Wicazo Sa Review 20.2 (2005) 121-145
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Teaching American Indian Studies to Reflect American Indian Ways of Knowing and to Interrupt Cycles of Genocide
Lawrence W. Gross
In the fall of 2000, under the direction of Sidner Larson, the American Indian Studies Program at Iowa State University adopted a blended teaching methodology that draws on established pedagogical methods found in the academy and American Indian ways of knowing.1 Each member of the program is free to develop the approach as best fits the individual's teaching style and pedagogical goals. As such, in adopting this method I have chosen to emphasize teaching American Indian studies as a means of interrupting cycles of genocide, in addition to introducing and legitimating American Indian ways of knowing and being in the academy. The following is a description of my teaching as it currently stands, beginning with some background information and theory and then turning to a discussion of course goals and class logistics.
A review of the literature indicates a telling difference between teaching American Indian and non-Indian students.2 When it comes to teaching American Indians, much of the pedagogy focuses on teaching a given topic to American Indians, whereas, with non-Indian students, the emphasis is on teaching about American Indians. On the surface, it seems reasonable that special attention be paid to the cultural imperatives of sovereignty and nation building implicit in instructing American Indians and that sensitivity be shown in teaching non-Indians about Indians, and the point is not to question the good work being performed in this area.3 However, some of the assumptions underlying these different approaches need to be challenged, especially the ways [End Page 121] they perpetuate racial separation and undermine efforts to diversify the academy. It is my contention that, on the one hand, the degree to which the pedagogical discussion about teaching topics to American Indians reinforces efforts at assimilation needs to be interrogated, because the goal seems to be to indoctrinate Indians into mainstream culture. On the other hand, in teaching about American Indians, although some successes may be achieved in getting non-Indians to appreciate Indian cultures as a topic of study, Indians remain the exotic other without any particular relevance to the lives of non-Indians.4 If Indians are going to function in mainstream culture, it is important for them to have certain skill sets related to science, mathematics, literature, and other academic disciplines.5 I would further argue that if the genocide of Indians is to be brought to an end, it must be demonstrated that Indian cultures are pertinent to the experiences of non-Indians so they may better understand and appreciate Indian cultures and therefore recognize the need to end the Indian holocaust. Moreover, if Indians have to learn the ways of mainstream culture, is it not reasonable for non-Indians to learn the ways of American Indians? Since we mainly teach non-Indians at Iowa State, the problem of reciprocity dominates our teaching. One way to approach the issue of teaching non-Indians is to relate Indian experiences to the lived experiences of the students while still maintaining and recognizing cultural differences. The question then becomes one of where the balance lies between uniting the experience of Indians and non-Indians and acknowledging the differences between the two groups. This is the fundamental dynamic that drives my pedagogy, and I will discuss a compromise we have developed at Iowa State wherein we strive to turn instruction from a ritual of indoctrination into a ritual of empowerment and introduce American Indian ways of knowing and being as legitimate topics of study.
The approach we are taking could be thought of as the third wave in teaching American Indian studies at Iowa State University. The first wave concerns how American Indian studies used to be taught at our school. When I first arrived on campus, I was given copies of the syllabi for Introduction to American Indian Studies courses previously taught here. In the...