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Duane Champagne’s Turtle Island Tales

Notes from the Center of Turtle Island: a review and an interview with author Duane Champagne

True to the origins of its title, Notes From the Center of Turtle Island (AltaMira Press, 2010) offers a modern spin on historical American Indian issues about identity, community, governance, politics, culture and education. The book, written by UCLA sociology professor Duane Champagne (also a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network), dissects and explains the pressing matters confronting many communities today.

Notes From the Center of Turtle Island is arranged under several large contemporary social and political themes. Each topic features vignettes adapted from editorials previously featured in Indian Country Today. The essays build thematically upon one another to highlight the relationship between indigenous identity and community cohesiveness, federal policy creation and international relations.

With no less depth, the work delves into what the notions of citizenship and rights mean to indigenous people. In this regard, Champagne probes how indigenous societies approach the contemporary world (according to their varying needs, histories, and cultures) to maintain their distinctiveness and have their governments further recognized by non-indigenous bureaucracies. Ultimately, the book is driven by Champagne’s desire to raise awareness and provoke discussion about the contentions between the interests of indigenous people, and the assimilation and acculturation ideologies of broad society.

Champagne says his intention is to reach “students in Indian studies classes as well as Indian professionals, those sympathetic to or interested in Indian affairs, policy makers, tribal and U.S. legislators.” The work clearly accomplishes this goal. The style and direction of Notes From the Center of Turtle Island will appeal to an array of audiences and levels of expertise; the commentaries are complex yet practical in nature.

The book is a smooth read, not drily academic. And the content is not only clear but also presented with care and insight.


A Chat With Duane Champagne

Duane Champagne chatted recently with Indian Country Today Media Network’s Christie-Michelle Poitra.

What was your goal in selecting your pieces?

To start a conversation regarding what it means to be an indigenous person and to explore these issues in a meaningful way. The book is designed to be readable and accessible. It is not trying to determine a direction or a solution. The communities themselves will determine how they approach the future. The book is also designed to help them think about that process and tries to articulate an indigenous perspective on contemporary issues, especially on community, identity, policy and indigenous rights.

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What message would you like young Native professionals to take away? Non-Native readers? Community members?

I try to clarify and expand the discussion of indigenous people politically, socially and legally. The book focuses on unique, unresolved issues and helps set out an indigenous paradigm or point of view that is not well recognized or understood at the moment. For non-Natives, a clearer understanding of what indigenous community and identity mean in the contemporary world. To raise consciousness and improve the understanding of these complex relationships and show that indigenous people make up distinct political and cultural communities, and explain their continuing unwillingness to wholly embrace citizenship and participation in nation-states.

What do you see as the biggest (social, political or cultural) misunderstanding between American Indians and the U.S. government?

Government-to-government relationships comprise the critical issues that define indigenous communities. The cultural structures of indigenous communities, small and decentralized, make them very different than mainstream liberal, democratic nation-states like the U.S. In mainstream society there is a tendency to think of identity as multiple and something that changes according to circumstance. Indigenous identities are embedded in community, spirituality, land and self-government. Nation-states want to see indigenous communities as national integrated and assimilated individuals. Indigenous people want to stand outside the nation-state and be based on self-government and autonomy from time immemorial, and to participate in nation-states only on a consensual basis. Indigenous peoples are willing to participate as citizens but not at the expense of sacrificing their indigenous communities and rights.

What is missing in the dialogue between the U.S. government and American Indians?

Policy tends not to be supportive enough to develop the economies and governments of indigenous communities, and there is a lot of external control. Nation-states should take their trust responsibility into the 21st century, recognize indigenous political communities, and foster their economic, political and cultural well-being. In return, indigenous peoples will be more willing to participate as citizens as long as their political, cultural, and economic heritages and futures are recognized and supported.

What ways can these two types of governments (Indian and U.S.) work together? Is there a common ground? Or are the two simply destined not to understand each other?

They are just different perspectives. There is, frankly, no common ground in many issues. Lots of indigenous communities have perspectives about relationships with other nations that are embedded within their cultural worldviews. Indigenous People do not want to have antagonist relationships with other nations or spiritual beings within the universe, such as plants, animals, and animate forces of nature. Ideally, indigenous peoples want to respect and honor other human communities and beings. At the same time, they want to be allowed to live their own ways of life and have other communities, including nation states, respect indigenous communities. That can happen at the individual level, but it is more difficult at government-to-government levels.