Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Justifying the Native American Studies Department

Last week, Dartmouth College announced the specifics of a plan to cut 10% of the College’s operating budget, including 60 lay-offs. Yesterday’s Daily Dartmouth student newspaper included a paragraph from each of the paper’s regular columnists on the question of whether or not academic departments should be shielded from the cuts. One freshman acquaintance of mine suggested eliminating the Native American Studies (NAS) and Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) departments. I am an NAS major, so I contacted him to explain the value of the department. I’d like to share my responses here. They weren’t written as a blog post and so focus more on the academic side of things than the actual substance of Native studies than I might like, but alas, I only have time to post the letters rather adapt them into an entirely new post. I have eliminated text specific only to Dartmouth or to Peter's e-mail.

Peter’s original suggestion:

I do think academic cuts are permissible, but only if they affect the right departments. The College can and should eliminate major departments that can be subsumed into other departments, like Native American Studies or Women’s and Gender Studies. One can study Native American culture in the history or anthropology departments, just as one can study the literature of feminism in the English department.

From my first response:

I'm an NAS (double) major, and I can promise you that there is absolutely no way NAS can be subsumed into history and anthropology… NAS expands far beyond anthropological cultural studies and a few history lectures. There is a great deal of literature, modern politics, and religion in these courses, and they are all interconnected. If one were to learn about Indians in an anthropology course, you'd never focus on those inter-disciplinary connections, or the link between the ongoing historical patterns and modern politics or realities of poverty. If you stuck with a history course, you'd never discuss how literature or oral traditions can cast judicial opinions in a new light. Tell me, if it's all an archaic cultural and historical relic, why do we have a Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a Bureau of Indian Affairs, or a treaty-obliged Indian Health Service? Do the millions of American Indians alive today realize they're just for anthropologic study? This is not historical stuff - it is a living, breathing part of your world... This is one of the finest NAS departments in the country, and a national badge of honor for Dartmouth. To cut it would be asinine.

Peter courteously and quickly replied. Excerpts adapted from my second e-mail:

You asked "Why, then, couldn't one take these courses in those departments?" and suggested students put together their own concentration. This merits several replies. First, NAS is not a subset of multiple fields, but its own field that includes other fields as its subsets. NAS courses have not, as you say, been taken out of their "parent departments." That is a "colonial mindset" – NAS *is* a parent department. One could ask, why have a History department when you could just learn about English history in the English department alongside read the various era's books, US history in Government classes, etc.? The answer is pretty clear: history, though included in and related to those things, is separate and much bigger, and includes its own methodologies. The same is true of NAS – it is not a part of history, environmental studies, etc, but, like most other majors, is its own field that includes aspects of all those things but is built on a separate foundation. The approach to law is different than it is in any of the other Government courses, so when you say you lose the context of political science, I disagree: The Government Dept (and I am a Govt double) loses the historical context of Native history and thought when it deals with federal Indian law in a vacuum. The same is true with, say, the English department: the context of western literary theories is not the most necessary context for studying non-western literature. (Remember also that French literature is in the French dept, Russian in the Russian, and so on – why should Native authors be treated differently and put in the English?)

Second and more briefly, all the interconnections of NAS require an introductory course, and that's not something that would fit well into another department's rubric. Third, not every NAS course fits into another department so neatly – take Indian Country Today or the senior seminar. Fourth, Native students from around the country specifically choose Dartmouth for this program, and it sounds like they often discover a historical back-story and cultural affirmation they never learned or found at home. (Remember also our college's charter.) And perhaps most important to the nature of this discussion, fifth, there is almost no way a student will know all these interconnections without being taught or finding them accidentally, and so there is almost no way for an individual to put together their own focus. Unlike Government, I have gained so much from NAS advising, and I believe most other NAS majors would say the same thing. Sixth, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare – when applying the underlying theories and dynamics of NAS, you touch on history, government, sociology, geography, literature, ENVS, religion, and more. Few self-constructed programs cross that many lines.

On the subject of specialized departments in general, I would offer two quick observations to assure you that the process of creating these departments is not arbitrary. One, the circumstances of "every identifiable... group" are clearly different. Slavs and Hmong aren't as integral to US history or modern life. The settler-colonial process of Indian history is different, and perhaps more complex, than that of the slave trade. Second, even if the Gender Studies department was focused on women to the exclusion of all else (which it hardly is; many departments across the country have changed their name to reflect that fact), with the exception of men, all other sexual groups are less than 10% of the population and you can't compare that to 50%. On a related note, it is my understanding that WGS is not just about English literature, but rather philosophies of power and changing historical dynamics. Third, there has to be enough interest in a program to sustain it before they'll create one. NAS has that sustainable interest.

Again, under other circumstances I would choose to focus more on issues of sovereignty, cultural empowerment, land, poverty, or colonialism, but I hope this gives you at least a small glimpse at my major.


Jordan said...

I think both types departments are a waste of money and time, but I'd never publicly say that. :P

Nathan Empsall said...

Except you just did. The Internet's pretty public.

All the above arguments aside, it wouldn't save money. Here's something from my first note to Peter I omitted from the post: "Financially speaking, cutting the department would also save little money - with the exception of the administrative assistant (who is indeed being laid off), every professor teaches in at least one other department." Very few of the courses are not cross-listed, and we don't exactly face a building shortage giving us a need for the facilities.

nic said...

Thanks for the post, my daughter is Native American... I appreciate your passion in this post.

If I was that other student, I would run away from your superior agruments, lie down in a corner somewhere curled up in a fetal position and wet myself. Although, I have a feeling you didn't change his mind.

Nathan Empsall said...

Thanks, Nic. Maybe that's why he never replied to my second e-mail.

What tribe is your daughter, if I may ask? Is she a member?

Jordan said...

You completely missed the joke, Nathan. :D

Jordan said...

In case you still don't get it, the joke is that I don't care if I publicly say that which is why I did on a website. It's called sarcasm.

Nathan Empsall said...

No, I think that's more irony than sarcasm.

nic said...

Nathan, she's Chippewa-Cree. Unfortunately, she's not registered. Hopefully we'll be able to get her registered, but I'm not sure if we will be able to or not.

William said...

I just stumbled across your blog through Google and as I was exploring it several questions began to develop in my mind. Are there many Christian students at Dartmouth? Is religion scorned at such an elite school? Is it even allowed a fair discussion?

Nathan Empsall said...

Hi, William, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Those are important questions, and that's a discussion that might be easier had over e-mail. Drop me a line at texas_musician at-sign hotmail dot com. In brief, I'd say there plenty of religious students here even if it's not the dominant path - I can get exact numbers laters. There are certainly challenges, but there are supportive places to turn.