Indigenous inquiry

Social science scholars explore issues surrounding the descendants of America’s first inhabitants.

Although it lacks a dedicated department of Native American studies, the University of Chicago has long been home to prominent scholars who work in the discipline, including linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939), anthropologist Frederick Eggan (1906–91), and Raymond Fogelson, emeritus professor of anthropology and author of The Cherokees: A Critical Bibliography (Indiana University Press, 1979) as well as Tribes of the Southern Woodlands (Time-Life Books, 1994). And the scholarship continues: this spring, Dialogo caught wind of three intriguing projects connected to America’s indigenous populations.


Collaborative thinking

A Crow tribal elder participates in the annual Crow Fair in Montana. Photo by Jonathan Lear

When faced with the destruction of their traditional way of life—and with it, all conception of what a good life would entail—how do people carry on? Jonathan Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought and Philosophy, explored that question in Radical Hope (Harvard University Press, 2006). The book tells the story of Plenty Coups, chief of the Crow nation who witnessed the collapse of his tribe’s hunting and warrior culture in the late 1800s. Remembering a dream he had as a child, the leader did not resist the catastrophic onslaught of Western civilization, accepting it as inevitable, but predicted that new good forms of living would arise for the Crow. Lear argues that Plenty Coups’s acknowledgement of his culture’s destruction has given his descendants the freedom and power to reinvigorate the Crow tradition; how that will play out, he writes in the book’s conclusion, is “the task of Crow poets, of Crow leaders, and their followers.”

Soon after Radical Hope was published, Lear gave a talk at the University of Montana, where he met one of those Crow poets: Scott Bear Don’t Walk, who grew up in Billings, Montana, about 15 miles outside the Crow reservation. The two men began corresponding, and a year later Bear Don’t Walk arrived at the University, where he is currently a student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought. His work at UChicago focuses on the relationship between Western and Native American cultures and the question of how creative writers grapple with social and political issues. Also after Radical Hope’s publication, Mark Payne, associate professor of classics and social thought, approached Lear to express interest in his work with the Crow. In researching his 2010 book The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (University of Chicago Press), Payne became intrigued by 19th-century Native American attitudes toward animals and wanted to learn more.

The three men began a dialogue, then started meeting regularly on Thursday mornings when they learned about three unpublished manuscripts documenting Crow culture at the turn of the 20th century and received tribal permission to acquire them for study. The first, called Crow Field Notes, was found in the basement of the Field Museum and is an oral history as told to anthropologist Donald Collier in the late 1930s. Collier interviewed tribal elders about diverse topics including marriage, clans, wars, and laws; the narrative alternates between the informants’ point of view and Collier’s. The other manuscripts, written in the mid 1920s by William Wildschut, a Dutch trader who became close friends with many on the Crow reservation, were in storage at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. One Wildschut text is a biography of Plenty Coups, and the other documents Crow religious beliefs and practices, such as the creation of medicine bundles.

For the past two and a half years, the scholars have met to discuss the manuscripts line by line. Their work is part of a broader collaboration with five members of the Crow tribe, including Bear Don’t Walk’s father. The conversation is about the future of the Crow: how traditional Crow virtues and culture will develop alongside the tribe’s current challenges. The scholars stress that their work is not on the Crow; rather, says Lear, they hope to gain an understanding of these texts that they can share with their “friends and relatives in a community activity of thinking about how to be.”

To that end, the scholars are looking at different themes in the documents in terms of what they might reveal about the Crow—as well as the people who wrote about them. For example, in the Collier manuscript, which the trio has already worked their way through, the documenter includes a section on “wife stealing,” once practiced by members of Crow warrior societies. A male from one society, accompanied by several of his peers, would approach the home of a man from a rival society and announce that he had come to take that man’s wife. The potential new husband had to have some previous relationship with the woman, and the woman had to consent. “One of the interesting things, when you compare it to the Anglo-Western view of heroism,” says Lear, “is that the heroic gesture of the man whose wife is being taken is to put up with it. Something we’ve been debating is whether this practice increased after tribal warfare was outlawed by the federal government in the 1880s; was it a new way to show that you are brave? Was there an increase in trying to show manliness by letting one’s wife go?”

