Recent Faculty Publications: Q & A with Yanna Yannakakis about ‘Power of Attorney’

Associate Professor of History Yanna Yannakakis recently launched a digital publication entitled “Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks.” Yannakakis, who is a specialist of colonial Mexico and also holder of the Winship Distinguished Research Professorship in History (2018-2021), discusses the making of this innovative digital humanities project in the latest installment of “Recent Faculty Publications.” Read the Q & A below and check out the project here.

Extensive projects like these are produced over years if not decades. Give us a sense for the lifespan of this project, from initial idea through final production.

I came up with the idea for this project in the fall of 2013. I had been researching indigenous legal culture in colonial Oaxaca, Mexico and had encountered dozens of letters of attorney – a simple and formulaic genre of notarial document — produced by native litigants in the state’s judicial archive. I noticed that in addition to information about native litigation, the letters contained spatial data, including the names of native communities and the locations of their legal representatives. I began to wonder if I could map the interethnic relationships and networks created by power of attorney across the space of the Spanish empire, from the remote highlands of Oaxaca to Madrid, Spain and places in-between. I brought my research questions to Emory’s Center for Digital Studies, which serves as an incubator for digital projects, and in collaboration with my colleagues at ECDS, we developed a research plan and method. We launched the pilot for the project in May 2018, and the work is ongoing.

Digital humanities projects often entail collaborative work with other historians as well as specialists who work primarily outside of the humanities. Who were the partners on this project and how did you all develop productive approaches to dialogue and workflow across disciplines?

Digital humanities is by definition collaborative because it is rare for a single scholar to be able to master all of the necessary skills. In my case, I had graduate research assistants – Selene García Jiménez (El Colegio de México); Jon Coulis, Angie Picone, and Alex Cors (Emory University) – photographing, transcribing, and culling data from letters of attorney. At ECDS, Joanna Mundy, Sara Palmer, and Jennifer Doty contributed to the design of the project data base, and Sara oversaw the production of the Gephi network graphs. Megan Slemens, ECDS GIS librarian, and Michael Page, ECDS Geographer spatialized the Gephi network graphs in Google Earth, and developed CARTO maps. Phil MacLeod, Latin American Studies Librarian at Woodruff Library helped me to locate historical maps and geographical data. Julius Kniffki, a freelance photographer contributed photos for the website (as did I), and Erin Hecht, a freelance web-designer developed the streamlined and user-friendly and artful layout for the website. I designed the categories of analysis, interpreted the maps and visualizations, and wrote the text for the site.

Coordinating workflow could at times be a challenge, especially at the outset when my graduate assistants and I seemed to be speaking a different language from our ECDS colleagues. The historical context of eighteenth century Oaxaca – from the names of native communities, to the geographic layout of administrative units, to notarial language – required translation and explanation. So too did the language of relational databases, network graphs, and google earth coordinates, especially since all of it was novel to me. After about 18 months of work, we found our groove, and came to understand what each part of the team needed and where to find it. It was really rewarding to develop these collaborative relationships over time and see the project unfold.

How do the maps and visualizations on the site reshape our understanding of indigenous legal culture?

It has been hard to shake the misconception that native communal life in colonial Mexico was parochial; that, as the saying goes, it extended no further than what could be seen from the church bell tower. It is true that many conflicts and concerns were locally rooted and oriented around communal structures. But as the maps and visualizations of Power of Attorney demonstrate, native people were well aware of the spatial organization of colonial bureaucracy and the court system, and they contracted legal representation in order to maximize their advantage within the patchwork of legal jurisdictions that made up the Spanish Empire. Scholarship on native litigation has blossomed in the last decade, so the argument about native legal strategizing is not new. But seeing how relationships born of litigation played out in space and over time, and how they connected native communities to one another and to distant courts provides a much richer understanding of the material and cultural ties that bound the empire. Crucially, the trajectory of these relationships, initiated by native litigants, moves from the indigenous region outward, rather than the other way around.

How does this project align with your broad research agenda?

