"God made me an Indian": who made native studies?

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Author: Edward Valandra
Date: Spring 2016
From: Wicazo Sa Review(Vol. 31, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 5,382 words

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Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am Sioux? Because I was born where my father lived? Because I would die for my people and my country? God made me an Indian.

Tatanka Iyotake

This article examines the first dissertation written about the significant role that Native studies scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has played in the development of Native studies. The dissertation, Reading Cook-Lynn: Anti-Colonialism, Cultural Resistance, and Native Empowerment, by Kodjo Ruben Afagla, identifies the initial challenges that Native studies has faced in its development as a discipline. The leading challenge, of course, is Native Country's relationship to mainstream Native studies: Native communities, who comprise Native Country, should be the primary constituency and beneficiary of the discipline's research. Afagla's work explores Cook-Lynn's influence on how Native studies is addressing--or, in Cook-Lynn's view, fallen short of addressing--this challenge.

Afagla explains that in the mid-1980s Cook-Lynn established herself as a leading Native studies spokesperson. Her consistent call to Native studies has been that, without a sharp focus, the discipline would become fuzzy and uncritical; it would not step up to the original tasks before it: decolonization, nation-building, defense of Native peoples, and cultural revitalization. Arguably, disciplinary fuzziness over the decades has given rise to a claim that Native studies is for everyone--that Native peoples hold no special relation to the discipline and therefore that Native communities can neither hold the discipline accountable nor provide its intellectual center. For Native studies to serve Native peoples, disciplinary coherency remains a primary challenge.

Afagla admires Cook-Lynn's work, but he nonetheless critiques her unwavering position that any Native scholar or Native studies scholar who fails to confront U.S. colonization within our respective Native nations is at best marginal to the discipline, if not to Native peoples. According to Afagla, this position has alienated both Native and non-Native intellectuals whose research is not centered on confronting colonization or whose work is not derivative from this aim, i.e., does not promote meaningful Native sovereignty. Afagla's concern is that Cook-Lynn's approach could stunt Native studies, particularly its disciplinary development.

This article considers this and another of Afagla's leading critiques: Does Cook-Lynn's uncompromising stance about how Native studies scholars expend their intellectual energies help or hurt the discipline? Does her singular focus adversely affect the discipline? I argue it does not; it sharpens Native studies' intellectual edge. The critical focus she advocates is necessary for Native studies to address topics essential to Native Country's development from the foundation of being sovereign nations.

I also emphasize how groundbreaking Afagla's work is on Native studies. Approaching its fiftieth anniversary, Native studies now has an opportunity to self-reflect, to assess its contribution to Native Country, and to rethink its disciplinary evolution and revolution since 1969. This article engages an important dialogue about the first fifty years of Native studies as a discipline and considers how and where Native studies might best focus its intellectual capacities over the next fifty years. After all, Native Country, sans USA, will look much different than it does today.


In 2019 Native studies as a mainstream discipline will, as I said, celebrate its fiftieth year. From its inception, Native studies has experienced programmatic growth. (1) The first Native studies departments were established at both Trent University and the University of Minnesota in 1969; today, several dozen programs offer baccalaureate degrees. Programs that have department status, such as the University of Manitoba and the University of Arizona, offer a doctorate in Native studies. Of course, Native intellectuals and Native studies scholars who understand the discipline's evolution in academe know that whatever gains Native studies have made have been both challenging and challenged.

Leading up to Native studies' entry into the academy--from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s--sociopolitical activism increased throughout the United States. For example, Native Country successfully defended its sovereignty against a number of U.S. colonial enactments that would either dismantle or circumscribe Native governance: House Resolution No. 108, Public Law 83-280, and other specific laws directed at a Native nation (e.g., the 1954 Menominee Termination Act). During the same pre-Native studies period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' relocation program offered incentives to many Native families and individuals to migrate from their home reservations to urban centers. For Native Country, this program epitomized how our colonizers sought to absolve themselves of their "Indian problem." By luring community members from reservations to abandon their land-based cultural ways of life forever, Americans hoped to neutralize or compromise Native sovereignty through assimilation.

Mainstreaming Native peoples as the final solution to whites' perceived Indian problem, however, does nothing to address the U.S. American national question concerning Native peoples. Native peoples and the United States of America's founders understood that the social compact, expressed first in the Articles of Confederation and second in the Constitution of the United States of America, does not apply to Native peoples without their consent. Researching the history of any treaty's consent provision(s) or of the Indian Reorganization Act quickly shows how "obtaining" Native peoples' free and informed consent has always been problematic for Americans.

