In the academic setting, learning about and understanding Indigenous peoples, their cultures, traditions, and beliefs can be enhanced by discussion. After all, discussion is considered by some to be an essential part of any educational endeavor, at whatever grade level or degree plan. The same can be said for Black or African Studies, Gender or Women’s Studies. However, in Native or Indigenous Studies, and in consideration of colonial history, discussion in “mixed company”, that of native and non-natives, can present challenges reflective of our societies.
While in the past, many non-native students or instructors had the same schooling as their native counterparts; European identities were positively reinforced while natives endured the opposite. History and narratives have been slanted to make Europeans the intrepid explorers, brave conquerors and brilliant innovators, founders of all that is civilized and right in modern societies. In sharp contrast, natives of the past have been institutionally minimized, dehumanized and stereotyped, and modern native peoples, their challenges and cultures, are virtually invisible in any educational setting.
“A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context only,” said Sarah Shear, Associate Professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University said in an interview. So it’s no wonder many students entering higher education, including Indigenous Studies, lack even a basic knowledge of current native cultures and issues.
With that foundation laid, inevitably many non-natives bring their societal privilege and belief of “self as norm” where any others are “foreign”, into classrooms and study groups. As they begin to learn unbiased history and hard truths, which is understandably difficult, their defensive behaviors and need to express their personal discomfort can negatively impact native students. Even today, with more native and Indigenous students than ever before pursuing degrees in Native or Indigenous Studies, native voices and perspectives in current context are too often minimized or subsumed, another form of erasure.
This can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing, especially combined with the fact that whatever the topic that can be emotionally charged for each, non-natives can walk away whenever they wish because the issues rarely if ever impacts their lives. Native people don’t have that convenience. Acknowledging this reality can go a long way in reducing “mixed company” friction, as well non-natives students or instructors identifying problematic behavior that continually make European concerns or needs a focal point.
In the past, the study of Native Americans, the documenting of Indigenous cultures around the world, their peoples and beliefs, was almost exclusively conducted by white people, in particular men. In the formal, academic version Native American Studies, white people have also dominated as both instructors and students, despite the program itself being about natives, courses pertaining laws and policies, art, history, and literature, for example. Difficulties continue in the selection of non-native instructors over equally, if not more qualified, native academicians. There is a distinct need of Decolonization even within Indigenous or Native Studies, so that material isn’t being “dumbed down” to make it more palatable for non-natives.
In a conversation with fellow graduate student Meg Singer, a Navajo instructor at Montana State University Bozeman, who has years of experience on “both sides of the desk”, I agreed with her observations, which reflected many of my own experiences.
“There is a greater need for deep thought, of understanding what things mean in the larger context, the big picture, and this knowledge should be present because of engagement and connection. Indigenous Studies shouldn’t be for credit or prestige, but to become equipped as allies. The first question should be: ‘How can I be an ally?’ And I feel many don’t think that at all. That would help a lot with and for the native students.”
Speaking further of the challenges of “mixed company” after repeated ethnocentric conflicts, Singer continued, “Often you need time away to stop thinking about why white people can’t understand, and from conversations where you are bombarded by white privilege. It is exhausting; it can be hurtful and annoying when your peers don’t know how to listen. Some instructors are the same way, but as both, I have to remember my purpose, and that they are in ‘my’ space as an Indigenous person. My education is my weapon so I need to focus on that. Not be worried if others are getting it or not. Having native peers who can echo or understand me so we can support each other, that’s very important.”
There are many challenges, but there are also advantages for Indigenous students, one of which is the possibility of networking and support systems via the Internet and social media applications. As many of us face similar issues in higher education wherever we are across the world, having supportive peers and discussion platforms and groups can be of great benefit, as well as simply expressing our feelings to those who are willing to understand.