Undermining Intellectual Authority Is Anti-Intellectual


I share two key similarities with Professor Vince Diaz, Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies (AIS) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who defended Steven Salaita in his 6/24/15 commentary, “Academic Ambush: University Gutting Indigenous Studies.” In addition, I am personally well positioned in a way that allows me to comment with some authority on the anti-Native American atmosphere that persists at the University of Illinois, the importance and quality of the work that Illinois AIS faculty do, and on Professor Diaz’s rigorous intellectual training that prepared him for this work. Following the publication of Diaz’s assessment of the Illinois campus climate for AIS and for indigenous issues broadly, came multiple critical and uninformed comments with very little in the way of supportive feedback for Diaz. In fact, he was subjected to anti-intellectual attacks that denigrated the nature and sophistication of his graduate work, and American Indian Studies broadly.

Like Professor Diaz, I am a former council member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). Also like him, I also earned my PhD from the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. Indeed it is a respected social theory program that helped me think through the colonial politics of genome research on Native Americans. I am well known for this work as the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

I am currently Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native American & Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. This fall I will assume a new position, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. I am formerly a tribal environmental planner who has long worked on tribal regulatory issues. I am also an enrolled member of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation. I grew up on another South Dakota reservation, that of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, where I have many relatives. I am also descended from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

While we have healthy debates in Indian Country and in the field of Indigenous Studies on the topics on which Professor Diaz writes in this article, let me add to this conversation that many of us in the field support the American Indian Studies faculty at the University of Illinois and are very sad at the hostility they have long encountered in that institution. Before the Salaita incident, as Diaz writes, they were subject to racist abuse over the vile Chief mascot at Illinois. Indeed, when I am in Urbana-Champaign—I am a founding advisory board member of the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING), which is headquartered at that institution—I feel the anti-Indianism in town, and on campus. I find that mascot in particular highly offensive.

I and others in our field are grateful for the theoretical and activist work in defense of indigenous rights and indigenous studies that AIS at Illinois does. Others and I are sorry for the abuse they have taken and many of us find their actions both brave and intellectually important for our field. Whether or not we agree in the end with how Salaita tweeted, many of us support the comparative indigenous studies work that AIS Illinois has attempted and the work all of those faculty members continue to do on behalf of our field. And we support their intellectual authority to hire that they see fit.

Know this: The undermining of that intellectual authority by administrators who know nothing about our field is meddling and anti-intellectual. The disowning of a politically considered response by powerful scientific fields is naïve and irresponsible.

Scientific responsibility in understanding and weighing in thoughtfully on political problems is something I am committed to as a scholar of both Indigenous Studies and Science and Technology Studies (STS). I wish Diaz and other Illinois AIS faculty well wherever they may end up. I hope they all find institutions in which they can thrive personally and professionally. We know now that Illinois is a place that is very difficult to do work on behalf of indigenous peoples. I worry for the long-term viability at Illinois of the SING program to which I am so committed. Alas, I will not attend our program this summer because I am honoring the boycott of the University of Illinois after the firing of Dr. Salaita.

Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.