Roots in tribal culture + Ph.D. in history = Female with intention
PORTLAND, Ore. - "The dean put together a workshop that was supposed to
look at troubles we have in the College of Arts and Science. He wanted the
chairs and directors to verbalize what we thought the problem could be,"
said Dr. Jeanne Eder. "So I said, 'Do you mean the white male system?' My
comment didn't go over very well. He got offended and put a note in my file
that said I lack tact and discretion."
Eder, member of the Dakota Sioux tribe, has walked a long road to get to
her current position as associate professor of History and director of the
Native Studies program at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Born the
oldest of six children during the post-war boom in 1948, Eder attended
school in Montana with one foot in the traditional world of her people and
the other in the non-Indian world.
"My grandfather didn't want to teach his children or grandchildren the
language because he was whipped in boarding school for speaking it."
Still, Eder lived with her grandparents until she was four and spent
summers with them subsequently.
"My grandmother was a Pomo Indian from California, and she always wore a
white or gray head wrap. She met my grandfather at boarding school, and
they went to live in his Dakota country on a bluff overlooking the Missouri
River. She was always helping other people and made star quilts - the
special blankets Dakota society uses to honor individuals for coming back
from war and making significant achievements in their lives like graduating
from college. My grandmother had a huge garden too, so we dried corn and
vegetables and gathered wild choke cherries."
So, even though Eder didn't learn the Dakota language, she was steeped in
tribal culture from an early age.
"My grandparents would always go to Indian pow wows or celebrations, and I
would go with them. Sometimes I had a dress and sometimes I didn't, but
they'd just tell me to go out and dance either way. Or sometimes friends
would share extra outfits from their daughters, and they would dress me up.
I think that stayed with me a long time. That's why when my daughter got to
the age when she could dance, I made her a lot of outfits so if her
girlfriends came and they didn't have one, we could dress them up and take
"My grandparents were old, so I always hung around with the elders and
listened to them talk in the tipis. They had a certain animosity about
Native treaty rights being broken and sovereignty. I was too young to
understand, but I vowed that some day I would learn why they were angry."
Eder added that her people experienced the illegal taking of the Black
"I don't know when that case was filed, but it wasn't settled until 1981
through the Indian Court of Claims. The ruling that came down was 'yes, the
Black Hills were illegally taken from the Dakota people by the federal
government, and we're sorry and here's 1.8 million.'"
Similar types of abuse have never been far from Dr. Eder's experience. "I
had to learn to fight," she said. "One of the first reservation schools I
went to was with the Crows, and they ganged up on me and beat me up."
Eder graduated from an all-white high school in Billings, Mont. There she
did not have to fight physically, just spiritually.
"High school was a racist experience for me. They didn't like Indian girls
there in Billings and there was that whole thing of checking out your
clothes. It was White Stag back then. And I remember Garland sweaters being
popular, too. My parents finally got me a Garland sweater, but it still
didn't work because people didn't want to be around you because you were an
Indian." Eder's voice dropped low and an edge of anger showed. "I was so
glad to get out of high school."
Perhaps because her father was a soil scientist with the Bureau of Indian
Affairs, Eder found the strength to attend college. She enrolled first at
Eastern Montana College and finished at Carroll College. She paid her own
way through school and earned a bachelor's degree in History. In the
process she met other Native students and began developing a pan-Indian
consciousness that enabled her to better interpret the larger context of
Indian/white relations in American history.
Then came her first marriage, and Eder discovered that racial injustice was
not the only type of discrimination. Finally, though, she freed herself
from the abusive relationship, took her young daughter and entered a
master's degree program in History at Montana State University.
"It was a circle completed," Eder said. "Once I had my M.A., I went back to
Eastern Montana College and was the director of the Native Studies program.
Still, even as one circle closes, another one opens, and I realized that I
need to have a Ph.D. for people to take me seriously. I remarried to a
wonderful man who helped me raise my daughter and eventually enrolled at
Washington State University. It took me 10 years - with life getting in the
way in between - but in 20001 finished my doctoral program."
Since then, Eder has been at the University of Alaska where she hopes to at
last have a chance to affect meaningful change for indigenous peoples. She
sits on the Chancellor's Diversity Action Committee and the Faculty Senate
Diversity Action Committee where she tries to restrain her more radical
sentiments in order to work with a system she clearly feels is entrenched
with Euro-centric persuasions - both racial and gender, not to mention
"It's hard, because if a man takes a stand, he's considered strong," Eder
said. "But let a woman who has had to struggle to get where she is come
forward, and it's another story altogether."
Eder pointed out, though, that her personal experience puts her in prime
position to be a spokesperson for Indian country.
"My people have lived a life of abuse. The Indian people of this country
have been abused by the white male system."
Eder should know. She's studied the history and earned the degrees. Thus,
that she is according to some - a bit on the blunt side in stating the
obvious, can be forgiven, if not outright lauded.