“In Montana they have Indian Education for everyone in public schools, which I thought was amazing. So when I moved to Bozeman to attend university and teach I assumed the level of discourse would be higher when discussing natives; that at least fundamental knowledge would be there. In my first year of teaching Introduction to Native American Studies, I quickly discovered it wasn’t. That was very frustrating. They actually have Indian Education but students were no better off.”
“From my perspective, indigenous studies is about creating allyship between natives and non-natives, but for everyone to be close to ‘being in the same place’ and have a conversation about current indigenous issues, we had to go back to basics. That meant a lot of breaking down of their epistemologies, breaking down prejudices and stereotypes of misinformation that were present. Histories, literature, watched movies, music lyrics, theories, what questions shouldn’t you ask and which ones you most definitely should when learning about natives. Unlearning fabricated Europeanized history in order to receive actual indigenous history.”
“Two of the most significant things that stuck with non-native students was having actual boarding or residential school survivors come into class and share their stories, the other was looking at the romanticized stereotypes of their childhoods then learning how destructive that is for native peoples. Whenever they would write down what they had learned, that’s what they pointed out.
But all during these times, as there were only one or two native students per class, natives were usually quiet because they felt it wasn’t their space anymore. It wasn’t about the indigenous, it was about what white people were missing and their opinions, viewpoints and needs that they wished validated. So, misinformation wasn’t the only thing holding the classes back, but the power dynamics, attitudes and behaviors white students had developed due to privilege.”
“The thing is, when they bring their white fragility, seeking indigenous methodologies, trying to circumvent white privilege, that’s not what Native Studies is about. If you want to play white colonialism,” said Singer, “you need to go do that someplace else. I mean, people are dying on reservations but you’re here talking about yourself.”
“Decolonization in Native Studies is needed. To acknowledge some voices should be heard over others. All voices could be heard but, for example, in our tribe there are certain people you listen to such as elders or others who have more weight or experience. Natives should have that respect from others in the class, who need to recognize there is a living aspect of a scholarship for natives. There are real world consequences for natives. It’s not just abstract concepts or periodic discussion to native peoples. If others understood and respected that, maybe they would lose that privileged attitude of “If its not important to me, its not important.”
“As a teacher, one of the things I want to make sure non-natives know is that the material presented is not just to receive credit, but for them to be equipped to be allies. All natives won’t ever be on the same page to get widespread change happening, such as with mascots. We need non-native people as allies because they are the ones with the power. Compare it to the civil rights movement: blacks had been fighting for centuries (the definition of privilege) and it wasn’t until non-black persons got involved that changes occurred, legislation and policies changed.”
“Insensitivity even by some Native Studies professors or instructors can also be problematic or the using of other cultures for one’s own prestige, showing one’s expertise with a sense of ownership. This can be a direct result of obtaining a degree in some area of indigenous study but still having not been educated about cultural appropriation or the behavioral effects of white privilege. I’m not here to teach my non-native peers,” said Megan, “but there are ones like that within programs misinforming and practicing some of the very things students need to alleviate from their conduct and interactions with natives.”
“Too many non-natives think all big issues or situations are in the past, so when they are presented with clear evidence and examples of current events and issues, they don’t know how to engage with natives. Most haven’t had a real life conversation with someone native before.”
“But first, natives have to go to university, and there can be many hurdles in place, many decisions to make that can seem overwhelming. One of the first choices can simply be whether to attend a tribal college or a non-tribal college, then where to go and what to study. Yet the toughest issue can be mental, especially for first-gen applicants. You have to believe you can do it. That it’s not just for rich white people, yet one’s financial situation is real. Some tribes have casino or other resource money, but some students get so very little help so there are always worries about money. Schoolwork, money. Those two things eternally on your mind.”
