Advice for non-Indigenous instructors of Native Studies
On January 14, 2019, the Stanford Daily reported that a non-Native senior faculty member in the Stanford English Department would no longer be teaching a course entitled “American Indian Mythology, Legend and Lore” after a student-created petition challenged the cultural insensitivity of the pedagogy and course content. The students provided examples of vulgarity and inappropriate comments from the instructor, but also disrespect to the tribal Nations, traditions, and sacred ceremonial practices covered by the course. In addition, the students felt that the perspectives of the Indigenous students in the course were not welcomed or encouraged.
As a Stanford Alumna and Indigenous junior faculty member, one of only three Native faculty members at my institution, I was dismayed and heartbroken over the story, and so proud of the students for standing up and making change. But a particular quotation in the article from the instructor stood out to me. He said, “I have taught the course in Native American Literature for nearly 50 years because I love it and respect it, and if I had not taught it, no one else would have.”
This, to me, points to a larger issue of faculty hiring, but during a twitter conversation a follower posited the following. He said,
“For me, the Native American literature course assignment is a real ethical dilemma. I love teaching it, and there's a lot of demand, but I'm not a true NAIS specialist, and our department needs one. But we're not getting new hires in any field.”
I immediately began thinking through the possibilities, and actually see this as an important opportunity for non-Indigenous faculty to leverage their privilege for positive change.
So hypothetically, if you are a non-Native faculty member assigned a course in this area, what is your course of action? I want to offer some concrete steps for non-Native faculty to approach teaching a course in Indigenous subject matter or Indigenous studies. To narrow the scope, I’ll keep in mind a Native literature course, but these lessons can easily apply to courses in any number of disciplines. I want to be clear that I can only speak for myself, as a white-coding Cherokee woman and Assistant Professor in American Studies and Ethnic Studies. I am drawing upon my experiences, but obviously cannot speak for every Indigenous faculty member in every discipline.
First, given that there is clearly a need in your department for a Native faculty member, it is your chance as a non-Native to advocate at every turn for a Native hire. Take every opportunity to remind the department this needs to be a hiring priority. Be a broken record. Make sure it is recorded on strategic plans for the department. In the meantime, look for other opportunities to bring someone in—whether it’s a visiting professorship, target of opportunity hires, or as a postdoctoral fellow (just be sure a postdoc has a pathway to a faculty position and doesn’t become a long term solution on its own).
Next, turn to your syllabus and use this as an opportunity to demonstrate what centering Native voices on a syllabus looks like. Throw out anything written by a non-Native author (unless used critically), seek out emerging and contemporary Native voices, think way outside the box of “Last of the Mohicans” and “Black Elk Speaks.” Most students come into Indigenous studies courses with deeply seated stereotypes of Native peoples. The majority of Americans still think of Natives as extinct, existing in the historic past, or some combination of Hollywood stereotypes. There are very few chances for students, Native and non-Native alike, to engage with contemporary Native voices or texts that push beyond what they already expect or know.
Your syllabus can give students a chance to not only move beyond, but completely explode their stereotypes. There is amazing work in Indigenous Futurisms, Native LGBTQ and Two Spirit literature, memoir, graphic novels, urban Native narratives, poetry, experimental prose, and more. Students know (or may think they know) about wild Indians on the plains and tipis—but what about a queer Apache veterinarian on a journey to colonize Mars? Look to authors like Tommy Orange, Elissa Washuta, Rebecca Roanhorse, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy Rae Belcourt, Cherie Dimaline, Joshua Whitehead, Tenille Campbell, or Indigenous literature scholars like David Treuer and Daniel Heath Justice. The possibilities to imagine beyond the existing paradigm are exciting and endless.
The course title in the original Stanford course—American Indian Mythology, Legend, and Lore—is a problem in itself. For generations, Indigenous knowledges, stories, and ceremonial practices have been painted by settler scholars as anthropological “myths” or “legends,” when these are in fact part of living systems of spirituality. Those terms connote associations with fairy tales and demean the beliefs and religious practices of hundreds of distinct tribal nations. Nambe Pueblo Scholar Debbie Reese has a post on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature (also an incredible resource overall) on the topic. There is also no need to discuss the specifics of Indigenous ceremonial practices in a classroom setting, given the historic context of Native spirituality being policed by the US—it wasn’t until 1978 that Indigenous peoples were even legally allowed to practice our ceremonies.
I encourage you to sit with your syllabus, and ask “why?” for each reading and assignment. Ask what it is teaching the students, what you hope they take away from it. If the answer for each isn’t working toward a goal of decentering settler colonialism and centering Indigenous peoples, take it off. Non-Native voices have dominated the research and discourse on Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years, it is important to disrupt that pattern in your course.
Then, try and bring in guest lectures. Invite Native writers and scholars to Skype in or come visit. Just make sure you compensate them for their time, even if it is “just” over the Internet. There are also opportunities to partner with other local schools to make visits worthwhile and share travel costs.
Finally, as a non-Native professor you have a responsibility to be humble in front of the classroom, something our profession has not often taught us to do. Call attention to the fact you’re not an expert. Consent to learn in public with your students, continually demonstrate it’s ok to say you don’t know, or it’s not for you to know. Give weight to Indigenous student voices in the classroom, allow them to provide context and expertise that the entire class can learn from—but only if they feel comfortable, of course.
Why is this important beyond a diversity and equity perspective? Every university in what is currently known as the United States is on Indigenous land. There is a responsibility for universities to recognize this relationship, build it, and honor it through curriculum, hiring, and other practices. This responsibility is important.
Non-Native faculty, especially tenured faculty, have the ability to leverage their power for positive change, and it just takes one person to start the process. By way of example, my first academic position was a postdoc in Native American Studies at my current institution, which led to my eventual hiring in my current position. I only have my job because a non-Native senior faculty member, whose research focus is Native archaeology, made it a condition of his hiring that the University create a position for a Native Studies postdoctoral fellow in perpetuity.
Yes, it’s best to have a Native faculty member teach Native Studies. Always. But non-Native faculty can and do subvert systems of power and create space and opportunity—but it needs to be intentional and thoughtful. Is it easy? No. But it’s also not impossible.
It can feel scary, especially if you’re a junior/untenured faculty member, to challenge established systems of power. But if you’re a white person, it’s your responsibility. If you’re a tenured faculty member, this is what tenure is for. You and your university benefit every single day from settler colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous peoples, the least a university can do is start to bring Native voices into campus and the curriculum.
I believe it’s important to feel uncomfortable as a non-Native teaching a Native Studies course. If you aren’t, I’d be worried. But the discomfort shouldn’t be paralyzing, it should be catalyzing. There are positive pathways forward.
Adrienne Keene is a Citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. Her research focuses on Indigenous students navigating higher education, and she also writes about cultural appropriation and Native representations on her blog Native Appropriations (nativeappropriations.com). She is on Twitter at twitter.com/NativeApprops.