- “We Really Listened”:Partnership Building, Indigenous Language Revitalization, and Civic Engagement
Indigenous studies and feminist scholars have articulated the importance of challenging colonial and heteropatriarchal logics within the education system. Building on this important critique, scholars have also written about methodologies for dismantling such logics, framing their work in terms of decolonizing methodologies, indigenizing the academy, and incorporating Red pedagogy (Smith; Mihesuah and Wilson; Grande). Across these literatures, scholars emphasize the importance of centering indigenous peoples’ perspectives and experiences. A critical indigenous perspective can help extend feminist analyses that encourage “listening” and “giving voice” in order to engage diverse perspectives and share power within Western hierarchical education systems (Adams et al.; Naples and Bojar; Williams and Ferber). Indigenous studies scholars and feminist scholars share an overarching goal of building educational systems that actively work towards social justice, a term that both groups of scholars tend to prefer, compared to other terms such as “civic engagement.” Feminist scholars have framed the importance of civic engagement in terms of social justice education practice that critically examines power and privilege. For example, Catherine M. Orr and colleagues note, “Women’s Studies regards civic learning as most effective when students understand how social problems emerge from interconnected systems of inequality and simultaneously learn how to challenge those systems” (Orr 10). Thus, the preference for the term “social justice,” as opposed to “civic engagement,” is rooted in a legacy of activist scholarship that “draws on histories of radical politics to make both connections and distinctions between service and struggle” (Orr 10).
Within U.S. higher education, civic engagement is highly valued, with mission statements consistently reaffirming the role of higher education to educate the citizenry and tend to the needs of America’s democracy (Hartley). Within the mainstream civic engagement literature, useful frameworks are proposed, such as “reorienting scholarly activities to address pressing societal and community concerns” and “develop[ing] sustained and reciprocal university/community partnerships” (Hartley). Yet, throughout [End Page 181] the literature on civic engagement, indigenous peoples are typically ignored. Thus, although there is a desire to “address concerns” and “develop partnerships” with indigenous communities, Western academics usually are simply not trained to know how to do this from an indigenous perspective. My article seeks to fill this gap by: 1) describing a successful university-indigenous community civic engagement project, and 2) articulating how an indigenous perspective of civic engagement can help advance feminist theory and practice in civic engagement efforts. In doing so, I help address an important gap identified in the Teagle Foundation White Paper: “coming to terms” with a common and inclusive language about civic engagement (Orr 5). My definition of civic engagement education draws from the pedagogical model of interwoven liberation that Sylvanna Falcón and I articulated in previous work (Falcón and Jacob). Our pedagogical model emphasizes reciprocity and sincerity, prioritizing the need to understand the local context, engaging in educational projects focused on justice, and assessing how well responsibilities of reciprocity and respect are being met (Falcón and Jacob 38–43). Thus, defining civic engagement work from an indigenous perspective is as much about process as product. That is, while what is being done in civic engagement matters, how it is being done is at least equally important. Implicit within this definition is the need to establish trusting relationships and a respect for local indigenous cultures.
Civic engagement is crucial for indigenous language revitalization. Tribal language teachers are deeply committed to making a difference in their communities and improving the quality of life at both the individual (student) and collective (community) levels. This vision of social justice complements the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ definition of civic engagement: “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (Association of American Colleges and Universities). All of the teachers who attend the University of Oregon Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI) understand that their languages cannot survive unless more young people learn to understand and speak their...