This same period of sociopolitical activism--the latter half of the twentieth century--proved decisive for other groups as well. While Native Country fought against termination, other groups fought against marginalization. Black communities pushed back and continue to push back against the unreconstructed who have supported Jim Crow in some form or fashion,- draft-age males pushed back against conscription during an undeclared and unpopular war, white females have pushed back against white male patriarchy, the ecological community has pushed and continues to push back against industrial pollution,- and Chicana/o communities have pushed and continue to push back against exploitation of migrant farm workers. As these push-back energies converged politically for social change and justice during the 1960s, mainstream institutions responded either benignly, violently, or in conciliatory ways. The academy, facing students' increasing social and intellectual activism, generally chose conciliation. This response opened intellectual space for Native studies, as it did for Black studies, Chicana/o studies, Asian American studies, Women's studies, cultural studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, and environmental studies.

In its first decade, the discipline wrestled, as one would expect, with the foundational question: What is Native studies? The discipline's initial corps--its first generation of Native scholars--convened a 1970 convocation to discuss the question's two corollaries: Whom does the discipline serve? What or whose agenda will the discipline promote? During a convocation panel discussion, former UCLA Native American Studies director Roger Buffalohead, a Ponca citizen, proposed why an almost universal misconception of the discipline of Native studies existed during its formative years. Wondering why Native studies programs drew their intellectual source from both Black studies and Chicana/o studies models, Buffalohead concluded that those responsible for developing Native studies programs simply did not know of any existing Native studies models on which to build.

His conclusion, of course, raised further concerns about Native studies' epistemology: "Where is the intellectual, disciplinary consensus among Native studies programs? Are these programs furthering a larger disciplinary framework, or is Native studies merely a hodgepodge discipline of eclectic interests?" From Buffalohead's preliminary research concerning Native studies, one concludes that there was no disciplinary framework to speak of.

   Now there are a number of ways you can go about reviewing
   these [Native] Studies programs. I sat for about
   a month trying to figure out if I could find any kind of
   a criteria which would be important or significant, as I
   worked through several of these programs. I could never
   come up with anything that I thought could be used as
   a model for evaluating the programs as to testing and
   hypothesizing about their particular courses or their aims
   and philosophies. (2)

Not until 1978 would a Native studies' disciplinary framework and Buffalohead's observation of the discipline's lack of a clear epistemology be addressed in a substantive manner.


I refer to the groundbreaking article that Russell Thornton, a Cherokee citizen, penned that year. He not only laid out a disciplinary framework and intellectual direction for Native studies, but he also mounted a robust defense of Native studies as a discipline that silenced even the loudest critics. Stripped of the argument that Native studies is not a real discipline, critics would, of course, manufacture other criticisms to undermine Native studies. But when Thornton articulated the foundation of the discipline, Native studies arrived at an important theoretical milestone. He defined Native studies as "the endogenous consideration of American Indians, that is, the study of American Indians originating from inside Indian cultures, not the exogenous one." (3) This definition established an intellectual fire wall that, by privileging tribally centered voices, has marginalized the discipline's colonization. Thornton acknowledged that exogenous considerations might be useful for studying people, but Native peoples' own knowledge production--generated from within--provides perspectives that external methods cannot generate. (e.g., Traditional Ecological Knowledge):

   American Indian Studies can thus be said to have as legitimate
   an area of concern as any discipline. It represents
   consideration of peoples and cultures not traditionally
   within the purview of other disciplines. Of perhaps more
   crucial importance, American Indian Studies as an area of
   study, is seemingly a means whereby American Indian cultures
   may be understood in ways heretofore not possible. (4)

Having laid a foundation for Native studies' conceptual framework, Thornton understood, perhaps more than most scholars who are Native, the discipline's uncertain trajectory within academe. Thornton identified four spheres--political, economic, moral, and intellectual--that would impact the discipline's evolution. Almost four decades have passed since Thornton's article was published, and each sphere has, in some combination, indeed influenced Native studies' disciplinary development. Native Country may have little to no control over the first three spheres, but it does hold considerable sway over the intellectual.

Within a decade after Thornton's treatise, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Hunkpati Dakota citizen and one of the original, first-generation Native studies scholars (1969-1989), began filling in Thornton's disciplinary model as no other Native scholar had done. A survey of Cook-Lynn's intellectual work articulates disciplinary principles, concepts, and priorities for Native studies. In a February 1998 keynote address, for example, Cook-Lynn reiterated that, even several decades after the discipline's establishment, endogenous considerations must lead.

