Tag Archive | environmental justice

Paper #5: My Epistemological Alignment In the Field of Native American Literary and Cultural Studies

The “Think Indian” Campaign is a part of the American Indian College Fund, which works to give funding to Native American students to one of the thirty-four accredited tribal colleges and universities in the United States.

Over the past few months, I have intensely studied and written about the sub-discipline of Native American literary and culture studies. My interest in this field really began in my undergraduate years, but my undergraduate institution (UNCW) only offered one undergraduate course in Native American literature, and typically offered that course at the exact same time slot as my required courses for a degree in American literature, ironically. This interest was sparked in the first place by the realization that my understanding of history, society, and culture had been, to put it kindly, slightly crooked from the start; I have the numerous scholars in the fields of feminism, ecofeminism, postcolonialism, and environmental justice to thank for this realization, and credit the scholarship and praxis emerging from those fields with leading my own academic career and passions in, I believe, an enjoyable and meaningful direction. With the knowledge that history has been misrepresented by empire, and that colonial hegemony has permeated nearly every aspect of our world, but especially our relationship with our environment and the life within it, I felt there had to be overlap in Native American literature, worldviews, and literary criticism. That was, of course, a very western/feminist presumption to make, but I still believe it to be a correct one.

In my first semester of graduate school at UNR, where I was receiving my Masters in Literature and Environment, I finally had the opportunity to test that assumption in my first course in Native American Literature. The course was taught by Professor Scott Slovic, who is a widely cited ecocritic and wonderful teacher, but unfortunately not a Native scholar (by no fault of his own, of course. And if I recall correctly, though the University of Nevada, Reno sits within forty-five minutes of Paiute lands, and a powwow gathering occurs every May on the campus, there were no Native scholars in the department.) The course was a survey, and we focused essentially on the most widely read pieces and authors in the field, chiefly from the NA Renaissance of the sixties and onwards: Momaday, Silko, Owens, Allen, Harjo, Bird, and Alexie. Significantly, as I look back on the course now, from the vantage of where I now stand, I realize that we never read Craig Womack, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Gerald Vizenor, etc., or any of the Native scholars who actively speak out for or complicate notions of sovereignty, in the political/historical/cultural sense of the term, and especially in the academy. I also completely understand Scott’s decision in this. If I was a non-Native professor teaching this body of literature (as I might be one day), where would I start, and why? And what would that approach say about how I align myself within the field, and what I would do in this field, which increasingly (and rightfully) asks for real, cultural, practical work to be completed?

As is the case with most things in life, I find that the more I learn, the less I know. Through my investigation this semester, my understanding of the field of Native American literature and cultural studies has become far, far more complicated, in a very healthy way. The very name that I had originally given to my focus this semester changed: when I began the semester, I was interested in Native American literature, but after a few weeks, I realized that to remove the “and cultural studies” from the end of that focus is impossible. It’s impossible to read Native American literature without diving into interdisciplinary work, or into history, law, language, spirituality, ethics, identity politics—seemingly everything. Cultural work cannot be subtracted from Native American studies, and I fully intend to continue to learn about the culture, history, and worldviews of specific tribes. On that note, another essential point I have taken into my understanding this semester is that to treat the body of Native American materials available for study as coming from a pan-indigenous people is incredibly faulty; the languages alone—connotations of and rituals behind certain words—are so vastly different among each tribe that it’s foolish to make generalizations amongst tribes, even those in the same regions of the United States. As a non-Native scholar who is new to the field, I’ve found that it’s very easy to become overwhelmed quickly; however, in a strange sense, I also recognize that this feeling of being overwhelmed and somewhat lost as to where to start in the conversation is a good thing, or means that I’m perhaps doing something right. One of the largest criticisms aimed at Native American scholarship by non-Native scholars (and sometimes even Native scholars, for that matter) is the problem of speaking with authority and credibility for Native Americans, rather than speaking with the communities, their histories, desires, and needs. I can say that I approach the field with humility, and even if I do end up somehow teaching or publishing in the field one day, I will remind myself (and be reminded along the way, I’m sure) that I’m still learning and un-learning. In my position as an outsider and a new student, respect, listening, and learning is paramount.

