Courtesy Equity Studies Student Union/University of Toronto
Audra Simpson, a Mohawk anthropologist from the Kahnawake community in Quebec, is an associate professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

Standout Scholar: Anthropologist Audra Simpson Puts Natives in the Present

Rick Kearns

While there are still not enough Native people teaching at all levels in the U.S., more are breaking through the barriers. One of the most distinguished is Audra Simpson, a Mohawk anthropologist from the Kahnawake community in Quebec.

This young scholar is an associate professor of anthropology at Columbia University where she’s been teaching since 2008 after getting her start in the prestigious American Indian Program and Anthropology Department of Cornell University.

Simpson’s long list of achievements includes awards and fellowships such as a Fullbright Research grant, numerous scholarly articles and lectures, a few books and other scholarly papers in conferences and elsewhere.

She came to the field of anthropology after some searching. Simpson noted that it wasn’t until she took an anthropology course in high school that she found at least some mention of Native people in the present tense. Following that realization she took an anthropology course in Settler Colonialism while in college and was fascinated by it.

Those experiences, coupled with the fact that the intellectual tradition of her community provided excellent preparation for higher education and research, lead her to a career in anthropology.

“We value clear mindedness,” Simpson told ICMTN, responding to a question about who and what influenced her decision to pursue anthropology. “The Mohawk tradition of thinking carefully before speaking is a Haudenosaunee tradition (we are of the Confederacy).

“We are a deeply philosophical people, it’s part of our great law and political culture and every Mohawk has been taught this, that you think very carefully before you speak.”

She also pointed out that “that’s why we (Mohawks/Haudenosaunee) are so difficult for the settler state; we have traditions and our own governance system. These things aren’t gone, they’re part of our lives.”

Simpson recalled that at McGill University in Montreal, Canada she learned about mainstream perceptions along with training that has also lead to her success as a scholar.

“I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people,” she said. “In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not ‘deserve’ the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally ‘difficult.’”

“But I trained in a department that had very high expectations for written work,” she said, “so I was also very aware of my analysis and writing and, like other students in the department, sometimes had to revise course papers to publishable quality. That was the standard of excellence: publishable quality.”

As a professor at Columbia University, Simpson has encouraged strong scholarship to her talented and motivated students, both Native and non-Native. She stated that she found many students and faculty at Columbia to be aware of contemporary Native realities and open to critical understanding of those conditions.

Simpson wants to encourage Native students to study anthropology.

“To Native students I would say my field, as it is conceived and taught and in its practice at Columbia (and select other departments) offers the history and analytical tools we need to understand the current conditions.”

She asserted that anthropology in other institutions “treats indigenous people in the past tense, which is wrong, egregious and unethical” but that is not the situation at Columbia and elsewhere.

“My department is exceptional,” she said. “There are other places that also take settler colonialism seriously and don’t treat our peoples as objects of scientific capture. Our baseline up here is we do not pretend that colonialism didn’t happen or is still happening.”

“We teach with full cognizance of that,” she added.

Simpson considers some of the current conflicts, such as the fight against the Dakota Pipeline, to be an extension of the Indian Wars of the 19th century.  She is also part of a “vibrant community of people from the New School, the City University of New York (CUNY) and Columbia” who are developing a syllabus of readings that provide current and historical context to the present conflicts.

Another related project for this active scholar is the writing of a book entitled “The Savage State: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow.”

“I’m analyzing the internal mode of governance in Canada, a government of sorrow and contrition by the state that is also coupled with extractive industries which is extremely troubling,” Simpson said.

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