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FAMILY FEUD

DO YOU HAVE TO BE AN INDIAN TO TEACH INDIAN? A BOULDER SQUABBLE BECOMES A NATIONAL DEBATE.

One book at a time, Professor Ron Grimes clears the shelves of his small office at the University of Colorado. There are several hundred. Black Elk Speaks. The Book of the Hopi. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Grimes, who looks the part of a religious-studies scholar--which he is--with his mane of bushy gray hair and nearly white beard, carefully places the books into boxes. He is leaving Boulder, where he has spent the past two years writing and teaching, to return to his own university in Canada.

In a few days he will head north with his wife, his children, his books and mixed feelings. A native of New Mexico, he will miss Colorado's mountains. But academically, the emotions cut both ways.

As an expert on ritual studies, particularly those of American Indians, he will not miss the politics that define the current debate over how--and by whom--Native American studies should be taught. On the CU campus, it is a debate that Grimes describes as often "nasty and mean" and outside the normal boundaries of academic discussion. On the other hand, since it involves nationally known authorities on indigenous cultures, politics, law and religion, the controversy has also been exciting and stimulating.

Grimes even joined the fray, motivated by concerns over what he calls "cultural imperialism, especially its religious and academic forms." He formulated a question--"Should European-Americans teach courses on American Indian religions?"--and then rolled it down the information superhighway on Internet bulletin boards, where academics, lay scholars and the just plain interested lurk, waiting for a good fight.

It is a question that makes Grimes ponder his own contributions after two-plus decades of teaching. Already, some of his white colleagues have given up on the field--either out of frustration with the current climate or because of having reached an ethical impasse themselves.

Although Grimes is leaving for Ontario, he's not fleeing his chosen field. He understands the ethical dilemma; the question of who can teach what has been raised before. And not just regarding white males teaching American Indian studies, but also over white males teaching classes in black studies or women's studies. But Grimes feels the alternative--not teaching at all--is far worse.

"The notion of abandoning academic turf (as if it were bad land) and giving it back to `the natives' (as if it were a gift `we' previously owned) seems to me a piece of bad choreography to which we have danced several times before," Grimes writes in the preface to his soon-to-be published paper on the Internet debate. "So here I am blowing a whistle on this sort of back-room discussion."

Grimes grew up in New Mexico, playing cowboys and Indians like almost every other white boy in America in the Fifties. But his sensitivities to the treatment of American Indians had changed by the time he began his scholarly fieldwork, studying the Santa Fe Fiesta and the conflict there between whites, Hispanics and Indians.

In 1974 Grimes was hired as a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Eighteen years later he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder and its Department of Religious Studies. He was on sabbatical and had come to write and to advise the department on how to create a doctoral program in ritual studies.

After the first year Grimes was asked to stay and teach "a very large, publicly visible introductory course on Native American religions." But he balked.

The Boulder campus is the stomping ground for several of the most vocal and controversial figures in the arena of American Indian studies. There's Vine Deloria Jr., a Lakota lawyer, philosopher and author--and one of the original young radicals of the Indian rights groups that sprang up in the Sixties. There's Ward Churchill, co-director of the Denver/Boulder chapter of the Colorado American Indian Movement, coordinator of American Indian studies at the university and a prolific writer known to his friends and enemies alike for his pit-bull style of confrontation. And there's Sam Gill, a white scholar whose quiet manner belied the storm that his book Mother Earth: An American Story stirred up. The collection of personalities is about as stable and comfortable to be near as a Ford Pinto full of nitroglycerin.

"Currently, this campus is the locus of a highly charged stand-off that no one talks much about in public," Grimes writes in his preface. "In part, the issue has to do with academic, religious, and cultural turf. Often it does not have to do with who is right or wrong on a given issue, but with who ought to be speaking about such things."

For proof, Grimes had only to look at what happened to Gill after he published Mother Earth in 1987 and was subsequently attacked by Churchill in his book Fantasies of the Master Race.

In essense, Mother Earth argues that what American Indians now consider to be wholly native spirituality was in part invented by white writers and scholars. The book was not intended as a slam against what Indians hold sacred, Gill says, but rather to show that Indians, like all people, will borrow ideas from other cultures.

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