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Rational for Native American Indian Studies

Published as the Foreword to American Indian Studies:
An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues

This collection of essays, addressing contemporary Native American issues and concerns, arrives at a crucial moment. More and more students and faculty now exhibit a surge of genuine interest in the classroom instruction of Native American topics. Yet, offering Native American - or American Indian, if you wish - subject courses and Native Studies programs ultimately involves questions about the agendas and budgets of colleges and universities. Such programs and courses, whether they already grant certificates or degrees or are in the process of evolving from idea to proposal, are forced to pursue building their own foundations and expansion at a time when many institutions, including their hosts, want to downsize curricular needs and reallocate intellectual and teaching energies to other academic or administrative areas.

Under these conditions, students throughout the United States and Canada clamor to enroll in the scattered, few, and momentary Native subject courses that are available, often learning of them at the last minute, as such offerings seem to be hidden in course listings or are brand new additions. Student enthusiasm is strongest when driven by their own predisposition to learn something valuable and accurate about Native peoples. They respond with open minds to issues affecting Native communities, for sooner or later they realize that so much historical "American law," for instance, deals with Indian treaties and land and resource rights issues that may involve their own towns and their parents' properties.

Academic departments find the large enrollments encouraging, and where there are no courses in Native literatures, histories, and expressive traditions, requests for their installment persist. Of course, critics at such institutions may target a particular course to allege its lack of scholarly foundation and purpose. They may disparage it for having no clear pedagogy except to allow venting for and about the downtrodden while catering to a pot-boiler mentality fomenting "political correctness." Although the integrity of academic benefits and the scholarly worth of Native Studies curricula may be under debate, Native students are the principal group desiring to learn about their collective presence on their own continent. Furthermore, they want others to appreciate how they respond to the political construct of "America." They face administrative obstacles less in outright resistance than primarily in the ineffectual efforts of institutions of higher learning to make a commitment to their academic and counseling needs. The inert campus bureaucracy of fact-finding meetings, proposals and revisions, more meetings, agenda delays, and senate approvals before the implementation of a certificate or degree awarding curricular structure can occur seems the norm for program developers.

Developing new courses and reformatting old ones (particularly those in departments of Anthropology) continue to stimulate and provoke everyone involved, even if some of the most sincere workers fail to grasp the issues' historical and present-day ramifications. The growing population of sympathetic non-Native students and faculty wrestle with their own values and ethics regarding Native peoples. More than any previous generation, they realize how their own perceptions and expectations of Indians derive from stereotypes, and they find just as painful their inability to articulate their distress. As Americans and Canadians in the social mainstream, they inherit a vast ignorance of conflicting images about Indians: the contemporary perception of the non-existence of Native Americans in favor of a romanticized portrayal as icons from long ago; that all Indians are assimilated and therefore no longer are "real" Indians; that Indians and their culture today are "so spiritual!" with their ceremonies, pottery, and prophecies about ecological disaster and how possibly to avert it; that Indians are lazy, thieving drunkards, and that Indians live in the past because they want whites to honor two hundred-year old treaties affecting land acquisitions.

Even where budgetary fortunes permit and aggressive students and faculty succeed - as in a course series of guest lecturers from various Indian reservations, urban centers, and nations recognized or not recognized by state or federal governments, offered at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst during the spring of l996 - the offerings may distress the naive by their differing points of view, speakers' priorities about economic development and sovereign nation status, and whether or not lecturers are entitled to express their anger. Contemporary issues in Indian Country stimulate students to think about important questions and definitions, such as what and who is an Indian, a tribe, community, band, nation; what is meant by sovereign nations and domestic dependent nations; in Native expressive traditions, what is "art" and what is artifact; what determines the sacred and the ceremonial; why are Native stories not myths but embodiments of the spirituality and history of the people who live by them; why is there such emotion about graves, remains, collections of sacred objects believed to be housed in the students' universities and museums; what does it mean in modern stories for the characters to come home; and what is a "Hollywood Indian" and what impact do films make on the collective expectations about Native Americans? Such questions may puzzle students at the beginning of a course, and thinking about them enables those students to articulate better what they do not know about Indians and Native cultures and histories. Students also will be forced to think about their own communities, some of whose place names identify them as derived from an indigenous language and meaning and which are accompanied here and there by advertising symbols and images they now realize are offensive to many Native Americans.

Teachers of Native Studies find themselves accountable to the Native communities they study with little room for the orthodoxies of cultural debate. In unwitting association, the romantic feature film, Dances with Wolves, and legislation such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) produced some encouraging results. Native Americans in the l990s renewed a modest faith in the kinds of cultural integrity they realize the society is (sometimes reluctantly) able to protect; and non-Natives began reconsidering their attitudes about what Indians believe is appropriate and important.

Written in response to this new era for introducing Native Studies to academia, these essays prepare students to meet some of the intellectual questions and ethical foundations in this holistic discipline. As introductory discourses on education, spirituality, literary expression, language, movies and legal history, just to name a few, they offer a sophisticated approach to a sorely needed fundamental appreciation of this subject area. I believe the broad range of subjects these essays cover contributes to ending the search for an elusive but substantive text geared to introductory courses about contemporary American Indian concerns, for it will encourage students to explore the various bibliographies that buttress scholarly inquiry and encourage them to listen carefully to the remarks spoken and in print from Native peoples.

Implicit in these essays are efforts to answer such questions as, why we need Native Studies at all, and, is Native Studies geared solely for Native students or for the general population? They show that, certainly, a college or university that seeks to increase Native enrollments can try to provide an environment and services that not only encourage Native students to apply, but even more so to maintain ties to home. Scholarships and intellectual benefits aside, the idea of going away to school is daunting; The experience reinforces in Native students the pains and distress they learn about from elders whose school experiences away from their communities often involved kidnapping, abuse and violence, and being told that as "savages" they would never amount to anything. Furthermore, both non-Native students and administration and counseling staff need to learn about what that legacy in Indian education means and how it will demand their reformulating notions about the American dream. In this context, American Indian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues affirms the idea that North American education stands only to gain from Native American Studies because it will help us to demystify romanticism and begin to comprehend why our relationships to the world around us differ as strongly as they do.

Native Studies allows us to renew ourselves in the kinds of knowledge and information we already have or could have learned from our people; it assists our becoming useful contributors to the survival of our communities, to "return the gift" so that all the Creation will be honored, supported, protected, and sustained; it encourages all its students (faculty included) to pursue holistic learning and interdisciplinary methods, instilling an appreciation for how deeply and inextricably Native ways of knowing accept a connection between all things; and it exposes students to the multicultural realities of the original inhabitants of this hemisphere. Respect for the people and their traditions, as well as a willingness to listen, stand paramount in or outside any Native Studies classroom or topic. From there, the reader can use this text as a guide to thresholds of knowledge to bring about broader humanistic tolerance and change.

Ron Welburn
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Published as the Foreword to American Indian Studies
An Interdisciplinary Approach to Contemporary Issues

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