New Association Takes 'Big Tent' Approach to Studying Native Peoples

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 18 17:21:03 UTC 2009

New Association Takes 'Big Tent' Approach to Studying Native Peoples


Although several academic associations in the United States devote at
least some part of their annual conferences to research on American
Indians, many scholars of indigenous populations have long felt they
lacked an intellectual home, a place where they could gather with
large numbers of people who share their interests.

A fledgling organization, the Native American and Indigenous Studies
Association, is seeking to offer them one.

In doing so, the new group is also attempting to promote the idea that
Native American studies is a distinct specialty drawing upon other
disciplines, and it hopes to tackle some of the tougher ethical
questions confronted by its members, such as how much say to give
elected tribal leaders over research done on their communities.

About 550 scholars of American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Alaska
natives — as well as other indigenous peoples around the world — are
expected to come together at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
this week for the first formal meeting of the group, which was formed
at gatherings held at the University of Oklahoma in 2007 and the
University of Georgia last year.

The association's leaders say they want it to accommodate people from
any academic discipline, as well as all parts of the world, who are
interested in the study of indigenous populations. Among those
planning to attend this week's three-day meeting are scholars of the
Maori in New Zealand, the tribes that first settled India, and the
aboriginal people of Australia and Taiwan.

The scheduled research presentations include discussions of American
Indian filmmakers, medicinal plants in the upper Mississippi River
basin, the Yanktonais Sioux artist Oscar Howe, the Lakota tribe's
history of the solar system, American Indian community activism in Los
Angeles, and literary and cultural representations of Elvis Presley as
part Cherokee.

"I would say we that have a big-tent view," says Jean M. O'Brien, an
associate professor of history and chair of the American
Indian-studies department at Minnesota who helped organize the new
group and has been named as its president for 2010. "Most of us work
in mainstream disciplines, and yet we also work and communicate across

Common Frustrations

Not everyone who studies American Indians shares the new association's
desire to establish Native American studies as an interdisciplinary
field open to anyone.

The American Indian Studies Association, a loosely organized group
that draws several dozen scholars to annual conferences at Arizona
State University, has long sought to promote American Indian studies
as a distinct academic discipline focused on American Indian
sovereignty, rights, and culture. In a speech delivered at the group's
annual meeting last year, its president, James Riding In, an associate
professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State, called the
Native American and Indigenous Studies Association's interdisciplinary
emphasis "troubling" and antithetical to his own organization's

"The way we approach the study of Indians is following a very
different paradigm," Mr. Riding In, a member of the Pawnee nation,
said in a recent interview. He said that the established academic
disciplines that "historically have controlled and dominated academic
thought about American Indians," like history and anthropology, often
have not done enough to take American Indian concerns and ways of
thinking into account. "Often, these scholars have no real interest in
American Indian people except as research subjects," he said.

Several of the scholars involved with the new association share some
of Mr. Riding In's frustration with organizations like the American
Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, and
the American Studies Association.

"People within the larger professional organizations would ask for
native participation but did not seem to value it," says Gwen
Westerman Griffin, a professor of English at Minnesota State
University at Mankato who is Dakota Indian. Ms. Griffin, the director
of an annual symposium on Native American literature that was
established out of a sense that the American Literature Association
did not devote enough attention to such writers, calls the creation of
such Native American-focused organizations "an issue of control —
control over how our issues are represented, how our voices are

"We don't have to rely on some other organization to validate our
work," Ms. Griffin says. "We are validating ourselves."

But leaders of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association
stress that they do not see their group as separatist and expect its
members to remain active in other scholarly organizations.

"We want people to be in mainstream disciplines — that is all to the
good for us," Ms. O'Brien says. "It is good for our students to see
native studies accepted in mainstream disciplines."

Creating Momentum

The emergence of the new group has been welcomed by the president of
the American Studies Association, Philip J. Deloria, a professor of
history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and author of two
books on American Indians. He said it is unrealistic to expect
associations like his own to meet the needs of all of their
constituent groups, and he calls the leaders of the new organization
"stalwarts in Native American studies."

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association is the
brainchild of Robert A. Warrior, the director of American Indian
studies and the Native American House at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. Mr. Warrior, who is an Osage Indian, said he
deliberately chose to establish the organization over the course of
three annual meetings because he wanted to ensure it had momentum
behind it. About 300 scholars showed up at the initial gathering held
at the University of Oklahoma in 2007 to test interest. About 450 more
came to second one, at the University of Georgia, where those on hand
adopted a constitution for their new group.

Mr. Warrior said his association still has to decide questions such as
whether it plans to take public stands on various controversies
involving indigenous peoples. Its primary focus, he says, will be
giving people with an interest in indigenous populations a chance to
come together and exchange ideas, to create "a structure in which
better scholarship can happen."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Section: The Faculty Volume 55, Issue 37, Page A8


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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