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Saturday, August 6, 2016

August 6-7, 2016: Donna Moody's Guest Post on 21st Century Native American Scholarly Activism

[I first met Donna Moody at the 2011 New England American Studies Association Conference at Plimoth Plantation, and have been fortunate enough to remain connected to her ever since. Her recently defended PhD dissertation promises to significantly expand and enrich the fields of Native American Studies and Anthropology, as well as debates over higher education and our collective understandings of who we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re headed. I’m honored to share her thoughts and work here.]

When Ben invited me to write a guest post for August, he was particularly interested in a piece reflective of 21st century Native American scholarly activism. Questions which I needed to consider and answer were: what exactly is scholarly activism and who decides? Who is considered an activist? Does this include organizations? Much of Indian activism begins, not with academics, but at grassroots levels within communities. As such, the majority of Indian activism remains outside of mainstream scholarly purview.

According to Sara Goldrick-Rab (Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University), scholar activism includes:

·         Direct engagement with practical problems and efforts to improve the world
·         Putting new issues on the research agenda as well as the public agenda
·         Speaking truth to power and speaking truth directing to the people
·         Confronting and making difficult choices
·         Acting with accountability to the publics you study, and reciprocating

Given the abysmally low numbers of Native Americans in the U.S. who have achieved a terminal degree in any of the Social Sciences (another entire essay), locating individual American Indians as scholarly activists encompasses a very small field.

In considering individuals who are activists, I think of Dallas Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). Dallas is most certainly an activist and has written much about the degradation and exploitation of Indigenous resources, but his writing would not be considered “scholarly.” Neither would much of the writing of Winona LaDuke, although she holds a Master’s Degree.  Narrowing my subject field to those few activists who also are scholars, I wish to honor and illuminate the consummate Indigenous activist, Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005) who addressed a number of White/Red conflicts over a more than 40 year career.

I often think about Vine Deloria’s views on the interactions between anthropologists and Indians and the sardonic summaries he wrote, summaries which most often elicited angry responses from those engaged in the field of anthropology. In Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria wrote,

behind each successful man stands a woman and behind each policy and program with which Indians are plagued, if traced completely back to its origin, stands the anthropologist. [1969:81]

And, perhaps Deloria’s most well-noted and highly contested quote:

into each life, it is said, some rain must fall.  Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market…Churches possess the real world.  But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history.  Indians have anthropologists. [1969:78]

This recurring theme of Deloria’s speaks of the social, political, and economic ways in which anthropological study has contributed to the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.  As the colonizers appropriated land and resources, anthropologists and the discipline have appropriated Indigenous knowledge systems, rewritten those knowledge systems from a colonial Euro-American perspective, and then archived the information in places often inaccessible to the very people who provided the information. 

Deloria also is speaking out against the ways in which field work is financially supported.  Financial resources are allocated through universities, National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, the Ford Foundation, and countless other funding entities.  While these monies support the living expenses including travel, research, and writing time of the anthropologist, rarely does it benefit the communities or individuals being studied. Individuals and communities often recognize that, once again, something is being either freely given to outsiders, or stolen by outsiders.

One segment of my research for my PhD dissertation consisted of personal interviews with tribal elders.  I asked about this issue of funding received by anthropologists for field work and if any of those resources were shared with the tribe or individual informants. I learned of no case or project in New England where those resources were shared. Maybe it’s a Western Indian Reservation thing?

Not everyone in the academic world understood what Deloria was speaking to in Custer. By his own account, in a reply to a book review written by Deward Walker on We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, Deloria wasn’t really writing about Indians; rather in both this book and Custer he was writing “about the forces outside Indian country that intrude consciously or unconsciously into the business of Indian people and thereby become disruptive and often destructive” (1971:321). Certainly, placing Indigenous communities under the anthropological microscope with no visible benefit to the communities qualifies as disruptive and potentially destructive.  Historically, the most severe form of “destructive” occurs when anthropological research results in Indigenous individuals and communities coming under federal or state government scrutiny.

I spent a good number of hours researching book reviews for Custer Died for Your Sins (Deloria 1988 [1969]) and my efforts were rewarded by a mere eight reviews found in professional journals.  Of those eight reviews, one was a negative review written by Joseph Muskrat (1969) and a negative response to Mark Randall (1971) by C. Adrian Heidenreich (1972), positive reviews were submitted by James E. Officer (1970), and Kenneth M. Roemer (1970). I’m left wondering why there was so little response to Custer in the first few years after publication: perhaps anthropologists were so shocked at how Deloria portrayed them in general that they didn’t want to draw attention to the book by responding to it; perhaps they hoped that Deloria would disappear if they ignored him; or perhaps they dismissed the young Vine Deloria because he was an outsider to the tightly knit discipline or because his Indigenous voice simply did not matter to them.

Alfonso Ortiz (1971) wrote a largely positive, but somewhat guarded, review of Custer in American Anthropologist. Ortiz ended his review with

this book does not pretend to be a scholarly work, but this fact only underscores the need for a well-researched and truly balanced national assessment-by an Indian or several-of current Indian thinking, needs, and aspirations. It remains to be written. [1971:955]
I believe he may have been saying that while he enjoyed the book (somewhat), it really needed to be written through an anthropological lens. And here we run headlong into the beginning question of this essay, “what exactly is scholarly activism and who decides what constitutes scholarly activism?”

We lost Vine Deloria in 2005. His sardonic wit, intelligence, personal philosophy, and activism will live on in his many writings and I very much doubt anyone today would question his scholarship.


 Deloria, Vine, Jr.
     1970 We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
     1988 [1969] Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Heidenreich, C. Adrian
     1972 The Sins of Custer Are Not Anthropological Sins: A Reply to Mark E. Randall.  American Anthropologist, New Series, 74(4):1021-1034.
Muskrat, Joseph C.
     1969 Review of Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. American Bar Association Journal 55(12):1172-1173.

Officer, James E.
     1970 Review of Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Arizona and the West 12(3): 292-294.

Ortiz, Alfonso
     1971 Review of Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. American Anthropologist 73(4): 953-955.

Randall, Mark E.
     1971 Review of Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. American Anthropologist, New Series, 73(4):985.

Roemer, Kenneth M.
     1970 Review of Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. American Quarterly 22(2): 273.

Walker, Deward E., Jr.
      1971 Review of We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf.  Human Organization 30(3):321.

[Thanks, Donna! Next series starts Monday,

PS. What do you think?]

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