Dr. Alexandra Harmon is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Her books include Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Northwest Indian Treaties, and Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound.
Interviewed by Julie Lucas:
How much time do you spend researching (for the specific book)? How do you know when you have enough information gathered in order for you to write your book?
I can only give a rough estimate of the time I spent in research because I did not do it continuously. I fit my work in libraries and archives around my graduate classes and teaching responsibilities. So the research was under way for about three or four years, but if I had been able to do it full time, it might have taken only a year and a half.
It is hard to know when to stop researching. I tried to identify and look at all the most likely sources of information and then stop when I reached the point where new sources were not yielding new information that would change the emerging. But I also had to set an almost arbitrary cut off time in order to move on to other things. (The cut off can be necessary because of a need to fulfill Ph.D. requirements or a book contract.) Once I started writing, I found a few holes in the evidence and had to go back for a little more, narrowly targeted research.
How much time did it actually take you to write the book?
Again, this is hard to estimate. Ideally, it takes one or two months of steady work to write one chapter. But I write slowly and don’t usually have to spend much time revising.
How do you stay focused researching going through the information?
This can be hard. Research can lead to interesting “detours.” I prefer to research and write about one topic at a time, but that’s not always practical. For example, when I travel to a distant library or archive, I need to get the research done on all the topics for which that library or archive may have records. Also, when writing, I sometimes work on separate portions of the story nearly simultaneously, usually so that I can find out whether there are holes in my evidence.
On a big book project, the real challenge is working out a system for keeping track of a lot of information, some of which I won’t end up using. Thank goodness for the digital age, which allows me to save notes electronically and search them for key words.
Did you write your book from personal interviews you conducted? If so, what did you learn?
For my book Indians in the Making, I did not do personal interviews of people who were witnesses to the history I was researching. That is usually an enjoyable kind of research, but it takes a great deal of time, has unpredictable results, involves some special ethical and legal requirements, and still must be paired with archival research.
What responses have you gained from society and friends about your book?
The published reviews of Indians in the Making were all quite positive, and it won a state book award. A gratifying number of colleagues — other history instructors and graduate students, mainly — have told me that they found the book very useful. I also know that it has been useful because many history scholars have cited it in more recent books, in articles, and in on-line sources such as History Link. But it is an academic history, and so it can be a challenging read for people who are not serious history scholars. I don’t know how many of those people have read it. Somewhat to my surprise, quite a few Indian people from western Washington tribes have told me how much they appreciate the book. But then, it’s not very likely that people who dislike it would tell me that directly.
Has writing this book changed your life somehow or in what way?
Well, I guess my desire to write such a book, and the fact that I did get it written, explain why I am now a full-time historian and history teacher instead of a lawyer. It is satisfying to have crafted something that is interesting and useful to a lot of people, so that experience made me want to do more history research and writing and to keep getting better at that if I can.