UBC's Linc Kesler believes studying indigenous cultures is good for us all. Part of a series.
For much of the time he spent growing up in segregated Chicago, Illinois, in the 1950s and ’60s, Linc Kesler and his family slipped under the radar of the era’s pervasive prejudice.
Half American Indian, half German, Kesler now recalls the Chicago of his childhood as a “war zone.” Savage acts of violence and demeaning verbal attacks were routinely inflicted on black and Latino families. The Keslers’ American Indian heritage remained a closely guarded family secret, but anxiety was harder to dispel.
“I think my mother’s fear of exposure was very high,” said Kesler, who is now director of the University of British Columbia’s First Nations House of Learning and a senior advisor to the university’s president on Aboriginal affairs.
“I remember when I was quite young waking up one night, because there’d been an explosion in the neighbourhood, that was a black family two blocks away being bombed. My mother’s fear of being identified and falling under that kind of attack was quite palpable.”
Kesler, now 63, identified with his mother’s Oglala-Lakota heritage, but didn’t correct people who assumed his family originated from the Mediterranean. While Latino and black classmates in his 4,000-student high school were often directed toward non-academic tracks, Kesler received an attentive education.
The only time he experienced direct racism, he recalled, was in the mainly white towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where his mother’s parents still lived.
Although both Kesler’s parents had secondary school diplomas — his mother having worked as a domestic in one of the said white towns to earn her room and board while she attended a public high school — their son’s graduation would be an anomaly. Native American education statistics from the era are hard to come by, but at least one 1969 study put dropout rates at up to 75 per cent.
Kesler’s experience was better. “High school had its interesting social dynamics, I guess I would say, and it required some navigational skills: some of which I had, some of which I wish I had had more of,” he told Tyee Solutions Society. “But it was okay. I liked academic work.”
There was no question in the Kesler family that their children would go to university. His mother had left Pine Ridge for Chicago in 1929 to become a registered nurse, while his father had a college degree and attended medical school to become a doctor. Despite his dad’s wishes for his son to follow in his footsteps, Kesler went to Yale right after he graduated high school in 1967.
Moving to Canada
Kelser’s American Indian heritage didn’t noticeably influence his post-secondary studies. After changing his major five times at Yale, he finally settled on English literature. But discomfort with American racial politics had a huge impact on his later academic career.
By the time Kesler graduated in 1971, the United States was reeling from a wave of race-based riots. The previous year, jumpy National Guardsmen had unleashed their weapons on demonstrating students in Ohio, infamously killing four. Black Panther Bobby Seale was on trial in New Haven, CT — the same city that houses Yale — for a jail-house murder (charges later dropped), and the radical Weather Underground had formally declared war on the United States: it would soon succeed in planting a small bomb in the Pentagon.
Inspired partly by the advice of a mentor professor who had attended the University of Toronto, but mostly due to a desire to get out of the United States, Kesler began his graduate studies at the Canadian university in 1971.
At UofT he made a name for himself by taking a path less travelled in English studies, not by making waves for Aboriginal people.
“I stepped out of the realm of the normal progress towards a degree in an English department,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the comparative literature and Slavic departments, which the English department frowned on.”
Bucking norms to stay true to his own academic vision became a trait that would serve Kesler, and the future of indigenous studies, well.
After graduating in 1981 and spending a year teaching English in China, Kesler and his Canadian wife, now pregnant, moved back to Toronto briefly before he accepted a faculty position teaching Early Modern Studies in the English Department at Oregon State University (OSU) in 1983.
It was there where Kelser became involved at last with the movement to bring American Indian issues and individuals into post-secondary education.
Education contractors responsible for distributing post-secondary funds to students from local Indian tribes were trying to convince institutions to provide culturally sensitive supports and courses to their clients.
Together with Kesler and a few of his colleagues at OSU and some other post-secondary institutions, the contractors formed the Oregon Indian Coalition of Post-Secondary Education. It would help transform indigenous studies at OSU — and Kesler’s reputation.
“Working with them was an opportunity to begin to develop a little leverage inside the institution, and begin working for some changes there. None of which particularly endeared me to my colleagues in the English department, at least some of them,” he recalled.
The Coalition helped establish OSU’s Indian Education Office, a one-stop shop for Indian students’ issues. Those included such practical details as delays in the receipt of funding from tribes or the U.S. government; sometimes these would prevent Indian students from registering for their courses. The Coalition secured more accommodating rules that allowed such students to begin their education.
