A conversation with Robbie Richardson

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Oct. 11, 2021

Robbie Richardson, a member of Pabineau First Nation (Mi’kmaw) in New Brunswick, Canada, and an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, specializes in 18th-century British and transatlantic literature and culture. His research into interactions between Indigenous and European cultures connects interests in Indigenous studies, art and material culture, the history of museums and collecting, and the literature of empire. Richardson taught the spring 2021 course “Topics in 18th-Century Literature: North American ‘Indians’ in Transatlantic Contexts.”

His book The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2018) examines representations of North American “Indians” in novels, poetry, captivity narratives, plays, and material culture from 18th-century Britain, and argues that depictions of “Indians” in British literature were used to critique and articulate evolving ideas about consumerism, colonialism, “Britishness,” and, ultimately, the “modern self” over the course of the century.

Richardson received his Ph.D. in English and cultural studies from McMaster University, followed by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellowship through the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. He came to Princeton after seven years based in London, teaching at the University of Kent in Canterbury and Paris.

Over email, Richardson discussed his current project, his research and teaching in Europe and at Princeton. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

Are there differences useful to note in how Indigenous peoples are and aren’t present and engaged with in settings where you’ve researched and taught?

There are some important differences. This is particularly evident in the museum setting; while it is far from perfect, curatorial practice in North America tends to at least attempt to integrate Indigenous voices and expertise. European museums often do not feel obliged to do this, and as a result, can feel like unreconstructed celebrations of empire or fraught fetishizations of “primitive” peoples. Their shortcomings have made them rich places to bring students and critique the institutions, of course, but they need to change.

In Britain and on the continent, the romanticized, New Age representation of Native peoples as closer to nature and thus more authentic is still a pervasive idea, while our current lived realities are of less interest. But there are some excellent scholars trying to fix this; one of my former colleagues at the University of Kent, David Stirrup, has run a massive grant called “Beyond the Spectacle” that looks at Indigenous visitors to Britain, and he’s brought over many Native artists and academics to speak at events.

Another important difference is that European institutions do not typically have Indigenous people working or studying at them, though the same can be said of many places in North America. But change is slowly happening here, and here we can be more directly engaged with Native nations.

Have you noticed differences or continuities in awareness, discussion of empire (specific empires and empire as a state and cultural practice)?

I was surprised when I first started teaching in the U.K. in 2013 by how little British students knew about empire. I’ve seen that awareness grow somewhat, but this has produced a reactionary response from some politicians, who see this awareness as some kind of attack on the past and the noble British nation. It’s all a bit depressing, but I’ve been impressed by the critical thinking skills and interest in learning more from young people.

Needless to say, British students typically know very little about Indigenous North American people. Yet this is also true in North America itself; students here are aware of things like land acknowledgements and some Indigenous-related political movements, but typically don’t know that much about the material reality in a lot of communities. And I think it’s important to understand that the United States too is an empire, built on stolen Native land, with continued interests that heavily impact the rest of the world.

Read the full interview: