Are Native American Studies Programs Doing a Good Job?

Duane Champagne

How long should a grievance be allowed to fester? When it comes to many Native American studies programs, the answer seems to be, “For too long.”

Decolonization, resistance to assimilation, critical indigenous studies, and other negatively focused aspects of the Indian experience are now common in such programs. This is all well and good; properly critiquing American history and acts toward indigenous communities has a role in the curriculum. But such an emphasis is misplaced if taken to extremes.

Some university Indian studies programs now advocate anticolonial and decolonization teachings. By ridding ourselves of colonized viewpoints, the thinking goes, a person can free oneself from colonized thinking and compliance. It follows that if everyone in every tribe did this, then there would be free-thinking students, and liberated Indian community members.

The problem with this reasoning, though, is that these critiques divert our attention from the direct concern, attention, teaching, and research about tribal communities and cultures. People become confused about the struggle and indigenous community and identity. If people believe the struggle and critique are the primary point then they are in the business of focusing on the history and institutions of colonization. Using Western weapons of political and cultural conflict against them turns into a form of assimilation, and loses sight of, takes central focus away from, the primary goal of preserving and renewing indigenous communities.

Clearly, this argument has been going on for a long time. At an Indian studies conference some years ago in upstate New York, the participants discussed the teaching goals of such programs. Some participants argued that their primary purpose should be to lay bare the wrongs committed by U.S. society against Indians. Others argued that Indian studies should exist mainly to enlighten non-Indian students about Native history and culture, in order to better inform the general public. (The appeal of this second position is not surprising, as most institutions of higher learning serve very few indigenous students. Indeed, in many university programs, Indian studies is widely regarded as a way to fulfill ethnic diversity general course requirements among overwhelmingly white student bodies.)

At the same conference, there was also considerable discussion of the pros and cons of the then-recent Pocahontas movie released by Disney in 1995, which was aimed primarily at children. Some participants objected to the film, because it contained historical and ethnographic errors about the Powhatan Confederacy and the relation between John Smith and Pocahontas. It is extremely unlikely, they said, that Pocahontas had a romantic relationship with John Smith as the movie and associated popular songs on the soundtrack depicted.

Nevertheless, one participant argued that there was an upside to any historical inaccuracy: An entire generation of children would now have positive outlooks about Indians and Pocahontas. At the very least, they would be able to appreciate to some degree the history and the conditions of Indigenous Peoples in the contemporary world.

What does all this have to do with Native studies? Quite a lot, actually. As these arguments suggest, programs geared toward indigenous issues have the potential to offer much more than critiques of Western colonization. But students are shortchanged if that is all they are exposed to in the classroom. So, too, are the non-students with whom they will share their ideas.

The future, after all, is about multiculturalism. Increasingly, tribal communities are concerned with building an indigenous community, interpreting political and cultural matters, and gaining recognition and respect from international bodies and national governments. They want to face the contemporary world from their own cultural grounds and community traditions. To do so, students and non-students alike need the tools, training and vision to meet the challenges that threaten or constrain indigenous life and cultures. And they won’t get them by just bad-mouthing Western civilization.

Whether we like it or not, indigenous nations are an important part of the contemporary world of international and national political systems. This new reality requires new interpretations for indigenous nations to not merely survive, but rather to flourish culturally, politically, and economically.

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duwaynesmith's picture
Submitted by duwaynesmith on
This article makes me wonder if a new narrative is not being explored in Indian Country. Anthropologist Edward Bruner described the older ( and maybe somewhat current) narrative of Indian Country as one that contained the "code words of the 1970s" including exploitation, oppression, colonialism, resistance, liberation and nationalism. I wonder what the new code words of any new narrative will be? As a non-Indian with a long time interest in Indian studies, I now find the old narrative tiresome and hackneyed. I believe a lot of other non-Indians would agree. Eyes glaze over. While I support Indian sovereignty, the old code words just don't have the "ring" they had forty years ago. This doesn't mean that we should disregard the poverty and inequality that still exists, but is there more to consider? In my opinion, Indian people today cannot honestly be viewed as passive victims when we consider all of the legislative accomplishments achieved by tribal leaders over the past fifty years. I would hope that Native scholars in AIS/NAS programs would be doing practical research that benefits tribal communities, and not just promoting the redundancy we have often seen in those programs.

johnnie51's picture
Submitted by johnnie51 on
I would agree with Professor Champagne's comments. Insofar as native scholars are part of the academy, we also have a responsibility to our native communities. Whether those communities are our home tribes or the tribes nearest to our place of scholarly settlement. I am Potawatomi from Oklahoma but live in Indiana. So I make it a point to work with the Potawatomi tribes closest to me in Michigan. That does two things. Keeps my views in perspective (Does what I study make sense to Indian people, does it have value in their lives?). And secondly, it does a good job of undercutting the numerous scholars and people who claim native blood but has no community who claims them (churchill anyone?).

ggrayson1969's picture
Submitted by ggrayson1969 on
I agree that what we do should benefit our communities and speak to our communities' needs, I'm not sure it's wise to just "drop it" when it comes to the wrongs (past and present) that colonial governments have done to our nations. The majority of my students are white, and I'm amazed (but not surprised) at the lack of knowledge they bring to the class when it comes to the U.S.'s reprehensible relations with tribal nations. I don't think these two approaches negate each other either. Some discussions lend themselves to the specific needs of tribal communities and others lend themselves to broader issues of colonial history. Both approaches work together to teach students who are uninformed about Indians that there indeed is a horrific past, but that we're also thriving, contemporary people too. We should also be careful in how we define community too. Churchill, for what it's worth, did/does have a community in AIM and the intertribal group in Denver. We have a lot of Creek citizens who have grown up outside of the Creek Nation and live outside today. It's important to connect to Creeks, but it's also important to "grow where you're planted" and connect with whatever tribal nation or intertribal group is near you, as long as you're doing something useful. Since no one has satisfactorily debunked his Indian heritage, real or imagined, I really don't have an opinion on Churchill either way. The question is whether his work, and our work, is useful to Indian communities, be it locally-inspired or more global-political in context.

duwaynesmith's picture
Submitted by duwaynesmith on
I agree with the second comment. We need to continue teaching the truth about American Indian history and injustices of the past, to both Indian and white students. Since the American population is generally totally ignorant about Indian sovereignty and the trust responsibilities of the federal government, these courses are essential. However, when I used "redundancy" in my original comment, I was referring to research. I'm not too interested in "research", primarily from secondary sources, that repeats what has been said many times before. This kind of redundancy occurs in many academic subjects, not just Native American or American Indian studies. That was the problem with Churchill's work. I believe it is fair to be critical of his work even though he may still represent and provide a voice for a certain community. Otherwise, we are susceptible to censorship, something academics have fought against since Socrates.