Salaita’s Background Is What the College Wanted, Not His Free Speech
The move from Virginia to Illinois was already in the works when Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian American scholar in Native American studies, was informed on August 1 by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise that the school would not be needing his services.
The firing came 15 days before Salaita was to address his first class at UIUC and came amidst him sharing his position on the current attacks by Israel in Gaza.
His extensive body of work speaks volumes about what he offers in the classroom and shows why the faculty search committee selected him.
“Steven was a candidate in an open field search where we were looking for the best person available in the field of American Indian and Indigenous studies,” Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen, Director of American Indian Studies and professor of American Indian Studies, English and History at UIUC said. Warrior served as a member of Salaita’s dissertation team at the University of Oklahoma – not as his advisor or a member of the committee that chose him as a finalist – so Warrior has been aware of Salaita’s work for a long time.’
It is Salaita’s unique scholarship that led the faculty search committee to select him, Warrior said.
“What became compelling about his work is the comparative analysis of the experiences of American Indian people and Palestinian people, which is at the heart of his work,” Warrior said. “Steven was trained primarily as a scholar in Native American Indian studies, specifically in American Indian literature at the University of Oklahoma and it was from that standpoint that he did his comparative work in Palestinian and Palestinian American literature… and, really, any topic he takes on still comes out of that American Indian and indigenous perspective.”
In addition to his six published books, Salaita is a prolific writer of essays and opinion pieces for Salon and other publications. His ideas are smart and bold and his writing is clear and witty with no holds barred. In “We must give the land back: America’s brutality toward Native Americans continues today” he argues that the United States “absolutely should return stolen land to the Indians. That’s precisely what its treaty obligations require it to do.”
In “Nothing scarier than a nervous white man” Salaita presents a fresh perspective on the “Redskins” debate being about white privilege.
“Whiteness has always been defined in contradistinction to the invented authenticity of the Indian, who is typecast as barbaric but romanticized as the shamanistic guide to North America’s indigenous spaces, those mystical geographies of the settler’s overactive imagination. (We see the same phenomenon in the Zionist appropriation of ostensibly Oriental culture, as when an Israel Day celebration on my campus featured traditional Arabic food and a live camel.),” Salaita writes. “The historical Indian, then, was dispossessed and has been retrofitted to Hollywood specifications, repatriated only to the extent that he can serve as a passive emblem of American identity. Humane assimilationists of the past set out to save the man but kill the Indian. These days the goal is to save the fake Indian so we don’t kill the white man.”
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