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American Quarterly 55.4 (2003) 669-680

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American Indians, American Studies, and the ASA

Philip J. Deloria
Universtiy of Michigan

IN PREPARING HER 1997 AMERICAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION presidential address, Mary Helen Washington talked to people across the spectrum of ASA membership about the relationship between the organization and the intellectual work coming out of traditional "ethnic studies" concentrations. We chatted for some time, mostly about the ways in which ASA was and was not capable of serving scholars of color as an intellectual home, a powerful theme in her address, and one frequently present at that conference. Indeed, this issue of homes and homelessness seemingly laid out the agenda for the 1997 ASA conference session, "The Future of Native American Studies in American Studies," a discussion that can be seen as ancestral to the 2002 panel from which these pieces are drawn, "American (Indian) Studies: Can the ASA Be an Intellectual Home?" "Why," Washington asked six years ago, "have so few Native scholars and scholars of Indian America found in the ASA the same type of intellectual home as scholars of African American, Latino/a and Asian Pacific American studies?" The basic outlines of this question have not changed substantially since then; obviously it is an issue worth revisiting.

To begin, as we've seen in the debates surrounding categories of race and ethnicity in the latest census data, demography may not be destiny, but it matters—sometimes a lot. Native people reached the nadir of [End Page 669] their population in the early twentieth century and have been increasing ever since. If you count the self-identification boom that has accompanied the last two censuses, you could argue that Indian population numbers are now increasing exponentially. Widen the category to "indigenous" and throw in various kinds of global immigrations and you might find yourself talking about vast multitudes of people, right?

Wrong. Indian people continue to make up a relatively smaller portion of the population of the United States. No matter how you parse the numbers concerning race and ethnicity, the 2000 Census lists American Indian and Alaska Native populations as less than 1 percent of the total population of the United States. 1 As a result—and all complicated questions of differential educational opportunities and cultural prompting aside—Native America simply generates fewer academic intellectuals. The smaller pool of academic Native intellectuals (and I don't deny the existence of any number of organic Indian intellectuals) means greater demands on each, as they try to represent, in various ways, native constituencies in universities, presses, professional organizations, museums, and the like. A nearly infinite workload is spread among a very finite group of people, each of whom is forced to eliminate many choices while pursuing only a few. (This is an argument made by other scholars of color as well, though one wonders if the problem is relatively more acute for Native people. In any case, it does not mark a promising beginning.)

As we weigh the demographics, it is also worth reminding ourselves once again that Indian people are qualitatively different from other ethnic and racial groups in the United States in that they have ongoing treaty relationships with the Federal government. That means that—as communities and as individuals—they have to deal in structured relationships with federal bureaucracies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. They have to wrangle with Congress and argue in the court system. They have to understand and negotiate forms of tribal governance that hybridize local knowledge with American constitutional models, and that exist in government-to-government relations. Now more than ever, those relations are not only with the federal government, but with often-predatory state and local governments as well. Almost immediately, we can take the pool of prospective American Indian academic intellectuals and eliminate the sizeable number who commit themselves to these particular aspects of Native struggle by choosing, for example, a three-year law degree or a two-year M.A. in public policy over a six-year Ph.D. program. [End Page 670]