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Are Native American Studies Programs Doing a Good Job?

Native American studies programs can be used to right wrongs and to teach the general public about Native American history and culture.

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.)

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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.