ed. Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics

It's the wrong order, but these things happen for omnivorous readers. I've now finished the collection of essays edited by Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians, which is the first volume before her collection co-edited with Angela Cavender Wilson, Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities (reviewed here). I remain perplexed and awed, but I'm starting to feel more competent to think things through.

Mind you, there's more I don't get well enough to write about, than that which I do get well enough.

An example, though, of what's at stake, and why I feel so compelled to learn more and more and more. Laurie Anne Whitt's terrific essay "Cultural Imperialism and the Marketing of Native America" includes a clear and trenchant discussion of just how cultural imperialism works in relation to intellectual property rights. Basically, intellectual property rights (IPR) are individual; there's no provision generally for collective property rights in how the legal system works, and in Whitt's terms, American Indian knowledge is collective rather than individual. As a result, a non-Indian finds it easier to write about Indian matters than an Indian does, and the consequence is that the non-Indian acquires copyright and IPR over matters integrally related to Indian culture. She sees this operating most obviously (and mostly mercenarily) in New Age spirituality, some of whose practitioners are doing seriously well financially even though the sum total of their knowledge is a hazy grasp of the bare outlines of one or more tribal groups' practices. The rest of the essay moves into plant knowledge, human genetics, religion, and so on, and if you're comfortable with your own (or my!) distaste for New Age stuff, rest assured that your distaste will be extended into all kinds of other areas.

The challenge, really, is what I can do as a non-Indian to support the aims embodied in this book. I'm not going to do fieldwork so I can write about local First Nations groups; I'm not going to teach First Nations courses; I'm not going to become an expert in First Nations literature. These are things that First Nations people should do - I'd want to help, and I'll do whatever I can to reduce the gatekeeping that sustains the systemic oppression of First Nations members, but it's not my place.

So, I'll keep finding a place from which to lay the ground. These things just take time.


Anonymous said…
Perhaps Freire will offer some ideas, my partner raves about that particular book.
richard said…
Yes, I expect to rave about Paolo Freire as well - but life has interfered, and I haven't spent any time with it in two weeks!
Starleigh Grass said…
You know what? This is a discussion that First Nations people have, too. What is the role of non-Aboriginal people in decolonization? As an Indigenous teacher I often wonder the same thing... Keep searching, and write me back if you find any answers!
richard said…
I've got no more answers, Starleigh, except to keep working at it. The same answer for most things I do, it seems. But in the unlikely event I think of something infallible, you'll be the first to hear about it!

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