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  • Presidential AddressAmerican Indian Studies: Our Challenges
  • James Riding In (bio)

It is an honor to speak to you today as the first president of the American Indian Studies Association (AISA). Please do not feel offended by my use of the term Indian as I share some of my academic experiences, views about what needs to be done to build strong and vibrant American Indian studies (AIS) programs, and ideas about strengthening AISA. Although this imprecise designation of "Indian" originated with an invading foreigner's words, my Pawnee relatives embraced the name. This term has come under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism during the past decade, but its use does not make me feel disempowered, humiliated, or damaged. In my writings, public talks, and interpersonal conversations, I often interchange "Indian" with "Indigenous." To designate us first peoples of this hemisphere properly, one would have to acknowledge the names of all present-day Indian nations, including those without U.S. recognition and those who perished from the devastation of the colonizers' weapons, disease, and expansionist policies. American Indian has a long history mostly devoid of an ambiguous meaning.

Before continuing, I must say that two of my most gratifying moments as a professor, and there have been many over the years, occurred yesterday. At the close of the AISA business meeting, an AIS student gave me his favorite Diné bracelet. His words saying how much help I had given him at Arizona State University (ASU) and the gift were indeed very touching. Later that day a graduate student from another institution told me that American Indian studies at ASU has the reputation of [End Page 65] being the best in the nation. What an acknowledgment! At ASU we have worked long and hard to first convince other Indian faculty that AIS is important for students, faculty, the university, and Indian nations. Now our intention is to create the best program possible.

I should note that the words of those two students created a very different feeling than I had several years ago when reading students' comments for a civil rights course I taught for another department.1 During lectures I had discussed the biblical, historical, sociological, legal, and political justifications for slavery and Manifest Destiny. Responding to a question on the student evaluation form asking what "you liked most about the course," a student responded: "Absolutely nothing, he offended my race, religion, and country." Expressions of historical amnesia, self-righteousness, and closed mindedness are unfortunate social pathologies that continue to infest the colonizer's society. We cannot reach everyone with AIS nor should we try. From my view, we must open our classes to those who are genuinely interested in studying matters of sovereignty, tribal empowerment, religious freedom, generational historical grief, decolonization, and cultural survival in the face of colonialism. Those interested in New Age religion, shamanism, and denial should go elsewhere.

It is significant to point out that Mr. Bryan Neztsosie, who is a panelist with this morning's plenary session, graduated last spring from ASU with a bachelor's degree in American Indians studies. I am certain that his AIS instructors helped to prepare him for the important work he is now doing for the Diné Policy Institute, an entity at Diné College devoted to the study of how traditional philosophies and principles may be used in tribal decision-making processes. We are very proud of Bryan and our other graduates.

It is also very gratifying to see so many young and enthusiastic graduate students in attendance at this year's meeting because it will be you who will become AIS faculty as the battered and worn war-horses are being led, if not kicked, out to the pasture of retirement and as new positions are created. But there is life after retirement. A model of inspiration for all of us is Professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Since retiring from academia several years ago, she has produced important books and articles devoted to AIS and other issues. She is our Energizer Bunny—she just keeps going and going.

Excuse me for the digression. There are others in this room more deserving of this office as the first AISA...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-7901
Print ISSN
0749-6427
Pages
pp. 65-75
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-08
Open Access
No
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