In terms of what I can actively contribute to the field, whether in terms of teaching or writing, and in terms of where I can align myself theoretically/epistemologically, I see the most potential in two different areas:

  • I could use my knowledge of ecofeminist/feminist and environmental justice theories to somehow participate in the conversation on tribal feminism that Paula Gunn Allen began in the eighties with The Sacred Hoop, and that Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird continued in the nineties with Reinventing the Enemy’s Language. As I’ve mentioned above and in previous papers, there’s understandable resistance to applying theories that arose from the west to Native American OoS, as even the theories that are supposed to work to subvert colonial hegemony can often reinforce a sense of otherness or Indian-as-object-of-study. However, I also see the utility in applying ecofeminist and environmental justice theories to NA OoS, particularly as these two theoretical approaches have been widely influenced by those fighting colonial forces for quite some time, and as there is a dire need for not just conversation, but also real activism to quell land and resource misuse in Native communities, by forces imposed from the outside. Also, using theories that are more readily available and perhaps understood by a wider range of students at a college level should (hopefully) serve to stimulate even more interest in NA communities and their agendas. Additionally, after reading only a little of Vizenor’s work, I’m compelled by his argument that postmodernism can overturn dangerous and hurtful representations of Native American communities, through analysis of language and form. I’ve avoided postmodernism thus far in my academic career (as there has been some contention between postmodern and ecofeminist, environmental justice, and postcolonial scholars), but Vizenor has made me reconsider that position. Dr. Drew Lopenzina, who I had the wonderful opportunity to interview this semester, also works to re-examine and question historical (and ongoing) representation, and I believe his work has real value, particularly on the east coast of the United States, where some (stereotypically) believe that most Native Americans only live “out west.”
  • While I may never go on to publish scholarship in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies, and may never have a chance to work with the exciting theoretical apparatuses mentioned above, I do plan on teaching for the rest of my life—at least I always hope to, as that is what brings me the most fulfillment and joy in life. If my every-day life is based around working with students at the community college level, and I truly want to contribute meaningfully to the field, I can start where I am, by helping self-identified Native American students. My reading this semester focused nearly exclusively on the ongoing debates in Native American literature and criticism, but an issue beyond my focus this semester that I truly appreciated reading about was working with Native American students. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and Craig Womack both provide insight into working with Native American students, and I also luckily stumbled upon Dr. Teresa Trumbly Lamsam’s (professor of Communication at U of Nebraska) work, “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia,” and Stephen V. Flynn (Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at Plymouth State) and Seth D. Olson and Adriana D. Yellig’s (Division of Counseling and Psychology in Education at the U of South Dakota) work, “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” All of these authors have worked with and studied undergraduate or graduate students who are self-identified Native Americans at four-year universities, but not at community colleges. As Cook-Lynn, Womack, Lamsam, Flynn, Olson, and Yellig all indicate in various ways in their respective works, Native American students are constantly struggling in negotiating identities, and typically have little support to do so. I’m not sure of what support may be needed, or where, or how it could be delivered, but my lack of knowledge of research in this area shows me that I could do more, and perhaps contribute to the field in this way.

Ultimately, I am still processing and discovering where I stand in the debates over tribally-based approaches and literatures, and the concept of sovereignty of Native American studies in academia, as scholars like Cook-Lynn and many others candidly urge. In a perfect world, each institution would have a lively, active, and well-funded Native American Studies program and department, taught by Native and non-Native scholars alike, with mutual respect, understanding, and tribally-based (and approved) methodologies and approaches. Perhaps that will happen in the future, and I do believe that this is a goal worth fighting for—it is for every group that has been effected in any way by the reach of empire. In the meantime though, I believe the best and most genuine way in which I can enter the field is through the two options I’ve listed above, and with a constant consideration and checking of my own respect and humility. Sincere listening and learning tends to be the best entrance into most of life’s arenas.

Works Cited

Flynn, Stephen V., Seth D. Olson, and Adriana D. Yellig. “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” Journal of Counseling and Development 92 (2012): 280-293. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lamsam, Teresa Trumbly. “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia.” Journal of Cultural Diversity 21.1 (2014): 29-35. Web. 15 September 2014.