I am currently writing a book about native justice and jurisdiction in Oaxaca from the eighteenth century through the first three decades after Mexico’s independence from Spain. “Power of Attorney” has helped me to understand in much greater depth the relationship between native and Spanish jurisdictions. It has also helped me to train my eye on contracts (letters of attorney were a form of contract) as a key source for understanding changes in customary law and legal and institutional relationships at a variety of scales. Early on, I imagined that this project would be part of the book, but then decided to keep the two projects separate. As the book has developed, though, I am beginning to see more connections, and am re-thinking how they might come together.

Dr. Jason Ward Publishes Piece in ‘Southern Spaces’

Congratulations to Jason Ward, acting professor of History, who recently authored a piece for Southern Spaces. The article reviews Melanie S. Morrison’s Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). Read Ward’s article here: “Shades of Violence: Jim Crow Justice and Black-Resistance in the Depression-Era South.

 

 

Graduate Students Alexander Cors and Shari Wejsa Publish Blog Entries for HASTAC

Second-year graduate students Alexander Cors and Shari Wejsa are the two 2017-18 HASTAC Scholars at Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Cors and Wejsa recently published entries on the blog of HASTAC, which stands for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. Check out links to their recent posts and read their HASTAC biographies below.

Alexander Cors

My research interests broadly encompass transatlantic history in the early modern period, from 1450 to 1850. Geographically, my focus is on Latin America and Europe. I am particularly interested in colonial Louisiana, the circum-Caribbean, and Bourbon Spain.

My current project investigates migration and settlement patterns, immigration policies, and discourses on foreigners in eighteenth-century Louisiana. I am particularly concerned with questions of ethnicity, integration, and identity in the early modern transatlantic empires of France and Spain. I am also interested in Digital Humanities, especially the use of GIS technology to create ethnolinguistic maps of the eighteenth-century Mississippi Valley.

Shari Wejsa 

As a PhD student in Latin American history, I study the experiences of Angolan and Mozambican immigrants and refugees in Brazil in the postcolonial period. I examine how their migratory experiences have shaped their identities as they adapted to Brazil while remaining connected to their countries of origin. I also explore how international human rights law and evolving immigration policies have affected the lives of these migrants. My research interests are an extension of my Fulbright Commission-sponsored work on Brazil’s National Truth Commission, which investigated the human rights violations committed during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), and the inequities of educational access for Afro-Brazilian girls and women in Bahia. As an educator, I seek to cultivate critical thinking on issues of human rights and social justice while advocating for active engagement as transformative power.

$300,000 Mellon Grant Supports Updates and Expansions to ‘Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database’

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship a $300,000 grant to support the updating and expansion of Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Robert W. Woodruff Emeritus Professor of History David Elits and Professor of History Allen E. Tullos are co-directors of the project. The funding will specifically fund the development of “People of the Atlantic Slave Trade” (PAST), a new feature of the database and website focused on the biographies of historical figures linked to the slave trade. Read more about the grant at the Emory News Center.

Innovative Teaching and Learning in Crespino’s “History 385: Right-Wing America” Culminates in “Documenting the Right” Student Film Festival

Students in Dr. Joseph Crespino‘s fall 2017 class, “History 385: Right-Wing America,” produced short documentary films that were screened on November 29 at the “Documenting the Right” Student Film Festival. Students took advantage of Emory’s rich library holdings in crafting videos whose themes ranged from racism in the career of George Wallace to Atlanta’s motto as the “city too busy to hate.” Read more about the project on the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship Blog: “Emory history class uses digital storytelling to study political movements.”

Illustrated Excerpt of Peterson’s ‘Indians in the Family’ in ‘Southern Spaces’

Dawn Peterson, Assistant Professor of History, published an illustrated excerpt of the introduction to her newest book in Southern Spaces. The book is titled Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion and published by Harvard University Press this year. As explained on the Southern Spaces page, the book “looks at a group of white slaveholders who adopted Southeast Indian boys (Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw) into their plantation households in the decades following the US Revolution. While these adoptions might seem novel at first glance, they in fact reveal how the plantation household—and the racialized kinship structures that underpin it—increasingly came to shape human life for American Indians, African Americans, and Euro-Americans after the emergence of the United States.” Check out the piece on Southern Spaces, which includes a fascinating series of images that range from a Catawba deerskin map (1724) to a photo of Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School (circa 1900).