Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Native American Women Scholars Helping to Shape Their Fields

Story posted March 09, 2012

The four Native American women who met with students and scholars at Bowdoin last week had distinctive tribal backgrounds, but all had one thing in common: They recently earned their Ph.Ds.

Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kelly Fayard, left, discusses her academic pathways and research. Joining her on the speaker's panel are: (l to r) Angela Parker, assistant professor of Native American studies, Dartmouth College; Kiara Vigil, fellow in American studies, Williams College; and Gail Dana-Sacco, assistant professor of public health at the University of New England.

The Native American Women in Academia symposium, sponsored by the Wabanaki-Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Collaborative, featured a panel discussion with two historians, an anthropologist and a health policy expert.

One purpose of the symposium, said co-organizer Leslie Shaw, an anthropologist who is Bowdoin's Liaison for Native American Affairs, was to "bring a variety of perspectives to what it means to be a woman in the Academy." Another, she said, was to encourage Bowdoin's Native students to "understand the value of furthering their education and in so doing to bring Native issues more fully into college curriculum and research."

Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kelly Fayard, an enrolled member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, described the evolution of her academic career as an undergraduate at Duke University through graduate studies at University of Michigan, where she began examining issues of recognition of Southeastern tribes - including her own - as well as tribal membership and Native identity.

"Part of the reason for my entering anthropology was to be able to answer those who dismiss the Poarch Creek or whose reporting on the tribe was flawed," said Fayard.

She described a pivotal public talk she attended in graduate school in which a leading anthropologist was asked whether there were still any Creek Indians left in Alabama. "She said, 'No,' " recalled Fayard. "I interrupted and raised my hand and said there is a federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creek Band."

Audience members at Bowdoin's Native American Women in Academia symposium, sponsored by the Wabanaki-Bates-Bowdoin-Colby Collaborative.

The Poarch Band is descended from the original Creek Nation, which once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia. Their "omission" by the anthropologist was all the more glaring since they are one of the biggest employers in Alabama, through their casinos and other tribal enterprises.

Fayard's tribal membership and knowledge give her access to a deep trove of history, ethnography and personal connections that enrich the quality of work she is able to do as an anthropologist studying the Poarch Creek.

"My work is meant to be more collaborative and end the paternalism associated with old school anthropology," she said. "I know who I need to contact about any topic and if I don't know, I just ask my grandmother to go with me."

There are impediments as well, she noted. Writing about sensitive topics is something that all anthropologists have to deal with, but when writing about sensitive topics in one's own community, the stakes are even higher. For example, while a scandal in Poarch might be interesting to think about anthropologically, as someone who wants to erase the power imbalance between anthropologists and Native communities, I feel it necessary to consider the long term effects of writing about those types of issues.

"I think it is important to do the research that I am doing in order to combat a lot of stereotypes about Native Americans: namely that all Natives were removed from the Southeast," added Fayard. "I also hope to give a different perspective of current scholarship about Native Americans since I am from the community that I am writing about."

Among the audience at the symposium were several of Bowdoin's Native students, including members of the Native American Student Association.

Fayard said she hoped her experience, and the stories of the other presenters at the symposium, would encourage them to possibly advance their studies, even if the path is unclear.

"If you are on a particular trajectory in college and decide it's not for you, there are other academic paths to pursue," she added. "I started as a chemistry major and that didn't work out, but I found something I believed in and wanted to work towards. If I can convey anything, it's my hope that students may find their own passion as I was able to do."

Audience member Elizabeth Gonzalez '15, a Bowdoin first-year student from El Paso, Tex., said she thought the symposium raised important questions about identity and representation.

"It was a unique experience to gather with professors who were sharing their personal stories," said Gonzalez, "especially ones from Native American cultures. I understood better the struggle for representation in the Academy, and also in books, journals and history itself."

Other presenters included health policy expert Gail Dana Sacco (Passamaquoddy), who teaches at the University of New England; historian Angela Parker (Mandan, Hidatsa, Cree), who specializes in Native American Studies at Dartmouth; and historian Kiara Vigil (Apache, Dakota), who teaches in the American Studies Program at Williams College.

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