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Lyons: New Native studies association is historic

On April 11, a new academic organization officially came into existence at what will one day be called (by future academics, of course) a ''historic'' meeting held at the University of Georgia - Athens. Say hello to the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, aka NAISA.

According to the organization's constitution, the purpose of NAISA is ''to promote Native American and Indigenous studies through the encouragement of academic freedom, research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about Native American and Indigenous studies in all its diversity and complexity.''

In plainer terms, we just got our own academic organization and annual conference - a pretty big one, at least for us - comprised of scholars, writers, curators, students and others engaged in the responsible study of Native peoples and communities across the world. Given our long and often sketchy history with academe, such an organization is a very welcome development.

It's not an Indian organization. It's a Native studies organization that values the presence of anyone who does that work. That said, because of our numbers, it's mostly Native-led.

NAISA was the brainchild of a small group of Native academics from different nations, regions and disciplines. Robert Warrior, Osage, first came up with the idea and started discussing it with Jace Weaver, Cherokee, and Jean O'Brien, Ojibwe. Eventually, they formed a steering committee with Tsianina Lomawaima, Creek; Ines Hernandez-Avila, Nez Perce; and Kehaulani Kauanui, Native Hawaiian. This committee of six decided to hold a test conference at the University of Oklahoma in 2007 to gauge public interest.

All agreed that 75 participants would count as a success. Three hundred showed up. At their second meeting in Georgia, the number of attendees was closer to 450.

This exponential growth can be credited to a perpetual sense of frustration and alienation among Native intellectuals who have long been treated as afterthoughts by other groups.

''I think all of us have been frustrated at the small number of Native panels at most other disciplinary or scholarly meetings we attend,'' Weaver said. ''We needed a space where those of us who identify as doing Native American or American Indian or indigenous studies could come together and talk across a wide range of disciplines.''

Another reason for the new organization, according to Weaver, is ''to support young and emerging scholars in the field and break down the isolation so many of us feel.'' Anyone who has ever pursued Native studies, in any discipline, knows exactly what he means.

O'Brien connects today's emergence of NAISA to the larger historical development of Native American studies, a field that now boasts programs in 42 American states and seven Canadian provinces.

''We grew out of the social protest movement of the late 1960s,'' she said, ''but it seems to me that we've reached a kind of critical mass both in terms of our numbers, and also in terms of the development of a rich body of scholarship and intellectual traditions that prompt us to engage in sustained conversations.''

O'Brien reminded me that next year's NAISA meeting, scheduled for May 21 - 23, 2009, in Minneapolis, will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the nation's first American Indian studies department - at the University of Minnesota - as well as the 41st anniversary of the American Indian Movement, also founded in Minneapolis. Such things are not unrelated. Protest begat programs, which have now produced NAISA.

NAISA keenly reflects our own particular historical moment as well, most notably in its visibly global character. Scholars from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Japan and other countries were not only in attendance at the Georgia meeting; some were elected to serve in leadership capacities. Although NAISA will be based in the United States, it has situated Native American studies in the larger global context of the Fourth World.

Historian Brenda Child, Ojibwe, who attended both the Oklahoma and Georgia meetings, has greatly appreciated meeting indigenous intellectuals from around the world.

''I found that incredibly empowering as a Native scholar,'' she said, ''and if this organization can further those collaborations, I plan to be very involved.''

Like other established academic organizations - say, the Modern Language Association or the American Academy of Religion - NAISA will eventually create opportunities for other kinds of publications, such as journals, research databases, perhaps a book press. The effect will be the production of more research, new and better knowledge, and an enhancement of what Warrior calls the ''intellectual infrastructure'' of Native America.

''The Native world has suffered from various sorts of neglect for a long time,'' Warrior said. ''I want to argue that we have neglected the intellect as much as the rest of life.'' In opposition to this neglect, Warrior sees NAISA contributing to our ''intellectual health, which I think needs to be the end product of what we scholars and intellectuals do.''

Warrior's own scholarly work is instructive in thinking about the functions of NAISA. During the '90s, he deployed the concept of ''intellectual sovereignty'' to describe a longstanding tradition, more than two centuries long, of Native intellectuals who spoke and wrote in English, engaged dominant institutions, and worked with both Indians and non-Indians, often through debate, to find solutions to the problems afflicting Indian country.

Many of those Native intellectuals were forgotten as quickly as they departed, although scholars are rediscovering them today. They didn't look or sound very much like Sitting Bull, or for that matter Russell Means. They generally assumed the pose of your typical college professor. But the intellectual work they produced should be considered an act of sovereignty like any other - not because it was inherently separatist or radically different at some cultural core, but because it was distinctive and demanded recognition.

Warrior wrote in his 1995 book, ''Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions,'' that sovereignty is ''a decision we make in our minds, in our hearts, and in our bodies - to be sovereign and to find out what that means in the process.'' To the extent that intellectual sovereignty is an act of the will and a process of discovery, as opposed to a laundry list of action items, NAISA is doing it. That can only help the Native political scene.

Don't expect grandiose political manifestos to emerge from its annual meetings. Instead, look to NAISA as a reputable, interdisciplinary gathering place where one can encounter and contribute valuable research on our histories, cultures and communities; a site where the local meets the global, and a conference where Native studies scholars are at long last being placed center stage and given the support and encouragement they need.

Like I said before, it's historic.

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe/Mdewakanton Dakota, teaches Native American literature at Syracuse University and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.