International Studies faculty receives $40,000 grant

Shawn Smallman, a professor of international studies at Portland State, was recently awarded a $40,000 grant from the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund.

Shawn Smallman, a professor of international studies at Portland State, was recently awarded a $40,000 grant from the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund. The funds will allow Smallman to go on writing sabbatical and complete work on his fourth book, “Dangerous Women & Spirit Beings: The Windigo, Gender  & Colonialism in the Algonquin World.”

David Latham, program director for the Reed Foundation, explained why Smallman was an obvious choice for the Ruth Landes Research Grant.

“Early in her career, Dr. Landes did extensive work with the Ojibwa, chronicled in her book ‘The Ojibwa Women,'” Latham said. “Professor Smallman’s proposed book is closely related and will amplify and expand the scholarship surrounding First Nations and other indigenous tribes, subjects of enduring interest to Dr. Landes.”

Smallman, who has previously authored books on the Brazilian military and the AIDS pandemic in Latin America, explained his interest in the Windigo and its relationship to gender roles in indigenous society.

“I grew up in Canada,” Smallman said. “The Algonquan people indigenous to Canada believe that the Windigo, which is a spirit of selfishness, can come into the body of a woman, man or child, and turn them into a monster; a murderer or cannibal, for instance.”

Smallman believes that these oral traditions offer important clues about gender in indigenous culture.

“It’s really a book about women and indigenous culture in Canada,” Smallman said. “I’m using the Windigo to look at women’s role in indigenous society, just like one might use the Salem witch trials to look at women’s roles in that particular time and place.”

Smallman has researched the book for the past three years and will leave for sabbatical in September to begin writing. His current plans are to write throughout the fall and winter terms, with the possibility of extending into spring if the government of Quebec approves a grant proposal.

During the research process, Smallman relied heavily on texts documenting the oral narratives of Canada’s indigenous people, archival materials and documents from the Hudson Bay Company, as well as a more macabre source.

“I used a lot of trial records from murder trials that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,” Smallman said. “These were particularly common in English Canada, where in the middle of winter someone would tell the members of his party that he was turning into a Windigo, and they would end up killing him. Then, of course, the mounted police show up and arrest them, and they plead self-defense.”

According Smallman, this was less common in French Canada.

“It’s really about the government asserting its dominance over native cultures,” he said.

Smallman’s book will examine the important role that women play in the constantly evolving story of the Windigo, as well as how the destructive effects of colonization have altered these indigenous oral narratives.

“When you really see a lot of murder trials is during the time of the land treaties and the residential schools,” Smallman said. “With people being forced off of the reservation, their society was under such pressure, which I think was responsible for the increase in murders. In the 1930s, these myths just disappeared for a time, I think because these societies were forced to endure so much change.”

The tales of the Windigo have returned in recent years, but with a different emphasis, according to Smallman.

“Interestingly, many native people now take this Windigo character and use it as a way of talking about European culture,” Smallman said. “They can now use this mythic creature as a way of illustrating what they might say is the real monster that came in, devoured their resources and much of their culture.” ?