- We're Not There Yet, Kemo Sabe:Positing a Future for American Indian Literary Studies
A few days after receiving the news that I would be teaching a 200-level section of Native American literature, I attended the regular meeting of unite, the Indian student group at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.1 At the end of the meeting, I asked my fellow members—graduate students and undergraduates, mostly women, with representation from tribes all across the United States—what they would want from an American Indian literature class. They were quiet for a little while and then, for nearly forty-five minutes, responded to my query. No one in that room had ever been asked that question, and the floodgates opened. What did we want from a class that is meant to reflect, at least in part, the diversity of experiences and worldviews that we represent? We moved beyond literature to a general discussion about what we as Indian students would want from any course in American Indian studies. Nearly all the comments centered on the difficulties between what is taught, what non-Indian students and faculty expect, and what information Indian students and faculty think should be included in these classes. Not surprisingly, stereotypes and the ignorance of many non-Indians about Indian Country ranked among the most pernicious and pervasive issues.
It has become something of a truism to state that academia is a problematic space for Native peoples, being the place most fraught with conflict over the intellectual justifications of imperialism as well as intellectual resistance to those same justifications. Native American studies programs have now reached a stage of institutionalization, at least on many campuses, that provides some secure horizon for the status of Indian intellectualism in "the academy." But that same institutionalization has a grim side as well, for with institutional support comes pressure, both subtle and heavy-handed, to conform critique and scholarly integrity to the goals and structure of the academy—which remains largely white, largely male, largely straight, and largely dominated by Euro-American ideals of individualism, capitalism, conformity, and knowledge as property. [End Page 256]
In the course of our discussion, the members of UNITE reflected on this state of affairs and our own complicity or resistance to this shift in purpose. Who do Native American studies programs serve? Are they programs run by non Indians for the edification of non-Indians? This is a noble goal, but are these programs really Native studies? And what is the place of Indians in such programs? Are we just (literally) disembodied voices, names, and faces used when convenient to justify the program's existence, or are we active, welcome participants? What would a program that truly reflects the intellectual traditions and life experiences of Indian Country demand of its scholars and students? What would we demand of one another?
These questions are of vital importance to many of us, especially those, like me, who plan to spend our lives in this "enemy territory." I am a student, a young scholar who looks at the job market with some trepidation but whose optimism has not yet been squelched by the increased demands on time, energy, and scholarship. I am looking at the current state of affairs in Native American studies—particularly Indian literary studies and history, my fields of experience—and imagining how, or if, it will continue to serve the needs of Indian people in the coming years. As such, this essay is less a treatise on the way things should be as it is an exploration of the way things could be. It is not The Answer; instead, it is a series of questions and ideas to reconceptualize what the field of Native American studies is, who it serves, how it accomplishes its stated and implied goals, where it is heading, and who has a place in its future. It is not simply the general seventh generation we think about today; it is also the seventh generation of scholars to come.
In our conversation that cold November afternoon, we came up with a number of issues that we felt to be the most pressing for any study...