   The challenge today in [American] Indian Studies is to
   remember that our constituents are the Indian Nations of America,
   who are in great jeopardy. Land thefts are now called
   "land transfers" in the part of the country I come from ... .
   Politicians and writers across the country ... editorialize
   and rail about getting rid of treaty-protected Indian reservations
   because they "don't work," denying the fact that to
   get rid of Indian reservations is to further annihilate human
   indigenous lives. You don't have to talk about Wounded
   Knee to understand this concept of genocide.

   The challenge today in [American] Indian Studies is
   to remember that our constituents are not now and never
   have been just students (many of whom can fend for themselves),
   not just faculties (many of whom compromise for
   personal gain), and not just universities (notoriously self-serving
   and Eurocentric).

   The challenge today is to remember that the focus
   of Native American Studies was in the beginning an attempt
   to create a mechanism in defense of the indigenous
   principles of sovereignty and nationhood. (5)

Cook-Lynn's writings have been prodigious on defining Native studies and its primary constituency. Because of her foundational work, the discipline achieved yet another milestone when Indigenous scholar Kodjo Afagla produced a 2010 dissertation on Elizabeth Cook-Lynn--on both her intellectual contributions to Native studies as well as her profound influence on the discipline's development.


Afagla's work on Cook-Lynn exemplifies Thornton's rigorous endogenous standard. He hails from Togo, a formerly colonized West African country that gained its independence from France in 1960. Not only is Afagla familiar with the tribal world and therefore understands what tribally centered scholarship means, but he also gets colonization.

   As an indigenous intellectual from a colonized nation, I
   see a compelling reality in George Lamming's representation
   of the West Indian colonial experience: "The colonial
   experience is a matter of historical record. What I am
   saying is that the colonial experience is a live experience
   in the consciousness of these people. And just because the
   so-called colonial situation is over and its institutions may
   have been transferred into something else, it is a fallacy
   to think that the human-lived content of those situations
   are automatically transferred into something else, too.
   The experience is a continuing psychic experience that
   has to be dealt with long after the actual colonial situation
   formally ends." (6)

Here Afagla's scholarship represents Native studies at its endogenous best. Who is better positioned to evaluate Cook-Lynn than another Native person who comes from--and therefore understands--a tribally centered perspective? Both Afagla and Cook-Lynn are from Indigenous nations, Ewe and Oceti Sakowin Oyate, and both nations know about colonization. Afagla's people have been colonized and then achieved independence, while Cook-Lynn's people are colonized but still working to become independent. Both speak from their people's shared colonized experiences.

Cook-Lynn identified for Native studies a synergy of three principles as the antidote for U.S.-colonized Native peoples: (1) defense of Native nations' sovereignty; (2) support for cultural revitalization, and (3) grounding in indigenousness as the discipline's center. She calls for all Native intellectuals--regardless of their academic training, but especially those in Native studies--to engage decolonization, even at the expense of intellectually esoteric or personal pursuits. The three principles set the frame for how Native studies, and the discipline's scholars, must relate to Native Country. While Afagla does not question these principles, he critically questions Cook-Lynn's approach to rallying Native intellectuals around a decolonization banner that incorporates them.


Cook-Lynn's call to Native scholars strikes Afagla as theoretically flawed for basically two reasons, both affecting the discipline of Native studies. First, he argues that, while important research subjects, decolonization and its derivatives are simply not on many Native intellectuals' radar. He claims that, "It is worth noting that native scholars who do not ground their works in the tribal world outnumber those who produce tribally centered scholarship." (7) The number of Native scholars whose work is not grounded in the Native world and whose work therefore is not Native-centered, no matter what their specific discipline may be, indicates how far Native studies as a force in Native scholars' intellectual life has moved away from its endogenous standard. Native peoples' low secondary and postsecondary graduation rates and the exogenous criteria used by Native studies search committees are, among other things, contributing factors to the lack of Native grounding evident in many Native studies programs.

Yet the very lack of Native centering that Afagla observes explains why Native studies experiences turmoil at a program level. Thus, Afagla's first critique actually serves as a powerful argument to heed Cook-Lynn's call: when non-tribally centered scholarship trumps tribally centered scholarship, Native studies loses its compass as a discipline. At its fiftieth birthday, Native studies is well advised to revisit Thornton and think seriously about hitting its reset button. Yes, Cook-Lynn often uses a caustic delivery style, as have many critical scholars, to make the point that more is at stake than intellectual exercises. But a Cook-Lynnesque style of communication is not sufficient to dismiss the rigorously Native-centered focus of Native studies scholars. Moreover, by mentioning Cook-Lynn in the same breath with Fanon and other anti-colonization writers, Afagla himself recognizes that Indigenous intellectuals often engage caustic analyses of colonization's brutality. Whereas Afagla's country has already achieved independence and is dealing domestically with colonization's residue, Native Country within the United States and Canada does not yet enjoy such a postcolonial reality. Indeed, Cook-Lynn's critiques of Americans' treatment of Native peoples make very clear the distinction between postcoloniality and the present colonization of Native peoples in the United States.