University counsellors were trained to be more sensitive to Native American history and experiences. Soon, OSU’s student services office adopted many of the same approaches to non-indigenous minorities as well, significantly improving the institution’s reputation among those groups.
Establishing what would become the university’s first Ethnic Studies Department — encompassing American Indian, African American, Asian American, and Chicano/Latino studies — turned out to be much more difficult.
“[It] required a lot of organizing, both within the university and with the communities to build the political support necessary to see that initiative happen,” Kesler told Tyee Solutions. “The fighting was very intense and quite acrimonious.”
Even once the program received approval, staffing its faculty proved to be a “complicated, difficult process,” Kesler added. “Getting minority professors to consider moving to Oregon, was entertaining: It’s a little hard to recruit [minorities] into a state that has a recent heavy [Klu Klux] Klan history.”
Native studies or ethnic studies?
Moreover, there were few previous examples for Kesler and his colleagues to learn from. Indigenous studies had been created as a discipline in the U.S. in the early 1970s, by scholars, both Indian and not, who saw it as a way to attract Indian students to post-secondary education while helping dismantle academia’s Euro-centric view of America.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe of South Dakota, was a member of that first wave of indigenous scholars. Like most of her contemporary colleagues, the now-former professor of English and Native American studies at Eastern Washington University was born and grew up on an Indian reservation during the 1930s and ’40s. The “native studies” she and her colleagues fought for possessed a strong anti-colonial vision.
“Our interest was the defence of treaties, the defence of land, and the defence of cultural and political legacies,” Cook-Lynn told Tyee Solutions by phone from her home in South Dakota, not far from where Kesler’s mother was raised in Pine Ridge.
By the ’90s, however, Cook-Lynn noticed the discipline’s focus changing.
Newer scholars, raised in more urban environments, were moving away from treaty and political issues, focusing more on culture and civil rights. Some schools put non-indigenous people at the helm of their Native Studies departments, subordinated them to more traditional programs like Anthropology, or, like OSU, lumped them together with other minority studies. Particularly in her mid-west region of the country, other universities rated American Indian Studies a low priority for limited funds.
“I understand the pressures,” Cook-Lynn said. “We are in a part of the country here that does not really value intellectual life. They value economics and training programs, getting people to work. They don’t really value an intellectual life, and frankly that’s what it’s going to take if Indian Studies is going to make a difference in America.
But Kesler, who has debated OSU’s pairing of American Indian and Ethnic Studies personally with Cook-Lynn, says the Oregon school’s setting helped mute the issues she raises. Unlike other states where black and Latino populations far outnumbered American Indians, Oregon’s Indian population was substantial and in some cases powerful.
But they were still a minority in a state known for its hostility to races and cultural groups outside the white Christian norm. Kesler says they needed the strength in numbers provided by other minority groups, who also wanted academic representation, in order to get approval for a department.
“A [purely] Native Studies department would not have been possible,” he said. “And if we’d been able to start it at all, it would have been way too easy to marginalize it because it was a pretty hostile environment.”
“The Ethnic Studies model actually worked quite well, and what also worked well was that we insisted that majors had to specialize in two [cultural and racial] groups, not one.”
The struggle to develop OSU’s Ethnic Studies department took until 1995. It finally began accepting students in 1996. Although now one of many ethnic studies programs in Oregon, it remains the only one with full departmental status.
Building UBC’s First Nations studies
In 2002 Kesler was concluding his second decade at the university and looking for a change. His interest was piqued when a friend sent him the job posting for director of the University of British Columbia’s fledgling First Nations Studies program.
He wasn’t necessarily interested in the job when he applied, but wanted to see how the program was developing. But when he got the interview, and was offered the job, he changed his mind. He took a leave of absence from OSU in case it didn’t work out, and set out for Vancouver.
“When I got here I began to see some pretty interesting possibilities. I think I had a fairly realistic assessment of what the difficulties were, as well,” he said.
One possibility was creating a First Nations Studies program, instead of a separate department. UBC faculty interested in developing the field came from a variety of disciplines, and a program would allow students to study in different departments like law, education, forestry, and environmental science.
Another upside was that those faculty members were already doing great research in indigenous-related issues. But none of them were indigenous themselves; and in 2003, when Kelser came to UBC, most were close to retirement.