“My family is Navajo, but I grew in Utah. I didn’t know my tribe had a tribal college, but anyway I would have had to figure out how to get from Utah to Arizona. Money to get there wasn’t possible. And then there’s the reputation that tribal colleges aren’t as academically rigorous as mainstream colleges. There’s the erroneous rap that if you finish your degree you’re still not as well equipped as peers. That’s not always the case. Paradigms are different, teaching methods, the cultural aspects. Some people are against tribal colleges without recognizing the sovereignty issue. Tribal colleges are progress.”
For whatever reason, whether there are (and almost certainly is) better salary packages and benefits or those looking to make their mark at a higher profile location, many natives are taking jobs at western colleges not going back to the people, to their tribes. Effectively, native scholars are giving their brilliance mostly to non-natives. Native students have less access to these native brains directly helping them. One of the exceptions would be Scott Lyons, a professor at Leech Lake University, who inspired me: his commitment, his enthusiasm for indigenous cultures. In turn, we all can inspire each other. That’s very important.”
Earlier this year, Meg had the opportunity to visit Europe for a symposium on Native Humor, which was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, she was thrilled to meet Gerald Vizenor, the acclaimed writer, poet, professor and critical essayist of Anishinabe heritage and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation. To meet such an accomplished indigenous person bolstered her determination to continue in education and her other aspirations, such as natives in film. Meg was presenting native sci-fi for the enthusiastic if quietly respectful audience, which included people from all over the world, and naturally other natives from the Americas.
“I didn’t know what to expect, so I treated them like students in my Intro to Native Studies class. Like they ‘know’ a lot but might not ‘know a lot.’ I showed what artists are doing in native sci-fi, going beyond stereotypes, and how it might be used in language revitalization, like the production of Star Wars staged completely in the Mohawk language, or how Steven Paul Judd writes of colonizing the moon. It was nice to meet people who you felt were really going to take something away, but most meaningful to me was meeting a native guy from California, who was given new thoughts of indigenous teaching methods.”
“Giving back to other natives, reaching out to and supporting each other can be essential to academic success. When native students are still being bombarded with white privilege day after day in classrooms, jokes about ‘drunken Indians’, stereotypes and phrasing that is demeaning and offensive, non-natives can walk away from it all, whether they are cognizant of their behavior or not. Natives don’t have that option, and it can be exhausting on so many levels. Having an echo or someone who really understands you in the way you need to be understood is very necessary, and something you cannot achieve with others even if you might wish to.”
“Some days you feel like quitting, you cry, or you’re furious. When it happens to me, I remember what my purpose is as a student and as an instructor. My education is my weapon so I need to focus on that. Not be worried if others are getting native concepts or not. If they cannot deconstruct their fragility, guilt, or racial identity to truly engage, especially as a student in Native or Indigenous Studies, then we cannot let them be destructive to the others around them, the class, and the concept of the studies itself.”
“In my opinion, the first question they should ask themselves should be: ‘How can I be an ally?’ Then, ‘What am I going to do with this NAS degree?’ I feel many don’t think that at all, because they are not understanding the need for decolonization of themselves and the programs. That would help a lot of native students. Not having to hear comments like, ‘You’re a high functioning Native American’, as if it’s a compliment. Most students know what to do in those situations, and they have support from other native students against institutional racism. It’s good they know, but it’s not good to have to experience.”
“Native American or Indigenous Studies is for native students to see why the world is the way it is for natives. Why is our world like this? Even if you knew some things before, once into the study program you learn far more, and you can’t go back. It is both a painful and beautiful process. For a lot of non-natives, I think they go into it because they want an alternative view, to get out of the western Christian normative and into the non-binary, which they can find in NAS. The questions we ask are different, the way we look and view the world is different. Native American Studies is not black and white, and it is a new concept. Having native voices involved is even newer, but we don’t need to go backwards to what non-natives don’t understand, we have to only go forward.”
Megan Noel Singer is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. She is a graduate student and instructor at Montana State University Bozeman. Her research interests includes: Indianist Operas of the 20th Century, Navajo Literature and Poetics, language revitalization efforts, decolonization methodologies, Native American literature and film, and “Hand Talk” or Plains Indian Sign Language.