Second, Afagla takes issue with Cook-Lynn's work because it invokes binaries: tribal voice versus tribal-less voice,- Native versus white, tribal community versus exile; and tribally enrolled versus self-identified. He is concerned that these binaries are viewed as Manichean--polarizing--and that these hard-lined polarities alienate tribally centered Natives from non-Indian and non-tribally centered scholars.

   I question the goal of her communication strategy....
   I have wondered at times, whether her rhetoric of accusation,
   exposure, whistle-blowing, and muckraking can
   entice native intellectuals into the liberation struggle of
   Indian nations. Indian intellectuals must decolonize themselves
   before they can participate in this decolonization
   mission. I presume Cook-Lynn intends to achieve that
   goal, first and foremost. However, her way of communicating
   it is likely to turn most Indian intellectuals away.
   Despite Cook-Lynn's commitment to Indian causes, her
   target Indian audience may oppose her message, or ignore
   her altogether, unless she turns her blaming approach
   around. Worse, the majority of native intellectuals could
   end up representing her as a propagandist, if she pursues
   this same communication strategy. They will assume that
   Cook-Lynn shows only scorn for those who are not as
   nationalist or Indianist as herself. These unintended consequences
   might well result from her approach. (8)

Afagla's concern that Cook-Lynn engages in Manichean-type reasoning--others would say polemics--is important to address for at least two reasons. First, Afagla's critique characterizes Cook-Lynn's scholarship as essentializing Native studies. Essentializing is the view that Native people who operate from a tribally centered worldview are the ones truly capable of teaching and writing about Native studies' ideas or content. In other words, it is far better to learn from Native peoples (endogenous) than about them (exogenous). Though Afagla identifies as an Indigenous scholar, he nonetheless falls into the trap of viewing Cook-Lynn's preference for all things Native through a racialized rather than a cultural or political lens. Race is indeed how America spins discussions that involve non-whites, but Indigenous scholars must not accept a racialized lens uncritically. Afagla acknowledges that Cook-Lynn gives a nod now and then to non-Native scholars who contribute or have contributed to the discipline, such as Felix Cohen, Dee Brown, and Robert Berkhofer Jr. But a favorable nod from Cook-Lynn to white intellectuals is rare in her intellectual production. Afagla declares she "mostly places Whites in one box and Indians in another. This habit of categorizing substitutes race for power, both of which are tricky concepts." (9)

Native people would agree that such categorizing is trickster material--all the more so when white faculty, administrators, and students invoke their race card of white privilege and charge tribally centered intellectuals as well as other scholars of color with reverse discrimination. (10) Characterizing Nativeness and whiteness as opposites locked in racial conflict certainly lends support to Afagla's contention that the discipline's intellectual creativity could be held hostage to stereotypes of racial dualities: whites are greedy, Natives share,- Natives are lazy, whites work hard, whites are religious, Natives spiritual, Natives are wards, whites are guardians,- whites are foreign immigrants, Natives are original peoples, Natives are mascots, whites are persons, and so on.

I suspect, though, that most tribally centered Native scholars who insert the English term "white" in their research do so from their respective cultural perspectives rather than from a racially essentialized framework. Of course, they understand racial formation. But the history is one of cultures in contact and conflict. The traders, missionaries, settlers, soldiers, bureaucrats, and politicians who initially came in contact with the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (hereafter Oyate) were almost exclusively white. From these experiences, the Oyate perceived a wide cultural difference between themselves and these illegal immigrants, whom, in D/L/Nakota, the Oyate called Wasicu pi.

Cook-Lynn, a bilingual speaker, understands nuances in language when she refers to people as white in English. Among Cook-Lynn's people, when someone uses the word "white," Oyate citizens process the word internally as wasicu--a descriptive term referring to Western values and norms as the Oyate experiences them. (11) The meaning is cultural, not racial. Moreover, Oyate literature is replete with examples showing the many differences in cultural realities between the two people. For instance, Ota K'te, Oglala Titunwan citizen, wrote extensively about the differences between the two cultures. In 1933, he noted how the Oyate and wasicu pi experience space and place differently. At one time, wasicu pi believed the Great Plains was a desert and labeled it as such on their maps. Ota K'te knew the same geography intimately as unique and full of life. Most likely, he and the people of his nation questioned the West's--wasicu pi--ability to understand the land's personality and interpret its reality accurately.