Another issue, says Bear Don’t Walk, concerns the term itself: did Collier describe the practice as “wife stealing” because that was how he understood it in Western terms? A better term, according to Bear Don’t Walk, might be “wife exchange,” because the act was not physically coercive, and the warrior society that was raided would then do the same thing in turn. Either way, he says, the practice underscores that “marriage within the tribe is a very different concept than in America otherwise.”

Also striking in the Collier manuscript, say the scholars, is the nonchalant manner in which the informants mention revolutionary changes, such as the building of a railroad. “I think one way of tolerating confusion,” notes Payne, “might be to not think too clearly in the immediate moment; to let it be for a while. Whereas Western thinkers would shine a bright light on the issue.”

And, says Bear Don’t Walk, “if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and took you to a very different world, it might take you some time to talk about it. In my mind, some of the temporality question is a kind of shock. But it’s finally time to talk about these things, and some Native American thoughts and ideas are entering places where they weren’t before, like the academy. To actually have people like Jonathan and Mark speaking about Native American ideas as ideas—I think that’s the innovation.”


Language and law

As a justice pro tempore of the Hopi appellate court, Professor Justin Richland (left) served alongside Associate Justice Patricia Sekaquaptewa and the late Emory Sekaquaptewa, who was chief justice of the court and an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona. Photo courtesy of Justin Richland

Pushed against the walls of Justin Richland’s third-floor Haskell Hall office are four enormous filing cabinets, their locked drawers filled with nearly 400 audio and video recordings. The recordings date back to the 1970s and document hearings in the tribal court of the Hopi Indian nation in northeastern Arizona. Richland, an associate professor of anthropology who joined the University last fall, transcribed many of the tapes to research his 2008 book, Arguing with Tradition: The Language of Law in Hopi Tribal Court (University of Chicago Press), which explores how Hopi culture is integrated into the tribe’s legal system. Founded in 1972, the Hopi Tribal Court has always taped its proceedings, but does not have a court stenographer; Richland’s transcripts serve as the sole written record of the court’s hearings.

Richland has worked with the Hopi court since the mid ’90s, when he was a law student at the University of California, Berkeley. As part of a program started by a classmate and member of the Hopi tribe, Patricia Sekaquaptewa, Richland did legal research on behalf of the tribe’s appellate court (the supreme court of the Hopi Tribal Court system) and relished the opportunity to examine law from a different social and theoretical perspective. Realizing that a law-firm career was not for him, in 1997 he entered the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and continued his work with the tribe.

Richland’s doctoral fieldwork, which developed into Arguing with Tradition, began when Hopi village and tribal leaders asked him to examine how their tribal court had employed custom and tradition in solving past property disputes. Although the Hopi court uses Anglo-American adversarial rules, personnel, and procedures, says Richland, other tribal legislation and case law require the court to give preferential place to considerations of Hopi culture. “This seems like a reasonable thing to do,” says Richland, except the process is complicated by the structure of the Hopi Indian nation. The Hopi tribe as a unified entity did not exist until 1934, when the federal Indian Reorganization Act consolidated 12 villages—each composed of several different clans, each clan with its own body of customs—into a single tribe. The result, according to Richland, is “a dispersed sense of knowledge about tradition and knowledge about law, and thus authority to express what the law is.”

When village property disputes are brought to tribal court, judges are faced with the difficult task of determining the “authoritative expression of traditions at play,” says Richland. To help tribal court officers and leaders sort through these issues, Richland lived on the reservation for 16 months, attending court every day and analyzing his transcripts of past hearings. Paying close attention to language nuances, Richland developed an ethnographic account of how discourses of tradition and culture affect case outcomes. For example, one trial began with the judge stating that the will in question was valid unless the plaintiff could prove that her mother was mentally incapacitated when she signed it. But the trial went in a dramatically different direction when the plaintiff began an impassioned narrative about her traditional rights to property as a daughter, woman, and caretaker. The judge ultimately dismissed the case, leaving the decision to the parties’ village and creating space for the issues of “personal history, responsibility, and social relations” raised by the plaintiff, writes Richland in Arguing with Tradition.