Still, he had reason to hope the new program could become both bigger and more comprehensive than OSU had been able to provide. Its core curriculum, he explained, focused “critical attention” to indigenous perspectives “on critical issues: the protection of culture, land, language, and community, indigenous expression, indigenous-based critical theory.”
The aim, he made clear, isn’t to indoctrinate students in the “correct” ideology about First Nations. It’s to create students capable of thinking critically. Students demonstrate their critical thinking in their final year, when they must complete a practicum that also meets the research needs of an organization working in indigenous communities.
“The heart of it,” Kesler said, “is people understanding what a strategic need is, and how they can devise an approach to that need given not what would be ideal, but what they’ve actually got available to them. In this case, their education.”
Cook-Lynn regards that perspective as key to an indigenous studies curriculum that does more than just impart traditional perspectives of knowledge, languages and culture.
“Education should tell you who you are, and not just assimilate you into some capitalist nation and enclave,” she asserted, noting that Native Americans hold over 55 million acres of land in the United States yet remain one of its poorest populations.
“I think that Indian Studies, as an academic discipline, has a particular commitment. It’s not just ‘an Indian is an Indian’. It’s the defense of Indian nationhood that should go on in these enclaves,” she said.
Faculty find students’ work instructive
UBC’s First Nations Studies program has turned out to benefit not only indigenous students. Working with university services, faculty, and the administration, the program is changing the university experience for all students.
Some changes echo those Kesler helped introduce at OSU. For one, UBC now makes allowances for band-related funding delays. Others have been unique, even daring.
The first group of fourth-year First Nations Studies students, for example, identified their own need to have UBC faculty recognize they had had ignored or misunderstood Aboriginal histories and culture in university curricula. They later based their research practicum project on their personal accounts and devising a way to address that need.
“They were very careful to structure it so that [their research] didn’t identify individuals or even specific classes, but talked about the structure of what happened and what was disturbing about it,” Kesler recalled.
“They created an archive of those interviews, but they also created an edited interview that was about 20 minutes long.”
Kesler showed the eye-opening video to deans, during department meetings, and to the universities top executives. Neither faculty nor administration had any idea that so many of their students felt at best invisible and at worst insulted by some of what they were teaching.
The video led to the creation of a new professional development unit to help UBC faculty avoid old mistakes and better connect with indigenous students.
The novelty of talking to each other
Kesler would like to see indigenous studies programs at most Canadian universities. They needn’t be as involved as those at UBC or OSU, he adds. But neither should their development be taken lightly.
The drive for Aboriginal studies responds to multiple social imperatives, Kesler explained: a university’s obligations to expand post-secondary access for Aboriginal people, and to take a critical look at Aboriginal issues in academia and wider society. “I think putting together a strategy that makes sense” to accomplish those goals, “has to be done very carefully, it has to be done fairly subtly,” he advised.
As the discipline is comparatively new, academic plans are not always well thought out. UBC’s administration originally planned to set an enrollment target for indigenous students, but he resisted the idea. Targets are counterproductive, he argued, if a university hasn’t first ensured that its Aboriginal students are prepared for academic demands; if isn’t ready to deal with issues like delayed funding; or hasn’t addressed a culturally insensitive curriculum.
Aboriginal students who enrolled in such a place, said Kesler, “would have a pretty difficult time. And then they might go back to their communities saying UBC’s a terrible place and they would discourage other students from going.”
The university dropped the idea, and Kesler believes it now has more Aboriginal students enrolled and graduating than any reasonable target would have called for.
Kesler sees better education and more involvement for indigenous people in higher learning as part of his faculty’s role. Another is breaking down barriers between indigenous and non-indigenous members of the university.
He says he realized the program was achieving that goal when it underwent an external review by indigenous academics eight years ago. “They met with the students in the research practicum. The students were very familiar with each other’s projects and were talking very freely about each other’s work,” he said.
After the students left, Kesler met with the academics who had done the review. They were impressed with the level of knowledge each student had of the others’ research. “But they said ‘What really struck us was Native and non-Native students talking about each other’s work with complete comfort and familiarity.’ They had never seen that before in their careers,” he said.
“The fact that they can come out of having very contentious questions about ethnicity, and ethnic identity, which is part of the curriculum, but can find a way to respect each other and talk to each other across their very different social histories, to me that’s an incredibly useful skill that a university should be trying to produce.”
Universities are tasked with creating the next generation of any nation’s leaders. In Canada, with its history of racism and cultural genocide directed against Aboriginal people, Kesler believes that indigenous studies can illuminate the way to a better future.