Ota K'te also described how safe an Oyate child was in the precontact Great Plains. According to Ota K'te, movement through the plains for the Oyate was like a bird flying--effortless and unobstructed. Using this comparison is striking, since a bird in flight comes to see, know, and experience land in ways a human cannot. Transitioning the comparison to the Oyate and wasicu pi, Ota K'te underscores how his people sees, knows, and experiences reality in a far different way from Americans, who are the cultural heirs of westernization. Stressing this point, Ota K'te asserts:

   The land was ours to roam in as the sky was for them
   [the birds] to fly in. We did not think of the great open
   plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with
   tangled growth, as "wild." Only to the white man was nature
   a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested"
   with "wild" animals and "savage" people. To us it was tame.
   Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the
   blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man
   from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices
   upon us and the families we loved was it "wild" for us.
   When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his
   approach, then it was that for us the "Wild West" began. (12)

Ota K'te is talking about a cultural orientation, not a racial one. Any person can be wasicu without the benefit of being racially white. One need only embrace the Western ontology, as might be the case for non-tribally centered Native scholars. Or one might internalize a non-Native cultural orientation, as is most certainly the case with non-Indigenous born and raised in mainstream society. Indeed, postcolonial Africa illustrates that Indigenous societies can and do subscribe to Western prescriptions: for example, maintaining colonial boundaries over traditional and other historic boundaries,- adopting westernized ideas of democracy, including governance over traditional forms of decision making, or adhering to Western notions of development over Indigenous development. But because race is the American conundrum, if not obsession, the larger cultural frame gets obscured. Native intellectuals, like Cook-Lynn, find their writing being filtered through this dualistic racial contrast. The critique, then, falls into racial reductionism while ignoring culturally systemic biases behind them. Such conundrums are like that, of course,- however, tribally centered intellectuals know that the only way out of them is to jump a level to the larger reality. Here, the far more compelling issue than race is a U.S. culture--the larger reality--that purposefully keeps Native peoples in a colonized condition.


Second, Cook-Lynn's consistent recognition of the differences between Native and other scholars is important to address. After all, whose experiences lead in shaping Native studies? Which experiences are most critical for Native studies to privilege and situate at the center of the discipline? These questions reveal that the content and practice of Native studies are at stake.

Afagla himself recognizes that the path from reservation born and raised to eventual professor distinguishes Native intellectuals from one another as well as from white and other non-white intellectuals. Tribally grounded Native intellectuals have experienced colonization's brutality daily. Against great odds, they have managed to graduate from either a reservation or a racist border town high school, get admitted into a college, and graduate. From this very limited pool of college graduates an even smaller cohort of tribally centered Natives have managed to become professors. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's journey mirrors this difficult path both to and then through the academy. The journey itself brings learning and knowledge that affect how the scholar approaches, understands, and practices Native studies. Issues become clear that are less clear for those who have not had these experiences.

Moreover, despite his struggles with Cook-Lynn's attitude toward Native and non-Native intellectuals who do not embrace her Native studies' vision, Afagla nonetheless infers that a person's social location within his/her Native community--i .e., his/her status as a community member (versus his/her status within the academy or professional organization)--has a direct bearing on his/her legitimacy, scholarship, and contributions to Native studies. Who the practitioners are and the experiences that have shaped them affect the discipline, its development, and its future direction. Addressing this point, Afagla states:

   Besides Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Jomo Kenyatta's Facing
   Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu and Frantz Fanon's
   Wretched of the Earth, describe the ingredients necessary for
   intellectuals to become the voices for oppressed people.
   Organic intellectuals speaking for the oppressed must be
   bonded to them. This organic bond is based upon personal
   knowledge of human behavior and shaped by membership
   in a given community of oppressed people. By virtue of
   birth and experience with oppression, organic intellectuals
   have the credentials to speak for their communities. In the
   preface to Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta locates residency
   with one's community as a prerequisite for articulating a
   message on its behalf. (13)

