- In Search of Theory and Method in American Indian Studies
American Indian studies should have a theoretical and methodological focus sufficient to organize an academic discipline. American Indian nations, or more generally indigenous nations, form distinct political and cultural groups that are informed by creation and cultural teachings that encourage preservation of self-government, community, and stewardship of land within the context of surrounding nation-states that prefer assimilation and political inclusion to recognition of indigenous goals and values. Most contemporary theories of group action can provide only partial explanations for the conservative cultural and political organization of indigenous peoples and for their cultural and political continuity to the present. The distinct cultural, institutional, and political organization and nonconsensual relations of American Indian nations with the U.S. government constitutes a unique pattern of social-cultural organization and cultural and political contestations. A primary focus of American Indian studies as a discipline is to conceptualize, research, and explain patterns of American Indian individual and collective community choices and strategies when confronted with relations with the American state and society. American Indian cultural emphasis on retaining culture, identity, self-government, and stewardship of land and resulting contestations with the U.S. government and society forms a body of empirical social action that constitutes the subject matter of American Indian studies as an academic discipline. American Indian studies defined in this way should be capable of generating theory, performing empirical research, making generalizations, commenting on policy, and supporting the goals and values of American Indian nations. The suggested framework for American Indian studies as an academic [End Page 353] discipline can be generalized to the international level in the form of indigenous studies.
Present-Day American Indian Studies
Most American Indian studies departments and programs are multidisciplinary. Faculty are trained in a variety of disciplines, and they provide courses that have American Indian content. They present theory and the accumulation of knowledge produced in a variety of academic fields. Native voices increasingly are included in contemporary academic approaches to the study of American Indians. Most universities and colleges present a curriculum to their students that includes classes on American Indians. The audiences for American Indian college courses are often non-Indian students, and the courses are seen as ways to generate awareness and greater understanding. Academic researchers are growing more sensitive about Native history, culture, and voice and are able to theorize and conduct research within their disciplines about American Indian experiences and issues. Certainly multidisciplinary approaches to teaching and researching American Indians has improved in recent decades.
Nevertheless, relatively little conceptual progress has been made toward defining American Indian studies as a discipline and toward developing theory and research that presents a coherent theoretical and methodological approach to the study of indigenous peoples. Much of contemporary research and theorizing about American Indian nations is absorbed into many disciplinary fields and are considered variations on more general theories. In the worst case, American Indian communities and their issues are seen as marginal because some contemporary theories do not easily conceptualize American Indian communities, cultures, and historical experiences and are therefore regarded as outside the main focus of theoretical and empirical interest and focus. Consequently, research and theory about American Indians is fragmented and part of many disciplines. Many disciplines include American Indian issues and cases in their theoretical and empirical frameworks but for their own theoretical purposes and requirements.1
Although academic approaches are often controversial within Indian communities, I do not have any quarrel with academic approaches to the study of American Indian nations and people. There are many ways [End Page 354] to interpret the world, and if researchers are generating theory and empirical knowledge that is made accessible to American Indian nations and constructive publics, then they are fulfilling their role as researchers. Contemporary university human subjects review boards require informed consent from individual subjects, and increasingly some American Indian communities implement their own internal review boards to ensure that research conducted in their communities does not violate tribal understandings and values. Some American Indian nations are exercising their sovereign powers to monitor research undertaken in their communities and are ensuring that the research has some...