Scholarly Responsibilities to Indigenous Communities

by Prof. Devon A. Mihesuah

The following statement appeared on 16 April 2003 as first in a series of statements on this topic, organized by H-AMINDIAN@H-NET.MSU.EDU

Jay Precht, H-AmIndian Graduate Editor, explained the purpose:

In an effort to foster discussion of important issues, the staff at H-AmIndian will be inviting scholars to respond to a series of questions. Our first question is: To what extent do scholars have a responsibility to the Indigenous communities they study and how can they fulfill this responsibility.

Four scholars of Indigenous Studies have accepted our invitation to respond to this question. These scholars are Professor Clara Sue Kidwell of the University of Oklahoma, Professor Devon Mihesuah of Northern Arizona University, Doctoral Candidate Daniel Cobb of the University of Oklahoma, and Doctoral Student Matthew Makley of Arizona State University.

We will offer each response separately beginning with Professor Mihesuah's response

QUESTION: To what extent do scholars have a responsibility to the Indigenous communities they study and how can they fulfill this responsibility?

Professor Mihesuah's Response:

This is an important question, one that cuts to the heart of what I believe is the most serious problem in Native studies today. It also is an ethical and moral issue that is sidestepped by many scholars who focus their careers on studying indigenous peoples. Scholars absolutely do have a responsibility to the people they study. This is a strong statement and one that needs to be discussed--again.

I and others have already said this in numerous publications, but clearly we need to keep repeating ourselves: degrees, grants, fellowships, awards and book contracts have been bestowed upon hundreds of scholars who write about Natives and there is no question that many scholars prosper from their work, while for the most part the subjects of their studies do not. Vine Deloria, Jr. stated in 1991 that, "we need to eliminate useless or repetitive research and focus on actual community needs; it is both unethical and wasteful to plow familiar ground continually." Many scholars in the various fields of Native studies have not paid attention to his concern.

Poverty, disease, depression and frustration are common throughout many tribal nations and urban Natives (including Native academics) also are stereotyped and treated as second-class citizens. Because of these realities, it is fair to ask how many authors of scholarly works about Natives attempt to find solutions to the problems Natives face. If essays are going to continue to be reprinted in anthologies, then why can we not see more collections of papers devoted to the historical roots of why Natives are in their current situations, in addition to proposed solutions to their concerns? Many of the "powerhouse," award-winning scholars refuse to use indigenous oral testimonies, do not visit tribal lands, and have no idea of the hardships that indigenous peoples face. Unfortunately, many of these scholars mentor most of the people reading this and they control dissertation, search, promotion, tenure and awards committees. They illustrate the actuality that "highly educated" people are insulated from many of the realities of life.

Several authors in Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing About American Indians have already said that authors need to be accountable to tribes. This anthology has sold over 5000 copies so I know good and well that scholars interested in studying Natives have read it. I also know this because of the deluge of e-mails and letters I have received since 1998 thanking me for producing it. Those people supportive of finding decolonization, empowerment and Nation-building strategies, however, are not those in charge of the aforementioned committees, and they certainly have no input as to what publishing houses spew forth. Instead of taking the concerns expressed by indigenous intellectuals ("warrior scholars," as Kanien'kehaka scholar Taiaiake Alfred calls them) to heart, leaders and supporters of the status quo (and this includes some Natives) have evidently decided to take a different route. It is not at all surprising then, that the essay in Natives and Academics that has been the most quoted is the least threatening to those who want to know about Natives, but who have no intention of actually interacting with any: "American Indian Studies is for Everyone," while the most challenging ones by myself, Angela Cavender Wilson, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Karen Swisher, Susan Miller and Paula Gunn Allen evidently scare readers and so they either ignore or have nothing nice to say about us.

Further, witness the numbers of repetitive "Indian history" anthologies published recently (most notably by Routledge and Blackwell) to get an idea for how authors purposely neglect to use, much less cite, the work of indigenous scholars who challenge the way history and culture has been written, in addition to pushing for more practical and useful studies instead of more-of- the-same about topics we've seen repeatedly. Recent reading lists posted from some institutions begs the question of what, exactly, are the missions of these Native studies programs? Do they exist to educate interested students about the realities of Native life and to collaborate to find solutions to myriad troubles faced by Native America, or do these programs exist to create jobs for those literature, history, policy, anthropology, psychology, humanities and religion professors who "study" Natives but won't lift a finger to help them?

Apparently, many young scholars are being taught by professors in "Indian Studies" and the rapidly growing field of "Ethnic Studies" who are ignorant about this issue. Those mentors not so ignorant, however, but who are afraid that "the Indians will take over" or who are afraid that they will have to change their research agendas and start creating interesting essays and books, tell their charges that those of us concerned about the direction Native Studies is taking are "essentialists" and/or believe that "only Indians can write about Indians." These tiresome, fabricated attacks are nothing more than rationalizations of their own refusal or lack of ability to do useful work and clearly illustrate their fear of losing control of Native Studies.

How can we meet this responsibility? The answer to such a question is a long one and there is not room here to adequately address the issue. Personally, I try to find out what it is that tribes need and to focus my energies on those things. As one of the few Native full professors in the business I try and use what little influence I have to accomplish these goals. In my capacity as editor of the American Indian Quarterly I have put a halt to submissions about fiction books and writers that we have read about repeatedly (for example, since 1998, I have received 28 essays about House Made of Dawn). AIQ now seeks submissions on policy, environmental protection, treaty rights, economic development, oral histories, AIS programs, activism and decolonization strategies. Submissions dealing with literary criticism must include discussions about the author's ability to impart messages about Nation building, empowerment for Natives and hope for the future. It is interesting to note that I have received dozens of papers about the former topics, but only one paper in two years that fits the latter.

I now edit a new book series at Nebraska Press, "Contemporary Indigenous Issues" (see "Challenging the Status Quo in Native American Studies," Chronicle of Higher Education January 17, 2003). The series allows Natives in academia to examine, challenge, and debate controversial issues that affect the lives and representations of indigenous Americans today. In addition, I will co-chair with Angela Cavender Wilson a series of Senior Seminars at the School of American Research on decolonization, with the first publication produced by our US and Canadian indigenous allies being the Decolonization Workbook.

I am well aware that these activities do not endear me to those supporting the status quo. However, these are not the people I am concerned about.

I will end this brief discussion with an excerpt from my essay, "Should 'American Indian History' Remain a Field of Study?" that appears in Indigenizing the Academy. This new book focuses in greater depth on the question at hand (the anthology is the sequel to Natives and Academics, and is edited by me and Wilson, forthcoming from Nebraska Press; authors address related topics such as academic racism, ethnic fraud, gatekeeping, politics and favoritism):

Considering that this is a country founded by colonizers whose policies and behaviors disrupted and almost destroyed Indigenous cultures and lives, historians of the Indigenous past have a responsibility to examine critically the effects of their historical narratives on the well-being of Natives and of the influences their stories have on the retention and maintenance of the colonial power structure. Some historians feel so strongly about this ideology that we have shifted from being discipline-specific to interdisciplinary in order to write about a host of issues that concern Natives. Personally, I side with history philosopher Hayden White who argues that "any science of society should be launched in the service of some conception of social justice, equity, freedom, and progress, that is to say, some idea of what a good society might be."

And what is wrong with that?

Devon A. Mihesuah
Professor of Applied Indigenous Studies
Editor, American Indian Quarterly (
Northern Arizona University
P.O. Box 15020
Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5020
AIQ phone: 928-523-5159

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