Christopher Mott: Helmerich Center for American Research Fellow

Think apocalyptic culture is a new phenomenon and isolated from history? Think again. Meet Christopher Mott, Ph.D., freelance author/researcher, one of our Helmerich Center for American Research travel grant recipients who was here conducting research for his book on Native American geopolitics and how apocalyptic events such as disease and land theft created unique, indigenous styles of reacting to a crisis. Not sure what to expect, Mott’s research priorities ended up changing as an outcome of our archival materials.

Learn more about what he discovered and our research fellowship opportunities in the video below.


I’m Christopher Mott, former academic and former State Department lanyard ghoul. I want to one day publish a book on Native American geopolitics and how the, kind of, apocalyptic events of disease, die-off and land theft created a apocalyptic events of disease, die-off and land theft created a unique indigenous style of reacting to crisis. Well, the project was to figure out what, if any -it was always open into as to if I would be successful- but, if any, was there a concept of Native American understanding of geopolitics that was not just specific to one particular tribe and would be north of, like, the Rio Grande going out of the Spanish Empire. Going out of the densely populated Mesoamerican area.

So, looking at, you know, the plains, the eastern woodlands, the west coast etc. This is still related to what I’m doing, but it’s changed to be more about apocalypse culture, or effectively how these various tribes what are similarly or different from each other adapt to the one-two punch of massive epidemic disease that really cut their numbers, and so subsequent societal breakdown with the arrival of very alien colonists from very far away, so it’s become more of a kind of historical equivalent of, like, when things get really, really rough, how do small groups of people adapt both kind of ecologically and in terms of the concept of land use, politics, diplomacy, warfare, etc.?

It’s important to restore the voice of indigenous actors when we talk about things like political theory in geopolitics, which normally is assumed to only be A. modern and B. kind of for intensely bureaucratic states, you know, East Asia, Middle East and Europe, effectively are what are considered to be states that have theories of governments and having intensely studied many of those states, I can say that “Yeah, sure, they wrote more stuff down themselves, but they’re definitely not alone in having a geo-strategic worldview.” Which is why I kinda moved in the direction of restoring the people who are often considered to be “barbarians” or outsiders to relevance in the study of geopolitics and strategy and that type of thing. So yeah, it’s effectively, you know, putting indigenous people back in the pilot seat of these issues when usually they’re ever seen this just hapless victims of them, or kind of just like completely
outside of it entirely.

I came here to look through as many sources as I could. I had to officially list when I was here for, so I said the six nation papers, because I knew I would look at them and I already have experience doing research on the Iroquois Confederacy. So, I just kind of went with that and that was the first thing I looked at and that didn’t really change my direction, but once I started going through the Creek papers, the Choctaw papers, Sioux papers, lots of other papers that have very specific names that aren’t necessarily tribes, just looking for anything that was relevant. I came across more and more of the theme of, like, rapid adaptation trying to deal with, you know, a very shocking situation, how to make sense of it. These things just kept coming up even though they weren’t my original research topic, and so I kind of prioritize them over my original topics as I went along, just based on the source material I was finding.

Now I was, like, blown away by the things I found that weren’t necessarily directly related to my research. Like, I found some very cool land grant deeds and some interesting, kind of like, artwork and stuff like that, but when it comes to what I specifically came here for, I mean, it was, it was new and different enough that they changed my research topic noticeably, if not entirely, but I wouldn’t say like anything was like “oh wow that, like, is an upheaval for my entire world,” or anything. It was It was much more just a combination of confirmation of certain things I suspected, as well as the whole, like, “oh your priorities need to change,” and that’s good, because it’s always better to work with primary sources.

It’s not that primary sources are necessarily more reliable in a sense, because they are, after all usually written by one person, each document, and I mean, I work a lot with army documents and that’s really just showing one side of things, but it really does allow you to infer things. Also, when you go for big secondary source material, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you you’re getting kind of a selected choice, a cultivated selection by whoever the author is, whereas when you deal with primary sources a lot, you’re gonna get everything, including what other researchers did not include for a variety of reasons. So, you might find out something that you otherwise did not know. I mean, I use a combination of both, because I’m always working kinda with political theory and stuff like that, so it’s, like, utterly impossible for me to only use primary sources and there’s a plenty of gaps you still have to fill in, even just on the history side, and you’re not always gonna have access to everything. So, you know, it’s always a mixture, of course, but some percentage of primary sources, I find, is always extremely helpful because you will find the things including yes, you will find the things that people are already talking about, of course, but you will find the things that no one else has really brought up yet, when you create your own secondary source, you are effectively bringing new things to life that haven’t been before.

Yeah, I would say the staff has been great, absolutely great. Always willing to help and back me up and that was that kind of personal support obviously makes it work. I would say the source materials itself really make it work too because, you know, where I’m based these days, on the east coast, like yeah, there are certain things I can get and there’s certain things I can’t. Particularly the sheer amount of information on say, for example, the Cherokee Papers you have here, not something that be easy to find it in my area. So that’s also a highlight.

The facility itself is great, access to the museum is wonderful, I love the museum. I went through it my first full day here, really quite thoroughly. I went back yesterday to look back in the back shelves, have a guided tour of some of the stuff that’s back there, so yeah, the whole thing really comes together quite nicely. You’ve got a really big collection, particularly but not obviously entirely of Native American materials and if one is here, even if one wants to see something that is not in their topic of why they’re here, while you’re here you might as well do so. Like, there’s some of the stuff is digitized on the website, I looked at it there, and I was like “well, while I’m pulling out these things that aren’t on the website, I may as well pull out anything that’s particularly relevant there, to see if there’s anything different about it. I would say that it’s obviously always cooler than interact with the physical thing. If I was an anthropologist, if I was an art person yes absolutely. It is very valuable to have that stuff directly in your hands.