Try to define memory and you may well wind up with a riddle.
A totalizing fragment.
A receptacle and that which fills it.
A nebulous noun forged out of definite verbs (yes, they definitely occurred)
that may then encode those verbs unfaithfully—
A shapeshifting piece of history that leads us toward future unknowns.
Moments, passed, that continue to cling to us.
A past we cannot move beyond.
Fuel and flame.
Like the category of religion, the category of memory is unstable and ever-changing. Memories can be lost and found, recovered and reconstructed out of shards. As vessels, they may both haunt and hearten. Based in reality, their substance may change over time. They are, at once, psychic intersections, pathways, and destinations. A collection of memories can carve out the unique contours of an individual’s consciousness or seemingly dissolve the boundaries between thousands of them, drawing them together into a collective mass. Individually and collectively, memories shape us as we shape them.
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Biological memory making—and recollection—is more of an ongoing, fluid process than a straightforward system of storage and retrieval. Scientists have identified a number of forms that memory takes in the human brain. Sensory memory refers to fleeting impressions taken in through sensory receptors—sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. Some of these impressions make their way to short-term memory, which can hold a few pieces of information for a short period of time. Elements that the brain deems beneficial are encoded into long-term memories. The brain has a larger capacity for these types of memories, which can include episodic, implicit, procedural, and semantic forms. While there is a general agreement that synapses are essential to memory creation, and that particular parts of the brain—the amygdala, the hippocampus—play specific roles, scientists have not been able to explain precisely how memories are formed.
Some scientists hold that episodic memories—that is, an individual’s memories of particular events they experienced—remain static once they are encoded in long-term memory storage. However, recent research has challenged those assumptions, demonstrating that memories may change whenever they are accessed. Like delicate sheets of paper in an archive that are subject to wear whenever a researcher handles them, memories may be prone to change with each recollection.
Despite the difficulties of explaining exactly how memory works, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have explored the many ways in which it functions. Many of the conversations I find most compelling regarding the study of religion apply to the subject of memory as well: the politics of memory, how it’s constructed, and its functions at both the individual, communal, and national levels. And, despite the fact that we may first think of memory as something that is immaterial, I’m interested in the materiality of religion and memory—the ways objects and rituals, places and our movements through them, can capture and cultivate memories. Collective memory—and the contested process of memorialization—can be unifying or divisive. Consider efforts to create the US Holocaust Memorial Museum versus recent calls to preserve racist monuments to the Confederacy. Mechanisms of power, control, sovereignty, and governance play important roles in contestations about whose memories matter.
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Memory has played a role in efforts to both erase and preserve Indigenous religions and cultures. In her book Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (2010), Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien drew on her examination of hundreds of local histories to demonstrate that Euro-American settlers in New England attempted to manipulate historical memory for settler colonial purposes. Their process of creating histories, she shows, ignored Native people or created narratives removing them from the land. These histories suggested that Native people had all died or left the area, furthering the idea that Euro-Americans were the rightful occupants to the region. Repeated in textbooks and during public events, these stories furthered collective memories that stood in direct opposition to a very different reality: the ongoing presence of Native nations throughout the Northeast.
These narrative constructions are part of broader mechanisms of empire that have interrupted forms of life, ritual, and memory-making for Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. But memories can also serve as a site of resistance. Jo-ann Archibald, known also as Q’um Q’um Xiiem (strong, clear water), is a member of the Sto:lo Soowahlie First Nation in British Colombia. An educator and researcher whose work focuses on First Nations education in Canada, she works with community members to design culturally relevant educational practices. Her research emphasizes the significance of storytelling in Indigenous teaching, which she describes as storywork. Applying her research on storywork to the concept of memory, she explores an understanding that “entails the development of a storied memory, the living of storied lives, the disruption of memory stories, and the awakening and resurgence of storied memories.” Through training and repetition, Indigenous storytellers develop storied memories, enabling them to pass on important stories to younger generations. Long, complex stories—recounted from memory—contain vital instructions, wisdom, and histories. Regaining these practices central to storied living can help Indigenous communities disrupt traumatic memories.
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Museums play an important role in memory work—a role that is never neutral. My scholarly work explores the history of museum representations of Indigenous religions in the late-nineteenth century, including efforts to collect physical and immaterial artifacts from Native American religious traditions. Museum collection during this era was also a form of settler colonial recollection, creating narratives about the supposed decline of Native traditions. Museum researchers described orality as a feature of “uncivilized” cultures, downplaying the diligence and skill required for storytellers to share knowledge from memory.
Today, museum staff are working to decolonize structures and institutions that were forged during this era. As one example, Native curators at the Field Museum worked closely with community members and artists to create the current exhibit Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. This exhibit presents Apsáalooke (Crow) memory and culture on its own terms. Curator Nina Sanders explains the significance of this: “Every single person who has come here is meant to be here and have an experience that will in some way continue to transform the world we live in.” This approach disrupts earlier forms of museum recollection and brings forth new possibilities for self-determined cultural expression.
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At the individual as well as collective levels, memory making is an ongoing, iterative process with restorative possibilities. After a traumatic experience, I received unwelcome advice: I should not expect to “get over it.” I would never forget the memories from that episode. I was stuck with them. Like weeds, they would remain rooted, with synaptic connections to the all of my other experiences from that period. All I could do would be to keep moving forward, creating new memories, until the noxious ones occupied a smaller section of my collection of memories. What I could not solve via brain chemistry would be soothed through the algebra of time.
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In her recent poetry collection, An American Sunrise, Mvskoke musician, activist, and Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo reflects on the Trail of Tears and its impact on her community and other Native nations of the Southeast. During the 1830s, President Jackson enforced the brutal removal of thousands of Indigenous people from their homelands in order to make land available to Euro-Americans. In the poem “Exile of Memory,” she asks, “Do you know how to make a peaceful road / Through human memory? / And what of the angry ghosts of history?”
Her poetry combines invocations of the past with reflections on how to heal from it. Two lines from her poem “Heartbreak” stick with me: “History will always find you, and wrap you / In its thousand arms.” For better or worse.
What, then, can we ask of memories, individual and collective?
While they may burn,
may they also ignite.