Award-Winning Native Scholar Says Education Is Important

Native American professor and scholar Majel Boxer was recognized as one of 12 rising researchers, thinkers and leaders under 40 in the U.S.

Only four years after graduating with her Ph.D. in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Majel Boxer, Sisseton Wahpeton of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux nations, was recognized as one of 12 rising researchers, thinkers and leaders under 40 in the U.S.

In its January 2012 Emerging Scholars edition, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine named Boxer as an Emerging Scholar for her research and scholarship as assistant professor and chair of the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Along with teaching tribal preservation, oral traditions and Native American history among other courses, Boxer is also an affiliate faculty member of the Gender and Women’s Studies program at Fort Lewis.

ICTMN recently caught up with Boxer, the powwow aficionado and dog lover, to find out more about her plans for her department and to discuss her research regarding how Native American communities are redefining the nature of museums.

Did you always want to be a professor? If not, as a child, what did you aspire to be? I didn’t know that I could be a professor until I was an undergraduate at Washington State University. The idea of being a professor, really, was planted when I was a junior or senior by faculty that taught my classes and especially one particular graduate student who was a mentor and also an instructor for one of my courses.

One of my mom’s favorite stories that she tells is that when I was young, like kindergarten, she asked me what I wanted to be and I said I wanted to be a teacher’s aide. That was the only example I saw. In my small community town, I saw Native women working in the schools helping the teacher, and so that was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t that Native women couldn’t accomplish and do more, it’s just that was my real world example.

I really got a more complete picture when I was an undergrad when I had a Native woman as a professor including a graduate student who was really inspiring and served as a mentor to me. So it wasn’t always that I wanted to be a professor, but it changed. I knew I wanted to teach and the avenue that I would be teaching changed as I learned more.

How has the honor of being named an Emerging Scholar affected you? Well, professionally, it’s wonderful to be recognized on a national level for working hard on my research. It’s rewarding. We all work away and do our own thing as professors, but then to be recognized by an award—it’s nice, you know, it makes it all worthwhile.

How has the honor affected your research? Well I am moving forward in publishing my research so that I can really be known within my own field of study, which is Native American Studies, so I see the award as a starting point and it’s up to me to do the follow through and still apply myself and still make a name for myself beyond the award.

Native American communities, according to your dissertation, are “reinventing” the museum? How so? Reinventing in that the term “museum” no longer is just used by itself, but rather integrated with “cultural center” or “community center” or “museum and cultural center,” so that the museum isn’t just a stand-alone institution. Native communities are making it much broader so it’s a gathering place and not just a place to present and display histories, and that’s the way I see museums transforming within Native communities. It’s about coming together, gathering, sharing, having common experiences, celebrations.

What separates American Indian schools like Fort Lewis College from other institutions of higher education? Fort Lewis College is designated as a Native-serving institution. We are a public liberal arts college, so not many non-tribal colleges get to be recognized as Native-serving. Fort Lewis is truly a Native-serving institution that goes beyond Colorado so that Native students know there’s the tuition wavers and that they could come to school here and experience life outside their hometowns, communities—to come here to this beautiful area of the southwest.

One of our points of pride is that we don’t have graduate students who teach our students. We’re all professors. We all have PhDs, and we’re the ones in the classroom. It’s taken me several years to develop my confidence in the classroom and my skills as a professor and teacher, and it doesn’t happen all at once. Our students are taught by professors who are known in their fields of study. We don’t have large lectures the way universities do. I came out of Berkeley, so I know the 200-plus classroom size. That’s something that we don’t do. For Native students, they’re not lost in the crowd.

What are your objectives for the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Fort Lewis College? Right now my primary objective is to offer a comprehensive and challenging curriculum. Comprehensive in that one of our unique features is that we have courses that, in other places, would only be taught by the history department or the English department, but here we have our core faculty teaching the core courses and we also have Native professors teaching, like, I’m the one who teaches Native American history; I also teach oral tradition. Our primary goal is to offer a nice, general offering of NAIS courses that are challenging to our students and that they have real world applications so there is a job at the end of it—the information translates into job skills.

What advice do you have for Native American students who would like to one day become a professor and scholar like yourself? My advice would be to welcome any type of educational opportunity whether it’s some type of technical training or higher education. I went to a number of summer camps—even for science—when I was a young girl, so it’s really looking for any type of educational opportunity. The way I experienced it is that they add to your overall growth as an individual, but you never know where these opportunities are going to lead or how they might impact your life.

Say yes to anything, especially educational. It’s important for Native peoples to pursue education because you never know who is looking up to you or sees your accomplishments. It’s important to pursue education, to go into all fields of study so that we increase our presence in our own home communities, but also in the outside world.