A cautionary word here, though. The ingredients cited as necessary for one to become a representative voice of oppressed people are just that--ingredients. The ingredients do not guarantee quality, accuracy, or authenticity of representation. We can use contemporary reservation food as a metaphor. If Native Country wants to assess the quality of fry bread, theorizing from its ingredients is not enough; Native Country determines fry bread's quality in the eating. Tribally centered Native intellectuals experientially know Native studies in ways not qualitatively possible by others when it comes to genocide, colonization, boarding schools, Western exploitation, treaty violations, land theft, racism, Native language loss, fractured Native homes, Native suicide, violence against Native women, incarceration of Native males, domestic dependent nations, and reservation poverty. These are not concepts learned in school but through what has happened to family and community members. They are learned by stories and shared experiences. At one time, Native studies viewed a person who mirrored both Cook-Lynn's social location and her edgy scholarship as a disciplinary asset. However, developments in Native studies since the late 1990s have, by shifting the lens, shifted the focus. Afagla's treatise on Cook-Lynn helps us to understand why.


For example, Afagla's discussion reveals how tribally centered Native intellectuals can be cast as essentialist when they question whether or how their colleagues' work furthers decolonization while employed by the academy. The academy is, after all, a Western institution that has lent and continues to lend service to colonization. When tribally centered Native intellectuals, such as Cook-Lynn, demand accountability from non-tribally centered Native and non-Native scholars within and without Native studies, such Native intellectuals acquire a reputation of being "too rez 4 Native Studies."

At the same time, Sebastian Braun, a non-Native and chair of the American Indian studies department at the University of North Dakota, notes that the great essentializer of Native peoples is the West.

   It is a political strategy for indigenous communities to
   present themselves according to essentialized expectations
   brought to them by popular opinions. Many times, it is
   the only political strategy open to them to be heard. If
   the [non-Native] public expects American Indians to be
   marked by wearing plains headdresses, then if a Native
   person does not wear one, he or even she might not be recognized
   as an American Indian. If the [non-Native] public
   is only ready to accept the sovereignty of indigenous
   peoples who seem to be "traditional," then those nations
   need to strategically adopt at least a resemblance of
   traditionality, however defined in popular stereotypes. (14)

That Native people should strategically adopt a form of self-essentialization to meet the essentializing expectations or requirements of the non-Native mainstream in order to achieve sovereignty--or any self-determining outcome--is problematic. For one thing, Native peoples need not go through the trouble. The West is more than willing to take on this task. The Canadian Supreme Court, for example, ruled in a 1996 case that, for Native peoples to have Aboriginal rights constitutionally upheld in Canada, these rights must, among other stringent criteria, have origins prior to European contact. (15) At first glance, this criterion might seem frivolous, benign, or quaint. However, when Native people in Canada exercise an Aboriginal right--as a Stol:lo First Nation woman did when she sold ten salmon, the basis of the Van der Peet case--things tend to get tricky, as always happens between colonized and colonizer. Canada's high court determined that, while fishing is a precontact activity, selling fish for money is not.

   The Court created the test for proof of Aboriginal rights
   apart from title (the Van der Peet test). In order to establish
   an Aboriginal right in relation to a particular activity,
   Aboriginal claimants have to prove that the activity relates
   to a practice, custom, or tradition that was integral to their
   distinctive culture prior to contact with Europeans. In this
   case, the Sto:lo Nation in British Columbia was unable to
   establish an Aboriginal right to trade fish for money and
   other goods [i.e., precious metals] because, although they
   had traded fish prior to European contact, this trade [fish
   for money] had not been sufficiently important to be integral
   to their distinctive culture. (16)

The Van der Peet ruling infers that, had the above fish trade been in, say, dentalium shells instead of cash, the Court would not have seen a problem in declaring that an Aboriginal right exists. The Court essentialized Native peoples without the latter having to resort to it, as Braun suggested. But in this case, the Court's essentializing obviously worked against Native peoples. Switching out wording at appropriate places [brackets] in the above summary of the case shows how absurd this pre-contact criterion really is for determining rights.

   The [Native High] Court created the test for proof of
   [Canadian] rights apart from title (the Van der Peet test). In
   order to establish a [Canadian] right in relation to a particular
   activity, [Canadian] claimants have to prove that the
   activity relates to a practice, custom, or tradition that was
   integral to their distinctive culture prior to contact with
   [Indigenous peoples]. In this case, the [Canadian] Nation
   in [Lakota Territory] was unable to establish a [Canadian]
   right to trade fish for [Mazacoin, (17) a crypto-currency,] and
   other goods because, although they had traded fish prior
   to [Native] contact, this trade had not been sufficiently
   important to be integral to their distinctive culture.

