultimately affected the Seneca Indians of western New York and the short-lived Iroquois empire. As Daniel Richter argues, “neither the focus on monolithic European empires and Indian tribes nor on isolated locations can fully convey the texture of colonial history, nor can the empires and the localities be understood apart from one another (66).”

If we are to get a clear picture of what is happening in western New York from 1650 to 1810, our best mode of doing so is by studying the individuals who served as the go-betweens among the vying empires and who faithfully documented the cultural differences and similarities as well as how each side of the racial or national divide reacted to changes occurring in western New York. For as Richter argues, “A faithful reconstruction of the larger whole that the Native and European peoples of early America shared requires simultaneous attention to the broad North American context (i.e. the pursuit of empire), to the internal dynamics of local communities (how one maintains influence domestically, regionally, or internationally), and to links between the two levels of experience (66-67).” Cultural Brokers will therefore give us the opportunity to not only focus on the individual historical actor and their personal motivations, but will also enable us to highlight how their actions and personal desires impacted the much grander stage of western New York or North America.

So what exactly is a Cultural Broker? We already know that they were intermediaries between the vying empires and racial divide here in western New York, but more specifically they held many titles and served many roles. Most Cultural Brokers were either Jesuit priests, European Agents of some type, Fur Traders, Seneca Chiefs, translators, men and women who had married into the other’s culture, war captives, land developers, or children of mixed race parents. As Nancy Hagedorn points out in her article “A Friend to Go Between Them (1988),” “From their intermediate position between European and Indian cultures, these individuals interpreted more than languages, they also required strong knowledge of the culture and customs of both groups (60).”

For anyone interested in seeing how seventeenth and eighteenth century Euro-American and Seneca cultures diverged and sometimes converged, we would suggest visiting the “At the Western Door” exhibit of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. As for our exhibit, we will show how Euro-American understanding of the Seneca culture proved pivotal when it came time to negotiate trade and military alliances with the Seneca as well as when negotiations later revolved around the purchase of Native lands. Richter states that “on all sides the survival of relationships depended on the continued ability of brokers to convince each community that its interests were being served (54).” Nancy Hagedorn apparently agrees with Richter’s statement concerning the importance of conveying good intentions and adds that “the delicate and important nature of the business of the Six Nations and the [Europeans] required a friend to go between them – a person of ability and integrity in whom both sides could place a confidence (61).” The ability to convince the other of their good intentions meant that the Cultural Broker must be able to speak and act in a manner that conveyed respect for the other and their ways, especially since conferences with the Seneca and the other Iroquois nations were as much about ceremony as they were about communication. By not following proper decorum, the Cultural Brokers caught up in the larger quest for empire risked pushing the Seneca of western New York into the enemy’s camp.

Primary source documents left behind by Euro-American or Native translators will therefore give us a good deal of insight into not only how the struggle for empire was being played out here in western New York, but will also give us excellent insight into changing Iroquois material, spiritual, and subsistence culture. Cultural Brokers will also give us excellent insight into how the landscape of western New York was transformed from an Iroquois wilderness characterized by temporary Seneca settlements and criss-crossed by narrow footpaths into the recognizable agrarian market republic dotted by New England style villages that were connected to southern and eastern markets by roads that we still travel on today. Ultimately, however, Cultural Brokers will help us to connect the local political structures and competing cultures with regional and international sources of power since, as Richter argues, “in the local hands frequently lay the fate of both the imperial powers of the modern world-system and the Native peoples that system sought to absorb (40-14).” Keep checking back as we begin to introduce a few of our selected Cultural Brokers to this blog. As we do so, the picture of what exactly a Cultural Broker is should become much clearer.

Richter, Daniel K. "Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics: New York-Iroquois Relations, 1664-1701." The Journal of American History. Vol. 75, No. 1 (June, 1988):pp. 40-67

Hagedorn, Nancy L. "A Friend to go Between Them: The Interpreter as Cultural Broker During Anglo-Iroquois Councils, 1740-70." Ethnohistory. Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1988):pp. 60-80

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