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  • American Indian Studies:Intellectual Navel Gazing or Academic Discipline?
  • Clara Sue Kidwell (bio)

The academic field of Native American/American Indian studies (NAS/ AIS) has been and largely remains a product of political forces at the national level and now at the tribal level. As Gerald Vizenor once said, being an American Indian today is a political act in and of itself. The very recognition of American Indians as a unique group by the U.S. government is a political statement of survival or, to use Vizenor's term, "survivance."1 The emergence of NAS/AIS programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a result of the general social ferment of civil rights and antiwar activism in American society.2 Previously disenfranchised and powerless people found a voice. The activism and social protest in Indian communities gained national attention with the takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1968, the occupation of the Department of the Interior building in Washington, DC, in 1972, and the siege at the Wounded Knee trading post in South Dakota in 1973.3

Some of the very few American Indian students in universities across the country also found their voices. Students at San Francisco State University picketed the university with demands for a college of ethnic studies.4 At the University of California at Berkeley administrators canceled a scheduled speech by black activist Stokely Carmichael, leading to a boycott of classes by black, Hispanic, Asian, and the very few American Indian students on the campus. This Third World Strike led the university's Academic Senate to create an ethnic studies department, reporting directly to the chancellor. At the University of Minnesota a group of American Indian students took a different approach by negotiating with a sympathetic dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for the establishment of an academic program.5 [End Page 1]

With new programs approved, the challenge was to find instructors to staff them and content to offer. With a voice in the academy, Indian students and scholars proclaimed that they would counter all the negative stereotypes that were perpetuated in various academic disciplines. The designation chosen by some of the early academic programs, Native American studies, was a political rejection of the historical accident of Christopher Columbus's landing on the island of Hispaniola in 1492.6 In this respect the field constituted more a response to established paradigms of knowledge than an intellectually coherent statement of Native ways of seeing the world. The occupiers of Alcatraz Island rejected academia altogether and demanded that it become the site for a university devoted to the study of Native knowledge.7

Vine Deloria skewered anthropologists in Custer Died for Your Sins, leading college faculty and administrators to view these new programs with suspicion and accuse them of political advocacy.8 At the same time, faculty hired in these programs debated whether they were or should become academic disciplines. If the entrenched disciplines that had studied American Indians had created so much misinformation, should newly emerging programs follow their lead in order to survive in academic institutions? Or could they effect institutional change by their very presence?9

NAS/AIS programs have survived in academic institutions largely because of political currents in higher education. In the 1970s administrators viewed them as tools for the affirmative action goals inspired by the civil rights movement. Programs "relevant" to Indian interests would attract Indian students and thus boost enrollments of underrepresented students. By the mid-1980s technological advances in engineering and computers inspired concerns about "manpower [sic] needs." Underrepresented groups were a potential pool to make up the shortfall of technologically trained workers.10 By the early 1990s, faced with immigration of Asian and Hispanic populations, American policy makers began to embrace the idea of diversity as enriching American culture. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, adopted as a motto "Excellence in Diversity."

Although political trends have fostered (albeit unintentionally) the intellectual development of NAS/AIS programs, the presence of American Indian scholars in colleges and universities has led to a growing acceptance of NAS/AIS as a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry and even, [End Page 2] perhaps, an...


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