Since Europeans did not trade fish for crypto-currency prior to October 12, 1492, Canadians would have a right to trade for fish only in commodity money (currency based on a valuable commodity, such as gold or silver) for this Canadian right to be upheld in law and court. Canadians would blanch at this interpretation, arguing that all societies adapt to changing circumstance,- they would, in this case, transition from commodity money to fiat money (a country's legal tender) to crypto-currency. Of course, this hypothetical ruling about Canadian rights would not have occurred within Lakota or any other Native nation's territory. Native peoples understand that societies change over time, and Canadian culture, "distinctive" as it might claim to be, cannot be held frozen in time--that is, essentialized. Yet, as the Canadian situation illustrates, the West expects Native peoples to accept such poppycock.

Moreover, Manjusha S. Nair, an Indian citizen who writes about the challenges of a postcolonial India, notes that both trans- and supranational discourse about Indigenous peoples has essentializing elements, too. This discourse is based on lifeways that are "determined primarily by the social location of the agents." (18) That is, non-Indigenous people fabricate folklore of what Indigenous life must be like and, based on little more than that folklore, essentialize Indigenous societies. For example, according to Nair, Indigenous ways of life are portrayed as less complicated compared to life in modernity and are expected to remain frozen inside Western notions of a traditional world.

   Indigenous forms of life signify the most simple form of
   society that is characterized by the non-existence of the
   "system mechanisms" [e.g., state bureaucracies, economy],
   the omnipresence of community, networks, shared values
   and meanings. Thus, supporting the grammar of forms of
   life becomes affirmation of indigenous peoples as pure and
   simplified forms of life.

   The notion of indigenous peoples as a community
   formed through primordial associations, having a particular
   relationship with nature and ecology pervades the thinking
   of the post-industrial Western mind. The logical outcome
   of such thinking is the paternalistic affirmation of the indigenous
   space as a pure space not to be trampled upon....
   Indigenous communities, which are inherently linked to
   the process of modernization, are placed outside the sphere
   of modernization. Indigenous ways of life, art forms, food-habits,
   industries, all become markers of a traditional world
   that is free from the perils of modernization. (19)

Native Country, of course, knows that the West perceives its traditional-world markers unrealistically. At the same time, Native Country realizes that these markers have today's-world consequences: socially (self-identified Indians, sports mascots, Disney's Pocahontas and Peter Pan, cowboy-and-Indian play figurines); politically (dependent domestic nations status, now rebranded as "tribal" sovereignty, and nonconsensual U.S. citizenship); and economically (forced gaming compacts with states, impact aid and JOM funding for non-Indian border towns' schools, and natural resources development on confiscated Native lands). Hence, Native peoples cannot be both linked to modernity's processes and not be participants in it, even if marginalized. The West's essentializing of Indigenous peoples greases the interface of modernity at the cost of Native realities. It would appear from this Native-centered discussion that when it comes to the Native question globally, Western intellectuals and a few Native intellectuals want it both ways: to condone essentialized "Indians" as static targets and passive objects of Western overtures but to reject essentialized, Cook-Lynn Native intellectuals. Therefore, in this larger drama of essentialism, Afagla's analyses show that the concept of essentialism can also be used to derail Native studies from its purpose to serve Native peoples: Native professors who are both organic intellectuals and nationalist are not the right brand of essentialism to serve the status quo.


Native Country is not fooled; Native scholars realize that the essentialist charge is not the issue but only a distraction. The real issue comes down to whether a colonized Native Country can rely on or trust the discipline in a post 9/11 environment--an issue that Afagla does not raise. 9/11's narrative reveals an unnerved West, while the non-West must struggle against Western development's excesses: wealth inequities, restructuring economies, military interventions, and a long list of harms. Because of the non-West's reaction to post 9/11 neocolonialism, people from Western societies are willing to tolerate greater degrees of domestic infringement on their personal freedoms and rights. They want state security, so that they can continue to consume scarce and dwindling resources. The price tag is waging ubiquitous, transnational wars (Iraq 1991 and 2003-2011,- Afghanistan 2001-2014,- Libya 2011; ISIS 2014) against non-state actors who are determined to challenge the West.

Irrespective of 9/11's fallout and despite more than five hundred years of horrific contact with the West, Native Country continues to value treaty rights, Native sovereignty, and non-Western traditions--and Native studies must do so as well. Indeed, to show how much Native Country values these fundamental human and group rights, Native peoples have flipped the West's narrative about terrorism on itself. The popular "Fighting Terrorism Since 1492" posters and T-shirts circulating throughout Native communities, for example, speak to the real issue confronting the discipline of Native studies: a right to coexist as peoples and to be free from harmful exogenous pressures and agenda, i.e., colonization. Native peoples have been successfully defending their communities against the West long before Native studies ever arrived in the academy. Is it too much for Native peoples to expect those in the discipline to wage an intellectual front against colonization? Elizabeth Cook-Lynn certainly thinks not, and I agree with her.