Richland says that his anthropological approach focuses more on what indigenous communities are doing with tradition than on evaluating the traditions themselves. It’s fitting, then, that his work is intertwined with the day-to-day operations of the Hopi Tribal Court. After the research for Arguing with Tradition was completed, Richland and Sekaquaptewa, with the assistance of several friends and colleagues, founded the Nakwatsvewat Institute (, a Native American–run organization that offers social justice services to US indigenous communities. Through the institute, Richland collaborated with tribal members to create programs that inform Hopi about their tribal legal system and assist village leaders in processing property complaints. And in 2005, Richland began serving as a justice pro tempore of the Hopi appellate court. Tribal leaders asked him to assume the post, an invitation that he describes as an incredible honor. “There were certainly one or two people who said, ‘what is that guy doing up there?’” Richland remembers with a laugh. “Though I will say that other non-Hopi have sat on the court before me. I was humbled, so it was daunting. But I was very eager to live up to the trust that I felt had been bestowed on me.” As a judge on the appellate court for three years, Richland looked at broad questions of due process. “I wasn’t getting into the substance of this is tradition and this isn’t,” he says. “I never found myself in that position and would have left it to others if I had.”

His work with the Hopi ongoing, Richland has started a second project with a tribe in California that is seeking federal recognition. He is helping the tribe organize, catalog, and archive the tens of thousands of documents related to their claim. “Currently,” says Richland, “they are held in cardboard boxes and filing cabinets stacked to the rafters of an old fire station’s boiler room.” Throughout the process, he is examining the written evidence and how the guidelines for obtaining federal recognition are forcing tribal leadership to make difficult decisions when they discover that people who had always thought they were descendants of tribal members are actually not. “The effort of making this claim is shaping the community in very real ways,” says Richland. “And it is also coming back to reflect on the community. The federal government is putting this tribe in a dilemma. They can get federal recognition for the people who meet the requirements at the expense of these other folks, or they can give up the process and continue to be the community they’ve always been.”


Experiences in academia

Eleven years ago, Antonie Dvorakova left her native Czech Republic to study at the University of Kansas on a Fulbright Scholarship. With a background in clinical psychology, she was interested in educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations, such as the Romany in her home country, and thought that inspiration and solutions could be found in a relatively diverse nation like the United States.

My research questions the assumption in existing literature that minority persons necessarily experience serious identity conflicts caused by the pressures of living in these two worlds.

Working toward a master’s in KU’s Indigenous Nations Studies program, Dvorakova researched well-being and educational attainment in Native American college students, and soon realized that “ethnic problems are not quite resolved in the United States either—no easy solutions exist.” In 2003 Dvorakova arrived as a doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Human Development, a research idea in hand: to gain insight into educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations, she would speak to minority academics who had managed a high degree of success in the most challenging environments. Her dissertation, which she plans to finish next year, explores the factors that allowed a group of Native American scholars to persevere throughout their educational careers and succeed at the level where they are most underrepresented and marginalized, by earning doctorates and teaching at mainstream universities (as opposed to entirely Native American institutions).

To conduct her research, Dvorakova traversed the country via car, interviewing 42 scholars, 21 men and 21 women. Affiliated with 23 different universities, they represented a range of fields: humanities, biology, health sciences, education, social sciences, law, and engineering. Four interviewees had left academia for other work, and two were retired academics. The scholars had varied backgrounds, but almost all came from families with low levels of education.

Many said that they had experienced institutional discrimination, racial stereotyping, and personal adversity, challenges that had caused their peers to quit at various levels of education. “However,” says Dvorakova, “they also testified about factors that helped them attain their PhD degrees and become accomplished professors at well-regarded universities.” Although Dvorakova’s interviewees described their academic environment and their Native American home community as two very different spheres, they did not find them incompatible: “My research questions the assumption in existing literature that minority persons necessarily experience serious identity conflicts caused by the pressures of living in these two worlds.” Rather, Dvorakova says, the scholars were able to integrate their ethnic and professional identities because they “considered academia a tool,” one that allowed them to correct misconceptions about Native Americans and Native American culture while achieving goals that benefited their communities. Seeing themselves within the context of their broader home community motivated the academics to set an example for others in their tribe and gave them a strong sense of self apart from academic titles or achievement.

From a theoretical standpoint, Dvorakova hopes her work will contribute an original perspective on how conceptualizations of tribal identities can shape the daily lives and experiences of indigenous persons. On a practical level, she says, her research has the potential to inform policies on recruiting and maintaining minority scholars while empowering these same individuals: “The knowledge generated by this study may encourage members of underrepresented minority groups to pursue careers in higher education, and even more importantly, to do so with realistic expectations that aid their persistence.”