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A Room of One's Own at the ASA: An Indigenous Provocation

From: American Quarterly
Volume 55, Number 4, December 2003
pp. 681-687 | 10.1353/aq.2003.0048

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American Quarterly 55.4 (2003) 681-687

TOWARDS THE END OF HIS 1933 BOOK The Land of the Spotted Eagle , Lakota author Luther Standing Bear presents his critique of where Native Americans stand vis à vis American society. "The white man does not understand the Indian," Standing Bear writes, "for the reason that he does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears; he still has in his consciousness the perils of this frontier continent, some of its fastnesses not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes"(248). The problem with America, according to Standing Bear, is that "the man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien. And he still hates the man who questioned his path across the continent"(248).

Standing Bear was a remarkable author who managed with just a few years of formal education—and that at a school, Carlisle, that focused much of its efforts on industrial training and didn't offer high school-level coursework—to presage most of the smartest thinking of the Indian world of the 1970s, when Native American studies was establishing a beachhead in the academy. Standing Bear linked the future of Native people with the future of the United States. Thus his purpose was not only to critique the United States. Instead, he linked the possibility of white Americans coming to understand this continent to the development of what he calls"a native school of thought"(255).

Standing Bear foresaw Native teachers teaching Native students who would be "doubly educated" in creative arts, traditional religion, and philosophy, on the one hand, and modern duties and professions on the other. In quoting some of these same passages, Cherokee demographer Russell Thornton argues that "what Standing Bear advocated in 1933 was Native American studies to educate both Native American and non-Native American youth about their respective Americas." Indeed, Standing Bear's rudimentary proposal is perhaps the closest any Native American figure came to articulating a Native equivalent to the foundational work of W.E.B. DuBois in African American studies. "Every reservation," argued Standing Bear,

could well be supplied with Indian doctors, nurses, engineers, road- and bridge-builders, draughtsmen, architects, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and instructors in tribal lore, legends, orations, song, dance, and ceremonial ritual. The Indian, by the very sense of duty, should become his own historian, giving his account of the race—fairer and fewer accounts of the wars and more of statecraft, legends, languages, oratory, and philosophical conceptions. (254)

Standing Bear's thoughts are a reminder of some of the basic issues we confront when we take up today's topic of where Native studies fits in American studies.

One of the premises Standing Bear's work brings to this discussion is one I share with him. That is, the proving ground of Native studies—including the issue of where it might fit within a broader academic field like American studies—is the effect of academic work on the actual lives of real Native people living in real time. And part and parcel of that proving ground is the idea that Native people themselves need to be teachers and scholars, not just students, of their own histories and experiences. I bring up this premise because it's usually an obvious one to Native scholars who do Native studies, but not always obvious to others.

What's not so obvious to anyone, I would argue, is what those of us in the ASA can do at this particular moment to move closer to bringing historical and contemporary Native perspectives to bear on the work of American studies. Not obvious because, for all of the work that has been done in Native American studies over the past three decades, we remain a very long way from realizing anything close to Standing Bear's vision.

Native American studies as an academic field made important strides in the crisis period of the 1960s and has itself been in crisis ever since. The positive developments have been real...

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