In Praise of Vine Deloria –

In Praise of Vine Deloria –

The above articles’ main argument is that Native American Studies continues to be one of the least developed academic fields throughout the country some forty plus years after the first programs were initiated.

In many cases, Native American Studies survives only through the more encompassing field of Ethnic Studies, which itself is under attack, as we have seen in Tucson public schools.

The article also mentions how most of the academic studies on indigenous people are conducted by non-natives, contributing to the continued disconnect between them and the communities they study. Although some of the trends the author cites, like declensionary and victimization models, have been prevalent in the past, there have been significant changes in the way native people are presented in academic studies over the last 30 years.

Over the last 10-20 years, scholars — historians at least — have been more sensitive to indigenous agency, emphasizing the role they played historically, and the eurocentric bias of the old historians is almost non-existent among contemporary scholars. Historians are trained to be impartial and critical of the sources they study, and so although there is the tendency to give Native people credit where it is due, they conversely receive the critical analysis when needed; in other words, historians are not in the business of giving a pass at Indians now to try to make up for past injustices.

Historians, like anyone else, do have biases, and these usually come to the fore in their studies, so one must be critical in assessing their interpretations. However, overall, I would say that historians try their best to be considerate of indigenous sensibilities, although at times they might err or fail in their attempt. As someone that is training to be a professional historian myself, I tend to be overly critical of anthropology(ists). Here is where I agree with the author that “anthros” (as Deloria put it) tend to get native people and their culture wrong  by assuming and coming to erroneous conclusions due to their lack of indigenous understanding.

This is not to say that anthros are always wrong, because their work is useful, however, we have to ask ourselves, who’s benefiting from the study being performed? Is it indigenous people, or is it the career of a certain individual? What do Native communities gain, if anything, from the studies undertaken? That was one of Deloria’s major concerns, and it’s one that continues to plague Native American communities. Until scholars come to terms with that, Native people will continue to be skeptical and resentful of the endless probing and prodding by academia.

To get a better perspective on this, the book Natives and Academics (1998) – Devon A. Mihesuah, ed. is a great place to start. It’s a collection of essays from Native scholars, including one by Deloria, and I suggest that anyone remotely interested on the subject of academia and its relationship to indigenous people read it.



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