The New Academic Indian

Duane Champagne

The demography of American Indian academics is changing significantly, moving away from tribal attachments and identities. For some decades there have been issues of identity fraud with whether a person hired could verify American Indian descent. Hiring an American Indian is usually seen as an affirmative action issue, and often it does not matter what discipline or field of study the person brings to the table.

The construction of American Indian Studies programs is intended to introduce scholarship and teaching about American Indian topics and issues. Most universities see American Indian Studies as a form of affirmative action that was put upon them by the social activism of the 1960s and ‘70s. However, universities continue to serve mainstream interests in cultural and economic integration. The main focus is on assimilation, equality, and civil rights. The mainstream goals of universities are consistent with national American values and goals, but not necessarily aware of or embracing tribal values and supporting the issues of self-government and cultural autonomy that most tribal communities uphold. In many ways, the tribal perspective or indigenous perspectives are not well recognized by higher education, perhaps throughout most of the world.

As an affirmative action measure, academic departments and universities focus on racial descent when hiring faculty. Many indigenous or American Indian scholars are hired because they have some blood quantum from an American Indian tribe or indigenous community in North America. Mestizos from Mexico, who do not live within or are attached to a tribal community in Mexico, are hired. Many people of American Indian descent are hired even though they may not have strong attachments to a tribal community, and sometimes are not tribal members. All of this works within the American scheme of ethnic and racial equality, and is the way that faculty in other minority studies programs are hired—like among Latin/Latino Studies, Black Studies, and Asian American Studies.

Ethnic studies is about civil rights and assimilation into American society. While American Indian Studies is organized along the same assimilation framework, American Indian Studies should focus on indigenous arguments centered on tribal identities, sovereignty and related issues. Indigenous nations are interested in civil rights, but they are also very focused on preserving and realizing indigenous rights to self-government, territory, and cultural autonomy.

American universities, and most likely the same argument applies around the rest of the world, hire and value American Indian scholars who fit their racial affirmative action criteria and at the same time work on scholarship and teaching that facilitates the mainstream values of civil rights, equality, and cultural assimilation. Indian scholars who are willing to work within mainstream values tend to be better understood, and preferred over scholars who focus on tribal issues and indigenous rights related issues.

Since universities hire according to race and ethnicity in the Indigenous Studies fields, when they are applying affirmative action, scholars with strong interests in tribal communities tend to be overlooked and less valued as being too narrow and less up to date. This selection process tends to hire scholars who work in mainstream theories that inherently emphasize American philosophical assumptions, research values, and teaching goals. The tendency is to take American theories and apply them to Indian communities. Consequently, this work focuses on race, ethnicity, individual market development, gender, and sexuality in ways that reflect theory and practice of U.S. society, but do not reflect or include indigenous traditions, issues, values or goals.

Much of this emerging scholarly literature is not relevant to indigenous tribal nations, but more relevant to Mestizo or ethnic Indian nationalities and identities. Since in North America there are larger populations of Mestizo and ethnic Indians than tribal Indians, the new Indian scholars argue that tribal nations and their goals are less important and do not define the indigenous position. Such an intellectual position leaves tribal indigenous nations without recognition and intellectual support even within Indigenous Studies programs.

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