Afagla's work is timely for many professors and students in Native studies. His critiques reveal something about Native intellectuals who mirror the reservation environments in which they have been born and raised. They can bring colonized peoples' experiences and perspectives into the discipline and thus into the academy. Moreover, Native studies' historiography shows that this experience proved instrumental in founding the discipline. Prior to Native studies' establishment, Native community intellectuals and artists were actively challenging colonization. One need only remember the lives and work of Harold Cardinal, Vine Deloria Jr., George Manuel, Floyd Red Crow, D'Arcy McNickle, Charlie Hill, Billie Frank, Hank Adams, Karen Rickard, Russell Means, Wilma Mankiller, Frank Fools Crow, John Mohawk, Mel Thom, Richard Oaks, Roger Buffalohead, Scott Momaday, Oren Lyons, John Trudell, and Shirley Hill Witt, to name a few.

Native communities were active in the struggle, too. I think of the Native nations who asserted treaty-based fishing rights in Washington State and Wisconsin, the Dakota/Lakota who won a statewide referendum that stopped the state from applying state jurisdiction, the Menominee Nation who successfully resisted termination, and Native Country's successful effort to require its consent prior to any assertion of nonfederal jurisdiction. No wonder the discipline's formative scholars could ill afford to ignore this important decolonization work. Native studies' first cohort--its first generation scholars--and Native communities' contributions to the discipline hold a central place in Cook-Lynn's scholarship. She continues to advocate for justice in Native Country, which must involve decolonization. She therefore challenges Native intellectuals to stay focused on what really matters to Native peoples: to live our lives once again without colonization.


Edward Valandra (Sichangu Thithunwan) received his PhD in American studies from the State University of New York-Buffalo. He teaches Native studies at the University of Manitoba and is the founder of the Community for the Advancement of Native Studies (CANS).


(1) Robert M. Nelson, ed., " A Guide to Native American Studies Programs in the United States and Canada," https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~rnelson/asail/guide/guide.html.

(2) W. Roger Buffalohead, "Review and Evaluation: Native American Studies Programs," in Indian Voices: The First Convocation of American Indian Scholars (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1970), 162.

(3) Russell Thornton, "American Indian Studies as an Academic Discipline," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 2, nos. 3 and 4 (1978): 13. Emphasis mine.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, "American Indian Studies: An Overview,"

Wicazo Sa Review 14, no. 2 (1999): 20. Underline mine.

(6) Kodjo Afagla, "Reading Cook-Lynn: Anti-Colonialism, Cultural Resistance, and Native Empowerment," (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 2010), 3. Original emphasis.

(7) Ibid., 250.

(8) Ibid., 255.

(9) Ibid., 254.

(10) Edward Valandra, "Discrimination in Education: White Retaliation against Native Educators," personal testimony to UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, May 2012. Sinte Gleska University, Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

(11) Wasicu is derived from two D/L/ Nakota words, wasin, or fat, and icu, or to take. The pi ending makes the singular form, wasicu, plural. According to oral tradition, the term was coined when the Oyate observed how whites take much more than they need from the natural world, causing the near extermination of buffalo and other species, depleting resources like water, and taking from Native peoples most of all their homelands and livelihood. Not surprisingly, contemporary usage of wasicu is being racialized to mean just "white."

(12) Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), 38.

(13) Afagla, "Reading Cook-Lynn," 19. Original emphasis.

(14) Sebastian F. Braun, "Self-Determination and Limitations of Sovereignty," in Native American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, ed. Sebastian F. Braun, Birgit Hans, and Gregory Omer Gagnon (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2011), 340.

(15) R. v. Van der Peet [1996] 2 S.C.R. 507.

(16) http://www.fngovernance.org/ timeline/vanderpeet.htm.

(17) Mazacoin was the cypto-currency of the Oglala T itunwan, one of the Oyate's Seven Fires. See also https://www.youtube .com/watch?v=o_ISpsRwDc0; https://bitcointalk.org/index .php?topic=661322.0; and http:// rt.com/usa/native-american -nation-bitcoin-632/.

(18) Manjusha S. Nair, "Defining Indigeneity: Situating Transnational Knowledge," World Society Focus Paper Series (Zurich, 2006), 4 (www.uzh.ch/wsf/WSFocus_ Nair.pdf).

(19) Ibid., 5-6.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A457107016