Last fall, when Kirby Brown taught “Introduction to Native American Literatures,” he had his first experience of having Native students taking one of his classes. Of the 40 students enrolled, six had tribal affiliations and another four self-identified as Native American.
But weren’t there Native students in his classes when he taught at the University of Texas?
If there were, they didn’t make themselves known. “Texas had a pretty ‘effective’ Indian removal policy in the 1830s and 1840s—expulsion or extermination,” he said. “And there are only three federally-recognized tribal communities in the state now.”
Brown—a native Texan, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a new assistant professor of English at the UO—is referring to the era in the mid-19th century when the United States systematically drove Native peoples from their lands and enacted legislation to force cultural assimilation and dissolve tribal political autonomy, all in the name of addressing the “Indian problem.”
His understated summary of Texas-Indian history actually speaks volumes about what it means to be a scholar of Native American literature. Beyond the texts themselves, Brown delves into cultural anthropology, history, public policy and constitutional law—all of which provide crucial perspectives for understanding Native writers and their work.
His current research, for instance, views Oklahoma statehood as a pivot point.
In 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th state in the union, merging the previous Oklahoma and Indian Territories despite tribal protest. Statehood obliterated the tribal authority of most Indian nations, including the Cherokee Nation, and the decades that followed—until the Red Power movement of the 1970s—are often viewed as “an intellectually inactive and politically insignificant ‘dark age’ in Cherokee history,” said Brown.
But Brown, who began this work as a graduate student at UT, has recovered Cherokee writings from this era that demonstrate the “persistence of the idea of Cherokee nationhood throughout the period.”
He is intrigued by questions such as, “What happens to the idea of nationhood in the absence of a national government? How do writers continue to remember, imagine and perform self-determination, belonging and family in these conditions?” His current book project, “Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Early Twentieth Century Cherokee Writing,” focuses on four writers who articulate these themes.
In the classroom, Brown teaches the introductory course as well as an upper-division course on Native American writers, the latter featuring works that span numerous genres: mysteries, historical epics, prose poems, modernist novels and more.
One dimension he explores with this class is the influence of geography and unique tribal history, with a reading list of writers from such diverse tribal nations as the Osage, Choctaw, Anishinaabe, Salish and Laguna Pueblo among many others.
The fact that Oregon has nine tribes—and that Native Americans comprise 3 percent of Oregon’s population (triple the national average)—was part of what attracted Brown to the UO. He is looking forward to researching written works from—and otherwise reaching out to—regional tribes to develop a course on Oregon tribal literature.
But he also points out that, while Oregon’s Native population percentage is above average, the UO’s enrollment of Native American students is below the national average (less than 6 percent versus 1 percent nationwide).
Brown is already signed on to teach Native American literature in the Bridge of the Gods Summer Academy, a program aimed at directly addressing this disparity. This two-week residency program encourages Native American high school students to set themselves on a path toward college education. Students stay in residence halls on the UO campus and attend classes at both the UO and Lane Community College.
Brown is also among several core faculty members behind the newly approved Native American studies minor, which will be offered starting in fall 2013. The intent of the minor is to create an intellectual home for studying Native American issues, as well as educating the wider UO community about the state’s Native American legacy and its complex, contradictory relationships with Native peoples.
The guiding principle—no matter what the program—must be service to the Native community, he says. “The most successful programs are those that emerge from the tribes’ needs. They need to know that our community values are their values,” he said.
- from an article by Lisa Raleigh that originally appeared in Cascade, the alumni magazine of the UO College of Arts and Sciences