Someone tells you, “There’s nobody on that piece of land,” and you’re invited to stake a claim to it, build a home, move your family, and grow crops. Start a new life for yourself. That was the narrative fed to early European settlers and is commonly referred to as “The Pristine Myth,” meaning the wilderness is untouched and open for the taking. Then you arrive and find that not only are there people, but they’ve been there for thousands of years. I’m going to ask you one question: Has modern day academia created the same siphon?
I can’t think of a better time to discuss an issue as far reaching and impactful as this, being that it’s Native American Heritage Month and on the cusp of Thanksgiving. We often forget that methods of oppression don’t easily disappear. They simply reinvent themselves. It’s hard to decipher the new look at first, but once you peel back the layers: it’s oppression wearing a new mask.
So I can hear you asking, “How has academia created such a problem?” and “What ’empty wilderness’ are you talking about?”
The problem actually manifested out of something benevolent. And it’s an important development in academic institutions. An area of study that I hope continues to grow, but I hope it grows to the advantage of Native people: Native American Studies Programs. At first, these programs grew in larger state universities and this is where they continue to be at their strongest. But then smaller universities and colleges began to open their own NAS programs and sometimes they’re referred to as American Indian Studies or, where I went for my undergrad at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), as Indigenous Liberal Studies (I have a minor in Indigenous Liberal Studies from IAIA).
Great! Right? We need these types of programs and they’ve helped Natives obtain degrees that they’ve taken back to their tribal communities (as I have) and are working hard to make life better for everyone.
But who’s teaching the courses? Native allies? Sure. There are a great number of Native allies and we Native people are grateful for their support. Then we have fake Natives. So what’s the point of claiming to be Native in academia? Great question. My answer: To fill the perception of a void. As in “The Pristine Myth.” But, ultimately, it’s done for money, prestige, and power.
“There are no Natives in academia,” some will say, sounding very similar to so many European settlers centuries ago. But I’ll counter with, “That’s because people keep taking up space in Native-centric fields.” There are Natives with degrees. Many in fact. We fill up positions in our tribal communities. Some of us are well-suited for academia, but how driven are academic institutions to SEEK OUT Natives to fill those positions. Moreover, how driven are academic institutions to expose fakes (who continue to work in their classrooms) claiming to be Native? All it takes is a call to a tribal office, asking “Is so-and-so a registered tribal member?” And if this came from an institution, then the tribes would be more than willing to verify. So why doesn’t that happen? Maybe controversy. I wouldn’t think it controversial. In fact, I’d congratulate the integrity.
There is no void. We are graduating from colleges every year with BAs, MAs, and PhDs. The only way to develop educated Natives is to give them positions and connect them to mentors, who can guide them through the unfamiliar terrain of academia. Instead of giving opportunity and guidance to individuals who have little to no connection to a tribally specific community.
It would be a matter of finding a different approach to locate Natives for academic positions. Our circles are very different. The way we socialize is very different. You’re not going to find us rubbing elbows with academics at a conference. We have gourd dances and stomp dances to organize. You’re not going to find us with a stodgy media release in a magazine none of us read. If these institutions truly wanted to find the right people, they would assign someone as a Native American Liaison who would stay in contact with Native graduates; all of whom would be happy to spread the word and reach out to people they know. This is not complicated business.
What’s truly perplexing? How can someone claim to care for Indigenous people and then take up space knowing they are not from an historically targeted community? Who could be sitting in your seat right now? If someone from a targeted, tribally specific community had your position, how could that positively affect Native people deep inside that community?
Some of us step outside our front door every day and see Natives strung out on meth walking down our street (as I will today). We don’t live in suburbia. We live in the heart of our tribal communities. And somehow the fakes can better represent us?
I call bullshit!
(The first image above was borrowed from wikipedia)