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Native American Workshops Begin March 5

The series will help students enrich their studies of unfamiliar cultures and societies.

By Dominique Fong
February 23, 2010

USC College professors Tok Thompson (left) and Jon Berliner will host a series of Native American workshops starting March 5. Berliner photo credit Megan Christopher.

USC College professors Tok Thompson (left) and Jon Berliner will host a series of Native American workshops starting March 5. Berliner photo credit Megan Christopher.

A series of upcoming workshops spearheaded by USC College professors Tok Thompson and Jon Berliner will revive intellectual discussions of essays on Native American history and culture.

“I believe that students can substantially enrich their own lives by increasing their knowledge of Native American cultures,” Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology, said. “There is much to gain by an increased awareness of Native American societies and cultures.”

The workshop series, which begins March 5, is part of the larger debate about where Native American studies stand in the spectrum of higher education. Tension between scholars and school administrations, as well as between the Native American community and academia, have stalled lively dialogue for too long, Thompson and other professors said.

These tensions have become so deep rooted that in some cases, Native American guests invited to campus asked to meet with professors off campus, according to Berliner, lecturer in the English department.

“We’re working in a boundary zone between history, culture and politics,” Berliner said.

But supporters of the workshop series agree that there is a great need to explore the complex histories of Native American studies, which are still very current. Last fall, the Obama administration pledged to improve the quality of life on reservations.

“It’s mind-boggling. We try to convey to students, can you understand, on a human level, to have the laws changing on you overnight?” said John Rowe, professor of English at USC College, speaking about the history of ambiguous and volatile laws enacted by the federal government. Rowe also presented an essay at the first workshop on the disease that European colonists spread when they first landed in the Americas.

Early efforts to highlight Native American cultures have succeeded. In fall 2009, a group of students launched the Native American Culture Club, which celebrates heritage through traditional powwows, sun dances and visitations to healers.

Supporters of the series hope to invite more Native American community members to speak on their own behalf, instead of having others write history for them. In the April 16 workshop, Paula Starr, executive director of the Southern California Indian Centers, will help lead the discussion.

California has more than 400,000 Native Americans, with nearly one-quarter of them living in Los Angeles County. Since the federal government’s numerous relocation programs, which moved Native Americans off reservations into urban cities, many more of them live in cities.

“The resistance to Native American studies in higher education is often based on ignorance, rather than knowledge of the complex issues,” Rowe said. “Thus, [it] perpetuates the problem that our students have little access to the history and cultures of native peoples.”

All sessions will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. in the American Studies Conference Room at Waite Phillips Hall.

March 5: Jonathan Berliner, Lecturer in English, USC
“Written in the Birch Bark: The Linguistic-Material Worldmaking of Simon Pokagon”

March 26: Laura Fugikawa, Ph.D. candidate in American studies and ethnicity, USC
“Alternative Images? Urban Indians as Reel Indians”

April 2: Tok Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology, USC College
“Speaking With the Elder Brothers: Interspecial Communication in Native American Traditions”

April 16: Joan Weibel-Orlando, associate professor emerita of anthropology, USC College, and Paula Starr, executive director of the Southern California Indian Centers

April 23: Carolyn Dunn, Ph.D. candidate in American studies and ethnicity, USC
“Those Long, Lonely Nights at the Diner: Specificity of Home and Place in Arigon Starr’s The Red Road