An Inspiring Evening for a Student in Search of Her Studies

On a night two Fridays ago in a strange little room called Sulzberger Parlor on the third floor of Barnard Hall located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a few things happened that you don’t see all too often. There was a panel as if often founds in the hall of academia, but this panel, Colonizing Bodies: Sexual Violence in Colonialism, consisted entirely of women of color, from the speakers to the chair. Like all panels, this panel opened up time at the end for questions, but most uncommonly the questions asked that night led to practical discussion of student activism and movement building strategies and tactics.

Columbia Anthropology Professor, Audra Simpson chaired the panel and talking to me before the event compared the panel to a concert of “three Madonnas.” The three super-star speakers included Jasbir Paur, professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times; Andrea Ritchie,a police misconduct attorney and member of the National Collective of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; and Andrea Smith, a fellow member of INCITE! And Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside.

A half-hour before the speakers began, the event had become standing room only. People prepped their smart phones for live tweeting and conversation was aflame with excitement. I was in disbelief. At two other panels I had attended as an undergraduate with both Prof. Smith and Prof. Simpson present, there had been less than half the number of attendees and most of them were in the anthropology department. The sad reality was that there was little recognition of indigenous issues and the importance of looking at settler colonialism in the American context. And yet a mere year later, with sponsorship from a number of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine to Peer Men’s Health group and Radical Cunts, it seemed the conversation was finally opening up. The past and present realities of America’s genocidal practices against Native peoples have for too long lingered on the fringe of academic and activist discourse. I was glad to see on Friday that this sad fact may soon be a factor of the past.

Talking with Prof. Simpson before the panel began, I told her how long I had been waiting for Native studies to come into the fold, for radicalized students to finally start talking about settler colonialism IN AMERICA and connecting it to struggles that are somewhat more talked about (such as the Israel-Palestine conflict). She told me that this was just one event in what she sees as a larger trend developing at Columbia: the broadening awareness not only of critical indigenous studies but also the intersectionality of sexual and racial oppressions.

It may be a matter of years before a strong, independent Native studies department forms at Columbia, but it starts in rooms like Sulzberger parlor. Columbia University may not be the educational institute we perceive as liberating, but it at the moment it is one of immense influence. A flourishing Native studies program at Columbia and other universities of its stature could lead to a greater recognition and understanding not only of Native peoples but also the processes of settler colonialism which they fight against. If we can introduce what I see as inherently anti-establishment departments into the establishment and reach as many students as possible with as many ideas as possible, the hope of changing that establishment might have a chance.

Some people may want to believe that politics and the production of knowledge should have nothing to do with each other, but the fact is that they do. And often those who push a politics uncomfortable for the university are punished. Andrea Smith knows a little something about this from her experience at University of Michigan where she was controversially denied tenure. Despite the universities’ obvious displeasure with her work, a large coalition of students organized to protest the decision. I cannot be sure of Smith’s feelings around the unfortunate denial, but I think if it was me seeing that my work had upset the university but rallied the students and gave them something worth fighting for, I think I would have seen that as something of a victorious failure.

However, overcoming anxieties about turning into an ineffectual tweed-clad egghead or fighting the academic industrial complex are only a part of the problem. The other half is finding your discipline. I know what I want to study and I have known for some time now, Native studies, plain and simple. Only thing is my discipline of choice is barely represented at the PhD level in this country, which gives me fewer options of places to go spend the next half-decade of my life than if I were to major in anthropology or even the similarly radical discipline of gender studies. So what I am to do? Adopt one of these accepted disciplines while carving out a space from the inside for critical indigenous issues? Is that what it will take for Native studies to some day have a department its own and how is important is that? How long should we be willing to wait?

During the Colonizing Bodies panel and the Q&A session, there was a lot of discussion about the politics of recognition. At one point Andrea Smith held up a very sophisticated doodle chart on the back of a piece of scrap paper. It depicted a pyramid scheme of sorts in which the big pyramid represents the dominant power ruling over and imposing a hierarchy on a handful of smaller, separate groups. Smith argued that in trying to be recognized by the big pyramid as worthy of survival and rights and dignity, the smaller groups replicate the hierarchical pyramid structure and distance themselves from other groups also involved in a similar struggle. Smith then, metaphorically speaking though I wish I wasn’t, took that chart, chewed it up and spit it out. Dismissing this structure excites people because it allows us to imagine a different fight where marginalized groups stop trying to have power bestowed on them because they are suddenly enough like the dominant group to deserve it and start making power on their own, together.

So, what does this mean in the context of my desire for Native studies to be recognized as a stand-alone discipline? It certainly helps me understand why Native studies is not currently a commonly accepted field of study: because it is a discipline, as Smith demonstrated, that pushes back against adopting the hierarchical structure of the dominant culture. Native peoples, nations and scholars offer an alternative to the idea of hierarchical structures and disrupt almost every narrative of American legitimacy, so it is no wonder that even the most liberal of colleges would shy away from educating people in those alternatives. It certainly makes me wonder what is worth more, being the gadfly on the academic ass or being just another turd.


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