Since 1996, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has paid tribute to a long-serving and distinguished emeritus professor through an alumni lecture in his honor. Professor Merle E. Simmons was a scholar of Spanish American Colonial Literature at IU from 1942 to 1983. Professor Simmons' contributions to the department and to scholarship included authoring seven books, developing the program of study in Spanish American Colonial Literature at Indiana University, and serving as director of graduate studies for seven years and department chair for five. Each year, the department honors Professor Simmons by inviting a distinguished alum to visit Bloomington, speak to the department's faculty and students, and reconnect with their roots as a part of the Merle E. Simmons Distinguished Alumni (MESDA) Lecture.
After a hiatus during the pandemic, we were thrilled to bring back the MESDA lecture on April 21, 2022 with a presentation by Dr. Galen Brokaw (M.A., 1996, Ph.D. 1999). When Dr. Brokaw visited, he revealed that after completing his degree in Political Science at Weber State University (1994), he planned on going to law school. But his strong interest in languages and cultures brought him to IU. He came to the department as a polyglot, with fluency or a strong working knowledge in seven languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Korean. Once here, he proceeded to learn Nahuatl, working with Dr. Joseph Campbell and began delving into the archives at the Lilly Library, where he would decipher Spanish-Nahua pictographic documents. This foray into the Lilly soon became his first collaborative publication, “Footprints through Time” (with fellow graduate students and Dr. Gordon Brotherston).
Galen also became involved in another indigenous American writing system/language: the khipu, the knotted-Andean system of record keeping. In a colonial Latin American course held at the Lilly Library, he presented his first reading of Guaman Poma and argued that knowing more about the khipu might shed new light on Guaman Poma’s text, which had only recently been rediscovered and published. This initial insight about the indigenous influences in Guaman Poma’s work became a dissertation, and the dissertation later led him to a broader focus on indigenous cultures and writing systems in which he employed a highly interdisciplinary and theoretical approach.
The rest is history, as they say! Galen received his Ph.D. from IU in 1999 with a minor in History, moved on to a visiting position at Harvard University, was tenured at the SUNY-Buffalo, and for the last decade has been department chair at Montana State University in Bozeman. Dr. Brokaw has been awarded prestigious fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Montana State University’s Excellence in Service-Learning Award.
While Dr. Brokaw’s teaching and publications cover a wide range of topics, including Cervantes, Borges, and Phonetics, his most sustained engagement in research has been in the field of Colonial Latin American Studies with a particular emphasis on indigenous cultures and indigenous writing systems. Taking indigenous American media as a point of departure, he has made a significant contribution to orality and literacy studies, by proposing a dialogic model of literacy (and media more broadly) that reconciles and goes beyond the autonomous and ideological models that had been proposed previously. In addition, his book published by Cambridge UP, A History of the Khipu is the first in-depth study of the history of the Andean knotted cord device from pre-Columbian times through around 1650. His monograph definitively debunked the wide-spread notion that these devices were banned and burned after the Third Lima Council. Dr. Brokaw continues to collaborate with people from his graduate student cohort at IU, including Dr. Jongsoo Lee, with whom he has published two co-edited volumes, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl and His Legacy (U Arizona P, 2016) and Texcoco: Prehispanic and Colonial Perspectives (UP of Colorado, 2014). Dr. Brokaw has also published with another IU alumnus, Pablo García Loaeza, working on indigenous historiography from the conquest to the present. This year, Dr. Brokaw published an article, “Homo alphabeticus, Glottographic Exceptionalism, and the Ethnocentric Definition of Writing,” in the prestigious Publication of the Modern Languages Association.
Currently, Dr. Brokaw is working on a long-term project that studies the issue of translation in the colonial period. His talk on April 21st, “Colonial Translation, Ethnohistorical Sources, and Inca Paintings,” was part of this project and circled back to his time at IU and at the Lilly Library, where he saw portraits of Incan nobility on display. His presentation urged us to consider more closely how sources, translations, and different writing systems are interpreted. The lecture was followed by an end of the year reception to celebrate Dr. Simmons, our ability to carry on during the pandemic, and to meet again in person!