Jack Forbes, scholar and gentleman

Author and Native Studies Trailblazer Jack Forbes, 77, Passes

Tanya Lee
6/20/11

Jack D. Forbes believed that the Native peoples of the Americas should articulate their own histories in their own words, define who they were as individuals and as tribal members and, above all, shape and make manifest their own futures based on their own values. He was a man who walked—and taught—what he believed and in so doing touched the lives of generations of students and colleagues, and changed the course of Native American history. The Indians of this hemisphere and the indigenous peoples of the world lost a devoted scholar and good friend when Forbes died at Sutter Davis Hospital in Davis, California, after a short illness on February 23. He was 77.

Forbes’s colleagues and students say he was a visionary, a builder, a great intellect, a mentor, a fine scholar, a poet and a novelist. He was a founder of the Native American studies program—and later department—at the University of California at Davis during a time when students and intellectuals at universities across the country were demanding drastic changes in what would be taught, and who would teach it.

Isao Fujimoto, senior lecturer emeritus at U.C. Davis in the graduate program in community development, came to the university at the same time Forbes did, in the late 1960s. “It was a tumultuous time,” he recalls. “Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been assassinated. There were upheavals everywhere. At the university level, there were calls for change.” He and Forbes would be colleagues for more than 40 years.

One of the first things Forbes and his colleagues did was to look at the existing scholarship. “It was amazing—most of what was out there was written by people who were not part of the ethnic group they were writing about,” Fujimoto says. “Outsiders wrote about African Americans and Latinos. Almost all of the writing about Native Americans had been done by non-Natives.”
Forbes (Powhatan-Renape/Delaware-Lenape) and his colleagues built the U.C. Davis Native American studies program from scratch. It was a model followed throughout the country.

Born at Bahia de los Alamitos in Suanga (Long Beach), California in 1934 and raised on a half-acre farm in El Monte del Sur in the San Gabriel Valley and in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, Jack Forbes earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1955 at the University of Southern California, and his post-graduate degrees there as well—a master’s in 1956, and a doctorate in history and anthropology in 1959, all at the extraordinary age of 25. He was in his mid-30s when he arrived at Davis, and the idea for a Native American studies program was something he had been thinking about since 1961 or 1962, says his wife, Carolyn.

Jack Forbes red blood book cover

The original faculty for the U.C. Davis Native American studies program consisted of Forbes, David Risling (Yurok-Karuk-Hoopa), Carl N. Gorman (Navajo) and Sarah Hutchison (Cherokee). Chris Peters, (Pohlik-lah/Karuk) president and chief executive officer of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, was one of Forbes’s students during this period. “Jack was building a Native American studies curriculum and then a department. It was the first Native American studies program in the University of California system.”

From the beginning, says Inés Hernández-Avila (Nez Perce/Chicana), current chair of the Native American studies department at U.C. Davis, Forbes believed that Native American studies should not include only tribes in the U.S. “He was a visionary. He realized the hemisphere was indigenous. This concept is just beginning to be accepted.”

Fujimoto concurs: “Jack was at the very forefront of ethnic studies. He attracted Native American students to Davis. He also was a founder of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl (D-Q) University. That institution laid the groundwork for tribal colleges.” Peters says Forbes was on “the leading edge of a new intelligence of Native America” and that was precisely what he was interested in fostering at D-Q University. Located in Davis, D-Q was the first Native American–controlled college in the U.S. located outside a reservation. Forbes said in a speech he gave at a National Indian Education Association conference in 1979 that the university “was conceived as an integral part of a national liberation struggle for the Indian race.” D-Q was founded in 1971 and Forbes taught there on a volunteer basis for 25 years, where he stressed pan-Indianism, ignoring geographical and other boundaries imposed by colonialism. D-Q survived until 2005, when it lost its federal funding and then its accreditation.

Jack Forbes lived what he taught—his was not a life totally devoted to the halls of academia. Hernández-Avila recalls, “Jack would step up on behalf of people, issues and communities. He was passionate about what he saw that needed to be revealed. He put the light of his mind and consciousness and words to areas that he felt had been ignored.”

Peters adds, “I guess the philosophy of the department was that the university was great for academic work, but the real education was in the community. Jack sent us into the community, to be part of the larger political movement in Indian country. He asked us, ‘What can you do for your community? You need to learn who you are.’?”

Forbes’s reputation as a scholar went far beyond the borders of the United States. Martha Macri (Cherokee), current director of the Native American Language Center at U.C. Davis, says, “One of the things he did was to represent Native peoples all over the world. He was a traveling scholar in Europe—Ireland, France—doing research for his book The American Discovery of Europe. He had friends and contacts all over Europe.” He was a visiting Fulbright professor at England’s University of Warwick, held the Tinbergen Chair at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, was a visiting scholar at Oxford University in England and a senior Fulbright scholar at the University of Essex in England. He was as a guest lecturer on three continents, having been to Russia, Japan, Britain, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico.

“Jack was a very disciplined and conscientious scholar, always writing,” says Fujimoto. His best-known books are The American Discovery of Europe (2007), Only Approved Indians: Stories (1995), Black Africans and Native Americans: Color, Race and Caste in the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (1988), Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism (1992), Apache, Navajo and Spaniard (1960). Other titles include Native American Higher Education, The Struggle for the Creation of D-Q University, 1960-1971 (1985), Native Americans of California and Nevada (1969) and Proposition 209: Radical Equalizer or Racist Trick? (1997). He also published poetry and a novel, Red Blood (1997).

Fujimoto recalls, “He was working no matter what. I remember he took his son out on a birthday treat and brought a stack of index cards with him, making notes for a class.”

Jennie Luna (Xicana), a former doctoral student under Forbes’s tutelage received her degree this month. She met him when he was doing a stint at the University of California at Berkeley in the late-1990s. She recalls, “It still kind of amazes me that he agreed to be my dissertation chair. We would walk past his office and people would say, ‘That’s Jack Forbes!’ He was larger than life.”

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