Reject Simplistic, Nationalistic Notions of Indigenous Studies

Kyle T. Mays

The rescinded appointment of Professor Steven Salaita to the level of Associate Professor in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is easily one of the most controversial events in recent years. With media pundits around the globe debating and writing about the inhumane actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees committed against Dr. Salaita, the outcome of this incident is important for the basic tenets of academic freedom not only for the larger University, but also for Indigenous Studies. I won’t repeat this well documented and unjust event. If you desire to know more information, you can send an email to chairman of the University of Illinois’ Board of Trustees, Chris Kennedy; though just be sure your email is brief enough to his liking.

There is a narrative circulating within the larger field of Indigenous Studies that has questioned why faculty of American Indian Studies (AIS) hired Dr. Salaita. People¾Indigenous people¾have asked, “Why did they hire him in the first place?” “What does he have to do with American Indian Studies?” Or, even worse, “we need to stay focused on our own issues”¾whatever that means. This narrow-minded vision of Indigenous Studies¾a U.S.-centric, nation-state bound version¾is a problem, and is in direct contradiction to what many of our ancestors did historically to challenge colonialism. We must avoid the simplistic, nationalistic boundaries that some have placed on Indigenous Studies. In hiring Salaita, AIS sought to bring a scholar to illustrate the possibilities for Indigenous Studies¾for the next generation of scholars like me. The nation-state or myopic intellectual borders have never bound indigenous people; we’ve always been border-crossing (cultural, geographic, intellectual, linguistic, etc.) people. And so is Indigenous Studies.

In other words, to use the idea of literary scholar Chadwick Allen, we must be trans-indigenous, operating within and also beyond our own Indigenous communities, intellectual specialties, and nation-state boundaries. If historical figures like Dakota Charles Eastman¾and many before him¾did not exercise their trans-indigeneity, perhaps we would not have witnessed the explosion of transnational Indigenous comparisons. To utilize the comparative, global perspective in Indigenous Studies is to also embrace¾to use the idea of Scott Richard Lyons¾Indigenous modernity.

As a student, colleague, and friend of the people who are affiliated with the AIS program at the UIUC, I am grateful. I have learned to broaden my intellectual scope beyond Indigenous North America. The innovative work of professors in AIS has helped me as a growing scholar imagine what is possible¾and those possibilities are endless. I can see how colonialism both at home and abroad has indeed been a transit (miigwetch to Chickasaw AIS faculty Jodi Byrd for the theoretical lens). In hiring Salaita, AIS sought to further expand student minds about how settler colonialism works in often-parallel ways. Unfortunately, the UIUC administration thought otherwise, and, even worse, so, too, do some Indigenous Studies folks. Dr. Salaita’s work is important not only for the theoretical work in Indigenous Studies, but also for younger scholars who are invested in learning, teaching, and writing for the betterment of Indigenous humanity, globally, however that may play out.

In moments like these, where a University administration is trying to silence individuals, completely disregard academic freedom and faculty governance, and in my opinion, put a stranglehold on the American Indian Studies program, Indigenous Studies must come together and be supportive. And to date, many have. We must defend our discipline, its comparative, global perspectives, and the people who so brilliantly bring these formerly disparate ideas to life. Who knows, if they can be undemocratic here, perhaps they will do the same thing at your school. After all, “they” tried to push us into extinction before; what makes us think they won’t try it again?

#supportsalaita #supportacademicfreedom #supportaisuiuc #reinstatesalaita

Kyle T. Mays is a Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe transdisciplinary scholar of urban Indigenous history, Afro-Indigenous studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He is currently finishing up his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racialization in a Modern American City, 1871-1994 in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be followed on Twitter: @mays_kyle.

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