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Washington State University Graduate School

Indians to Indians:  Research in the American West and India

Ph.D. Candidate Ryan Booth Wins Fulbright U.S. Student Program Award

By Yue Huang

The potential links between seemingly isolated historic events in different regions of the world is an interesting concept that drew the attention of doctoral candidate Ryan Wayne Booth.

His research project, “Indians to Indians: A Comparison of Imperial Armies of the American West and the British Raj” received this year’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program award. The research aims at evidencing the parallels between the governments’ use of indigenous auxiliary solders in American West and Indian Northeast— two regions about eight thousands of miles away from each other.

Ryan is a Ph.D. candidate from the Department of History at WSU and is the ninth WSU student from the history discipline to receive a Fulbright, and the fifth to research or teach in India.

With the Fulbright fund, Ryan will research in India for nine months, beginning this August.

Indians to Indians

Ryan is a member of the Upper Skagit Indian tribe living in Washington State. As a Native American, he has long been interested in American Native history, especially the indigenous U.S. frontier scouts.

Yet, researching in India has percolated in Ryan’s mind for more than 10 years driven somewhat by his awareness of similarities between indigenous histories in the Indian Northeast and American West.

“I recognize that governments in the two regions, the U.S. government in American West and the British one in Indian Northeast during the period of time they were controlling the areas, treated indigenous people in some similar ways: with military force, missionaries, and educational systems such as boarding schools,” says Ryan. “I think this is not a coincidence. There had to be some communication.”

With such assumptions, Ryan attempted to figure out the connections between governance in the two regions, focusing in particular on how the governments utilized and viewed the indigenous auxiliary solders. The Fulbright award will provide him the opportunity to research directly in India and gain first-hand evidence.

“My research on the connections begins to look at the big picture of historic events worldwide, which will help better understand world history,” says Ryan

Upcoming Study in India

Ryan has a clear plan on his upcoming nine-month research in India: He will spend the first two months in Kolkata, working with Dr. Kayshik Roy at Jadavpur University; Then, he will spend two months in the national archives in New Delhi, the capital city of India, examining documents on the Indian frontier. During the last five months, he will stay at a Jesuit-school community in Assum, interviewing some descendants of the British government’s indigenous auxiliary solders.

Ryan is excited about his upcoming research overseas. “The beauty of the Fulbright is that it gives me the chance to be exposed to different culture, different ways of looking at things, and to represent the U.S. abroad,” says Ryan.

He believes what he finds will benefit the indigenous people in India through inspiring other people to get close to their history.

“I think part of the knowledge power is to know where the resources are and bring them back to those communities,” says Ryan. “I regard this as my obligation as a scholar.”

However, Ryan also has some worries. One comes from the language, as not all people in India, especially in the Assum area where he will conduct most of the study, can understand English. As a result, he has to largely rely on the interpreter.

Another worry is related to the culture there; that is, the people may close the door to outsiders such as him. This worry comes from his own experience living in an indigenous community during his childhood.

“The community I grew up in is quite closed to outsiders,” he says. “I experienced that by myself. I moved there after I was 10. It was very hard. There were certain people who excluded me because I did not grow up in that community, even though I had the blood and had my grandparents there.”

Ryan considers he may encounter the same situation when researching in India, where people who do not know him will not trust him. “Thankfully, I have the experience before, so this will not shock me,” says Ryan. “I’m not a 10-year-old boy anymore.”

Pursuing a Ph.D.

With a B.A. in History and Philosophy and a M.A. in History, Ryan came to study in the history doctoral program at WSU in 2016. His research focus is the American West, Pacific Northwest History, and Borderlands.

Recalling the main reason why he chose to pursue a Ph.D. after earning the B.A. and M.A. and taking several jobs between degrees such as a park ranger in the North Cascades National Park and a history teacher at Wenatchee Valley College, Ryan says he considered two things most: his unstoppable passion for history and future career development.

Ryan developed an interest in history when he was around 10-years-old, when he heard the story of the Titanic for the first time. “I was so interested in knowing everything about it. I read everything about it in our school’s public library,” says Ryan. “I tried to place myself in that moment and to imagine what might look like there.”

Reading the materials about Titanic, Ryan also couldn’t help but think, “what would happen if…” This way of looking at history gave him a passion to learn more, and shaped the way he views history: learning something about human nature and how to correct our mistakes.

Ryan’s dream job after receiving his Ph.D. degree is to be a faculty member at a university, teaching and researching history. “Now, the Fulbright opens a new opportunity to me to participate in some global discussions about how empires treat indigenous people. I hope maybe someday to be a historian who is in the room when they, the policy makers, are making decisions about my area besides American West military history. I hope I can be a part of those kinds of discussions,” says Ryan with a smile.

During the process of making his dream come true, Ryan highly appreciates the History program at WSU. “I would say that in the area of Native American history, WSU’s program is the best in the U.S. Northwest,” says Ryan. “The quality of professors in my program is impressive. For example, my advisor, Dr. Peter Boag, is well respected in this area. Among people who study American West history, my advisor is very well regarded. That is my reason of choosing WSU besides the friendly, hospitable environment here.”

You can read more about Ryan Wayne Booth at https://news.wsu.edu/2019/03/22/wsu-history-student-ryan-booth-receives-fulbright-study-india/ and find more about American West, Pacific Northwest History, and Borderlands program at WSU.