Interview with endawnis Spears on Land Acknowledgment, Native Communities and the Role of the Humanities Today

July 31, 2020

Thank you for speaking with us today, endawnis. Before we jump in, could you please tell us a little about your background and how you came to be involved with the humanities?

SPEARS: Absolutely, it is a pleasure to be able to spend this time in conversation with you. I am Diné (Navajo) on my mother’s side and Ojibwe, Choctaw and Chickasaw on my father’s side and I was born and raised in central Arizona. Now I live in Rhode Island with my husband who is Narragansett and our four children. I give this information because this cultural context, which is a mixture of tribes, languages, and geographic spaces, informs my perspective and positionality on many things in life, including my professional work in the humanities.

I have worked in museums for almost twenty years, the majority of that time I worked for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, CT. The Pequot Museum was a formative experience for me because it is the largest tribally owned and operated museum in the world. At the Pequot Museum Indigenous perspectives frame the exhibits, interpretation, research, and educational programming. This is not the case in the vast majority of museums – although there is growing awareness about the need for change in public humanities institutions. It was an incredible honor to work in an environment that honored Indigenous knowledge first and foremost. 

Two of my colleagues at the Museum and I witnessed the urgent need for widespread change in the way Indigenous histories and contemporary communities are taught across places of knowledge and education. We started the Akomawt Educational Initiative to support organizations as they not only incorporate Indigenously sourced materials and perspectives into their work- but to also communicate that there is no substitute for hiring Native people to inform and influence the direction of the organization from within. The cultural organizations and institutions we work with will not be sustainable if they do not change their own internal cultures to reflect the realities of diverse populations living in the United States – they will remain only useful to a small portion of the population if they continue to uphold colonial narratives and ways of engaging with knowledge. Our work is to help navigate that process, starting with meaningful engagement with the original people of the land on which they have built their institutions. 

At the Federation Board Meeting last week, you took us through an important and meaningful presentation acknowledging the Native land from which we were all calling in. Why is land acknowledgment significant, what does it or does it not accomplish, and are there actionable steps that can support this acknowledgment?

SPEARS: The practice of opening a public event with a statement recognizing the traditional homeland of the Indigenous people located there is becoming more commonplace in the United States. It was a meaningful experience to engage in this small community exercise, where each board member used the living Native Land map to locate the name of the Indigenous land they were joining our virtual meeting from. This practice in itself can really help reframe how we understand geographic space and colonially imposed geo-political boundaries. The territories outlined on this map overlap and shift, they are not concrete barriers but represent the capacity of our traditional forms of governance to exist as hundreds of distinct cultures living on Turtle Island. 

Land acknowledgement statements are countermeasures to erasure – they publicly recognize the presence of Native people prior to European arrival and their continued relationships and claims to a territory. A statement that disrupts life as usual can serve an important role in our civic and cultural life. Non-Native people live in the United States at the expense of Indigenous communities. This violent truth is conveniently left out of the spaces where we can engage with our national history, but is certainly not welcome in any other place where people live their daily lives- going to the store, living in their homes, attending school, going to places of worship. How would it transform our society if we lived with the knowledge that everywhere we go in the United States is Indigenous land? A land acknowledgement statement can provide that necessary moment of reframing. 

What a land acknowledgement does not accomplish is to outline the actionable steps an organization is going to take to create equity both within the organization itself and engage civically and politically with policies implemented by the United States. If the journey of crafting and delivering a land acknowledgement is one that an organization is going to embark on, there needs to be serious discussion and an actionable plan that follows to create pathways to equity within the organization and advocacy for the rights of sovereign tribal nations.  Without these plans in place, a statement is empty words that are a performative gesture and said purely for appearance. There are Indigenous scholars who reflect on the problematic nature of using a land acknowledgement statement in lieu of real, sustained change, and this is an important part of the discussion about these statements.

During our Board conversation, you mentioned how the humanities can work to make right relation with Native communities. Please describe what that could look like and why this is an important question for cultural organizations and our society as a whole to explore?  Are there specific resources you would recommend?

SPEARS: Right relation is derived from a term that is mostly used by Quaker organizations, “right relationship.” When I use the term making right relation, I am referring to the processes of creating cultures of equity that  are empowered by an activated citizenry working in concert to make sustainable change that does not shy away from the accurate history of the United States and recognizing how those violences are sustained through systems of oppression. This process is for the good of all people living in the United States, not just Indigenous people – it is a process of investing in the relationships our grandchildren and great grandchildren will have with one another. There are a multitude of ways to work towards this goal, both large and small, but all must be based on the understanding that at some point in the future, our public humanities institutions, places of education and seats of governmental power will have to engage in practices of power sharing with BIPOC populations. 

Indigenous organizations are doing work in a variety of spaces including governance (National Congress of the American Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes), education (National Indian Education Association, American Indian College Fund), youth leadership development (United Indian Tribal Youth), social and economic development (First Nations Development Institute, Illuminatives), the arts (Native Arts and Cultures Foundation), food sovereignty (Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance), legal advocacy (Native American Rights Fund) and the list goes on. These are national organizations and for each of these there are local Indigenous grassroots organizations that are near you, I urge you to seek these out within your state and communities.

Keep in mind that creating sustainable relationships with the federally recognized sovereign tribal nations within your state is foundational to meaningful change, i.e. making right relation. This can be done through a variety of means that become clear when organizations and their leadership model intellectual humility and work to support the goals and narratives that are important to tribal communities themselves.  Tribal nations and Indigenous organizations know best what their own priorities are, they are best equipped to represent their realities in ways that are culturally and historically sound and future focused; my advice would be to follow their lead and use your access to networks of power to amplify their voices. 

As the world grapples with centuries of injustice and systemic racism amidst a deadly pandemic, can the humanities help? What do you see as the role of the humanities and humanities organizations in addressing these issues?

SPEARS: Humanities organizations have extraordinary power in the way that they frame not only our shared and distinct histories in the United States, but also imagining and shaping our collective future, and this includes Indigenous futures. Those of us engaged in humanities work have an opportunity to model what institutional equity looks like by creating long term initiatives that quantify and measure equitable representation within our institutions while also investing in programs that foster career pathways for young Native people, making it explicitly clear that humanities work can be a place of empowerment where they can shape the narratives about their own cultures and communities. There is no right model for this, but as organizations learn how to share and transfer power and think creatively about how to fund and sustain pathways into humanities work for Indigenous people- the collective knowledge about decolonization in praxis increases.

None of the work I have mentioned throughout this interview is possible without creating sustainable relationships with Indigenous communities that are not based on extractive dynamics of one-off engagements, filling diversity quotas and tokenism, but are committed to policies that make right relation. This process takes generations of commitment, unlearning and relearning, and are not always easily measured within a grant cycle. Adjusting our concepts of linear timelines to honor our great great grandchildren is a requirement for all of us navigating the state of our nation. 

What is so exciting about this point in history is the comprehensive way Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ2S people are understanding and articulating our histories and cultures as overlapping and braided with one another. We gain strength in our solidarity, our shared traumas and joys and we gift that power to our daughters and sons and the genders in between. There is no other discipline that can speak to the intersectional nature of these combined experiences in their totality and nuance better than the humanities. The humanities is the only space that can catch and hold these overwhelming and powerful narratives and experiences. What an incredible opportunity to do this work in this place at this time.

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