Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Indigenous intellectuals

As I wrote last week, I have been having some trouble reading.  I am just falling into a funk with my own internal voices. However, I actually finished something, the article,  "Neither Chief not Medicine Man: The Historical Role of the "Intellectual" in the American Indian Community" by David Martinez.  In this article he explores the use of the term "intellectual" for the Indigenous thinkers and the history this term carries.  He is interested in the use of this term both backwards, to cover individuals who would never have used that term to describe themselves, and also in the present and the potential community disconnect that may be implied by the modern use of this term.

Martinez speaks about the rise of the term "American Indian Intellectual" following the mid-1990s release of works such as, "The Tutor'd Mind: Indian Missionary-Writers in Antebellum America," by Robert Allen Warrior.  Martinez wants to understand the history of this term and examine how it intertwines with the, "Indian Problem" and the related need for "Indian Intellectuals" to support the health of their communities.  The "Indian Intellectual" should have identity outside of academia, rooted in the community, while also being able to effectively communicate in the language of western education and translate the realities of their community to others, who may have no knowledge of these realities.  He sees that continuity of the relationship to community is key to the intellectual life for the indigenous person.

At the same time he acknowledges that the term "intellectual" is a colonizer word that would not have been used by many of the ancestors who now carry this label.  However, application of this word connects the many indigenous thinkers and writers to the wider academic world and affirms their capability to operate equally in this space.  Does this term come to be simply a synonym for "educated Indian"?  Which historically (or not) meant attending westernized schools and accepting their ways of thinking, while remaining separated from community, culture and language.  For a while in Canada, being education beyond a certain point meant that you stopped being an Indian according to the government.  Can intellectualism come only at the cost of community ties, culture and language?

Martinez is clear that this discussion is not meant to call into question the value of those indigenous intellectuals who provided insights during very turbulent times for indigenous communities.  These ancestors were doing the best they could with what they had, and for some that might include, "...making conscious decisions to try using the tools and knowledge of modern American life to serve and protect their tribes and families..."  Even getting their voices heard could be a struggle.  He discusses the problems indigenous people had in getting things published because it was assumed that anything they wrote would be biased towards the Indian, while being "fair and balanced" was the purview of the white intellectual.  Was the only way to change the system to use the master's tools?  Can we use his/her tool and not become the master?

We have inherited a colonized world and we need to understand how this history continues to impact us.  "Indigenous intellectuals," however we label them, are a part of building a better future.  This comes to the same place I often come to in these review, it appears to be a question of voice.  Can you remain authentic and rooted in place while using these tools?  Can you remain a storyteller?  Can you stay connected to the modern needs of your community?  The last question is harder for me to answer.  I like theory as it is tidy and safe, but Martinez exhorts intellectuals to turn their eyes to contemporary outrages. This is a lot less tidy or safe.  So, is there a space for theory in better understanding how we communicate and address these outrages, or is the retreat to theory just a cop out?

Martinez suggests that this connection to modern indigenous challenge is a necessary element of the indigenous intellectual life, and that this actually allows for additional resonance in the work of the indigenous intellectual.  He does concede that this work might consist of decolonialism which could provide space for more theoretical work.  He notes that historical indigenous intellectuals would have often had other jobs and closer ties to their indigenous communities than their academic ones.  Perhaps he is implying that this model is one that could be fruitfully applied to the current context?

During the 1990s and the wider application of the decolonialization lens, it became necessary that indigenous people take on the role of critical analysis of the indigenous body of work.  At this point there was a critical body of indigenous work that could be analyzed from an indigenous perspective, allowing for the creation of a new level of analysis, indigenous critique and analysis tools.  No longer were external intellectuals the only source of analysis of indigenous critique.  Here Martinez quotes Warrior  who, "....postulates the concept of "intellectual sovereignty" as a practical alternative to "native perspective".  This is defined as a more comprehensive analysis, where not only are indigenous perspectives shared but the wider body of decolonization are brought to bear.

This also opens a space free of the ongoing "concern" that indigenous self analysis is not fair and will be biased as it is self referential (as is western intellectual tradition).  It brings the full range of post colonial thinking to bear on the issues of moving towards a healthy future.   But Martinez reminds us here that too many of those indigenous intellectuals have bought into the academic system full scale and they have lost their links to their communities.  He believes that the research agenda should come from the community and be rooted in their lives, histories and values.  He is particularly quoting Vine Deloria here and his discussion around the temptation to get lost in endless theory and not get down to the real work of changing lives.

This paper finishes by reminding us to continue on the good red road.  Any work we are doing need to be rooted in out communities, histories and the teachings of the elders.  We have seen some great examples of this over the past few years and we can support the application of this rooted voice.  We can be aware of the role education has played and how it can serve us, but also be a tool that can cause harm.  We need to maintain and nurture spaces for those who do not have formal education but who have other forms of knowledge.  The "indigenous intellectual" as discussed in this paper is a modern idea that is still being worked out, but he believes that those who claim to write and think on behalf of a community remain accountable for their work and responsible to maintain continuity with previous less formal intellectual traditions.

He finished by noting that indigenous peoples have, "...a very profound way of contemplating the life and world around one without relying on the Western tradition of abstract thinking, which is typically replete with technical terms and obtuse ideas, which only properly trained "experts" can understand and explain to others.  What my observation suggest, instead, is that the Indigenous intellectual heritage is a tradition of wisdom without elitism, ...maintain their discourses on an equitable plan with their oral tradition, not to mention their elders..."

I like intellectualism as it is tidy and safe.  I know this should not be an excuse for applying myself for things that are outside this space.  This paper posed some interesting questions for self reflection and some clear ideas for action.  You can't ask for much more from something can you?  What do you think?

Have a paper or book you are interested in discussing here?  Let me know and we can read it here.

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