Professor Andrew Fisher is an associate professor in the history department and has been working at the College of William and Mary since 2004. He specializes in teaching modern Native American history, environmental history and the American West. He is currently teaching History 226: The American West Since 1890 and History 301: The Historian’s Craft.
Fisher’s interests align with many current events, prompting him to develop new classes that address these topics, such as climate change. In Fall 2022, Fisher taught a COLL 150 History course titled “Climate Change and Historical Perspective,” which covered climate change over the last 500-600 years.
“I like to develop new courses, particularly that speak to current issues,” Fisher said. “So, that class was driven in part by my own climate anxiety, you know, desire to feel like I was doing something and to help students understand it as well. The ‘Historian’s Craft’ class that I’m teaching right now is focused on the history and historiography of the Federal Indian boarding schools and I’m connecting that also to the 300th anniversary of the Brafferton that we’re commemorating this year.”
Fisher is also the chair of the history department’s Tyler Lecture Committee. The committee is putting together a symposium that will bring speakers to the College in coming months.
“I like to teach classes that get students thinking about the connections between the past and the present, about how the past is never really dead,” Fisher said. “Those are probably my favorites, when I can come up with a new class and spin it that way.”
Over winter break, Fisher led a group of students to New Zealand to study history of the Māori people and the effects of settler-colonialism. Fisher first had the idea for this trip during his time at the Native American Indigenous Studies Conference in 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia. During the conference, faculty and representatives from various universities in New Zealand encouraged people to bring students to the country.
“I like to teach classes that get students thinking about the connections between the past and the present, about how the past is never really dead. Those are probably my favorites, when I can come up with a new class and spin it that way.”
“At that point, I had done the Galway program, which I did again in 2018,” Fisher said. “Then, in 2019, I went to Adelaide, Australia, with students on our established program there. The focus was settler-colonialism, which is an interest of mine, and Aboriginal history. So, I started thinking, could we do the same thing in New Zealand, which the Māori call Aotearoa? Couldn’t we go to Aotearoa and study Indigenous history and the effects of settler colonialism on Māori people?”
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Fisher’s idea in prior years, but finally materialized this past winter.
“It was a great success,” Fisher said. “Students loved it. They loved our students. The University of Auckland faculty and international program staff that we interacted with, they love our students’ energy. They said that William and Mary students are highly engaged, even compared favorably to the Dartmouth program which was over there at the same time. They really enjoyed interacting with our students, even though the class they took, the Māori studies class they took, which was team-taught, was at 8AM”
Fisher remarked on the incredibly integrative experiences on the trip, which gave students ample opportunities to get to know native and Indigenous people from the area.
“For me, it was very gratifying because it actually engaged students far more than other programs I’ve been involved with, with native people, with Indigenous people in New Zealand,” Fisher said. “In addition to the one credit Māori studies course, which was team-taught by two Māori faculty, there was an excursion on New Year’s Day that took us to several important cultural and historic sights in the Auckland area and that was led by two Māori women, including Bianca Ranson from the Piritahi Marae on Waiheke Island. And then at the end of the program, our last thing really, was to go to Waiheke Island.”
The group of students who visited the marae, or fenced-in complex belonging to an iwi, or tribe, stayed for two nights in the wharenui, which is the carved meeting house. Students participated in various activities, including snorkeling for sea urchins, which are called kina.
“Kina have become a problem because their natural predators, like red snapper, have been overfished to the point that sea urchin populations are exploding and they eat all the kelp forests, which are really important for sustaining life in that ecosystem,” Fisher said. “The Māori and other people who are concerned will go out and catch as many kina as they can and then they crack them open and eat the roe that’s inside.”
“It was a very hands-on look at what sustainability means and what traditional ecological knowledge looks like in practice in the 21st century.”
“It was a very hands-on look at what sustainability means and what traditional ecological knowledge looks like in practice in the 21st century,” Fisher said.
Back at the College, Fisher has also been doing litigation support work over the last seven years in the form of research and expert witness testimony on behalf of the Yakama nation. He also previously worked for Yakama citizens who own businesses facing conflict with the state in regards to taxation and treaty rights.
“I’m also very engaged and interested in, I guess what we’d say, applied research, where the rubber hits the road, history and the law, which is very important in Native American history especially,” Fisher said. “A lot of legal issues surrounding Native nations are really more about history than they are the law.”
Currently, Fisher is working on a biography of Nipo Strongheart, who was born George Mitchell Jr. to parents George and Lenora Mitchell in May of 1891.
“His ancestry is still a mystery to me, but he claimed to be Yakama, he claimed that his mother was Yakama and his father was white,” Fisher said. “There’s very little hard evidence to confirm that, but over a lifetime in show business, from the Wild West shows through theater, to film, he basically made himself into Nipo Strongheart and made himself useful to the Yakama nation and was ultimately adopted by a family and he’s now buried on the reservation.”
“He was kind of a cultural edutainer. He was trying to use spectacle and entertainment and his persona as a chief to get the attention of white audiences but then deliver a message of the continued presence of Native people and their need for help and vindication of their rights, starting with citizenship and then also sovereignty as independent nations.”
Strongheart joined his father in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1902 and the Lakota cast members gave him the name “Nipo.” However, the portrayal of Native Americans as “savage” individuals in the Buffalo Bill performance bothered Strongheart. He made it a priority to use his career to portray Native Americans in the entertainment industry without reinforcing harmful tropes.
“I’m using his career to look at both issues of Native American identity, what it means to be Indian and be accepted by a community and also the intersection between performance and activism,” Fisher said. “He was kind of a cultural edutainer. He was trying to use spectacle and entertainment and his persona as a chief to get the attention of white audiences but then deliver a message of the continued presence of Native people and their need for help and vindication of their rights, starting with citizenship and then also sovereignty as independent nations.”
This biography will be Fisher’s second publication. His first work, Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity, was published in 2010 and is an in-depth historical piece on the native communities of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River.
As Fisher continues conducting research for his new written work, engaging in litigation support work and teaching students at the College, he looks forward to taking a group of students to New Zealand next winter for another immersive experience.