Native Studies Association More Global Than Ever

Indigenous studies scholars from as far away as Scandinavia and the Caribbean met in Hawaii to share their research at the NAISA yearly meeting.
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The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) recently concluded its annual meeting, held May 18-21. Every year the association meets in a different city, with this year’s gathering held for the first time in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Indigenous studies scholars from as far away as Scandinavia and the Caribbean met at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to share their research in the spirit of aloha extended by faculty and staff.

Each year NAISA conducts dozens of sessions on topics ranging from education to culture and politics and much more. The annual dissemination of research through panels and paper sessions is one of the main ways scholars stay on top of the latest trends in their fields. For indigenous scholars, it’s one of the few opportunities to meet each other across continental divides and international borders.

NAISA was officially founded eight years ago at its inaugural meeting at the University of Georgia at Athens. That meeting was preceded in 2007 by an exploratory meeting at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The name was decided on in Georgia by the few hundred attendees working mostly in Native American studies, and by 2009 the organization was incorporated.

The conference has grown steadily since 2007. According to a NAISA fact sheet the first meeting drew 350 attendees and each year has seen a marked increase in attendance. Last year the meeting, held in Washington, D.C. topped out at 987 registered participants, with this year’s participation about the same.

“This year held about steady. Probably because the cost of having the meeting in Hawai?i was high,” said David Chang (Native Hawaiian), a professor at the University of Minnesota and outgoing secretary for the organization.

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Hokulani Aikau gives the welcoming address to conference attendees.

Locations of past meetings included Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; University of California at Davis (Sacramento); Saskatoon, Canada; Mohegan Sun in Connecticut; University of Minnesota at Minneapolis; and University of Arizona at Tucson. Each meeting tends to reflect regional peoples and topics.

The original vision was to grow the association to include scholars of indigenous studies beyond the U.S. and Canada. For example, in Texas the conference featured many panels in Latin American studies in Spanish. The same was true at the Washington, D.C. meeting. Each year the conference has reflected more international presence.

“One trend I have noticed is the diversity of the attendees. I was worried in the early days that Native Americans would dominate the membership. It did not. I would, however, like to see Inuit, Aleut [and other Arctic peoples] join future meetings. Another good sign for the future of NAISA is the relative youth of the conference attendees. The future strength of NAISA lies with these younger scholars,” said Ervan Garrison, (Choctaw) professor of geology and anthropology at University of Georgia at Athens.

This year’s meeting drew many indigenous researchers from Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) and other Pacific nations. Hawaiian studies scholars have featured prominently since NAISA’s inception and naturally at this meeting on home turf. At least one scholar working in indigenous studies came from Japan, and another came from the Caribbean.

This year the conference included a “huaka’i,” literally translated as “a day of service.” Participants could choose from almost a dozen full and half-day activities around Oahu focused on community engagement with some of the university’s cultural partners. Activities included working in organic farms or a traditional fish pond, a tour of the ‘Iolani Palace and judiciary history center, the Bishop Museum, and a voyage on a traditional Polynesian sailing vessel.

In addition to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, this year’s conference received sponsorship by a number of Australian universities and government-funded entities. ICTMN asked several participants whether they saw any conflict in receiving funding for an indigenous studies conference from a colonial government. Many declined to answer, but one indigenous Australian scholar did explain his perspective.

“In Australia, indigenous nations and the government are interested in learning how to solve certain problems like high youth suicide rates. On the other hand, they probably aren’t interested in knowing anything about decolonization, but they can’t tell us what we can and can’t teach,” said Steve Larkin, Vice-Chancellor and Indigenous Leadership Director at Charles Darwin University.

While NAISA’s success is encouraging to most indigenous studies scholars, there are concerns about how broadly the concept of indigeneity is becoming applied in other academic contexts. For Sisseton-Wahpeton citizen Kim Tallbear, author of the book “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,” it is a problem that potentially diminishes what it means to be indigenous to a particular place.

“I was in a twitter conversation on black indigeneity a couple of weeks ago where someone was arguing that as an African American (not a relatively recent immigrant from a known people, but a descendant of American slaves) they could write as part of a ‘diasporic African indigeneity.’ I strenuously disagree with this, as it in effect renders indigeneity meaningless. I see more and more claims like this,” Tallbear said.

In other words, in order for claims to indigeneity to be taken seriously there must be an ability to link aboriginality to exact places and peoples. As long as indigenous studies doesn’t lose this focus it will continue to maintain its relevance as an academic discipline.

Next year’s meeting will be held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.