If you ask around a Canadian University, you will find professors who have painful memories of aboriginal students shouting at them, threatening them, or otherwise making a scene in their classes. The outrage may begin over grades or a dislike of an assignment, but it quickly slides into the language of racial cleansing: young revolutionaries demanding that the university build a Safe Space for them at the cost of nearly everyone else. Faculty who find themselves the target of these attacks quickly discover that Human Rights, as defined in the Charter, do not exist for them.
These conflicts can range from a single instance to a full-scale war. While the majority of faculty have only isolated disruptions, some faculty end up regularly needing campus security to escort students out of their classes. Others are driven out of their field of expertise, prevented from doing their most basic job functions. Still others are driven out of their jobs altogether, forced out by harassment and petitions. It is not uncommon to find students marching proudly to the Dean or the President, demanding that a faculty member be purged, a whole department be laid waste, simply because they are White or Chinese or South Indian or, simply, Not Aboriginal Enough.
My own experience fits somewhere down in the bowels, among the terminally mobbed. What started as theatrical classroom exits and veiled threats eventually turned into a full-scale, concerted assault on my right to exist, to do my job, to say anything at all. Now on the other end, out of academia entirely, I sometimes ask myself, “How did I get here?”
I have had two years to think about it. The better a grip I get on it, the more the answer sounds like “The same way it happens everywhere else.” The general sketch is one we see everywhere within the university. There is nothing particularly warped or twisted about Native Studies, so that it would inevitably lead to this situation. I just happen to have been unfortunate enough to intersect with Native Studies at a particular transformative moment - the moment when they discovered how much power they now have.
Too much data makes for a tough model
In linguistics, we often say that the hardest language consultant is yourself. With the entire grammar, all the contexts, everything you’ve known since childhood, all that running around in your head, it’s very difficult to pick out what are relevant data and what are not. The depth of experience, paradoxically, can choke off rational understanding, and our models become sand castles swallowed by the waves of experience, over and over again.
So it is that I approach the issue of politicization of Native Studies with much uncertainty. Every time I try to write, whenever I try to explain, I end up with this torrent of experiential
data - awful experiences, traumatic sequences, the waves come rushing in and drown everything else out. I have rewritten this article six times. I never had to do that before.
Hence, it may be that my understanding is convoluted or mangled or incoherent. If you read a news site or a popular social media platform, you’ll find plenty of more satisfying takes on this situation, written by people who don't let data get in the way of a good model. As in linguistics, they tend to be the most popular sorts of writers.
Native Studies redraws the map
Academic departments function like the old feudal estate systems of Europe. This is a fairly commonplace analogy, and could be talked about in many ways. For present purposes, what is relevant is the way feudalism constructs conflict. In such a system, the leaders of an estate will typically expend their energy either trying to protect their estate from encroachment by others, or they will work to expand their estate at some other’s cost.
In the University version of feudalism, academic departments function as quasi-estates, divided into two basic types. Some departments are so crippled by internal squabbling that they can’t manage much in the form of expansionism - the “Polish” university department. In contrast, other departments function with a totalitarian cohesion that gives them great expansionist potential - the “Russian” university department. A department that gains internal cohesion and sets its face against all enemies only needs to wait until it gains enough of an advantage in arms. Then it is time to redraw the map, to run the cavalry roughshod over the hapless squabblers in other departments, to take their mead-benches, to hear the lamentations of their womenfolk.
Today, Native Studies is typically one of the “Russian” departments in a university. In recent years, no greater chance for expansion has become available to anyone than that for Native Studies. As a university department, Native Studies is now the jewel in the Canadian University’s crown - the symbol of the President’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion. Where once Native Studies struggled to get any funding, find any space to work, these departments now sit in central, posh buildings on most campuses. They swim in major funding, have special facilities allocated, enjoy breathless media attention, and acquire growing numbers of faculty. Even further, universities are now making Native Studies components mandatory in all other programs. Even further, this is usually mandated for all other courses in all other programs. Even further, Native Studies often gets direct say over this content. With such venues open, these faculty can hardly be expected to be demure. What would Ivan the Terrible do with such an opportunity, after all?
Thus, I think that Native Studies is in its current state because it has become far too empowered. Faculty, being the typical bloodless connivers that they often are, cannot resist exploiting this power at the expense of other, less organized, less armed departments. In terms of the underlying, structural causes, it is really just that simple. Native Studies is exactly like every other university department - and you know what monsters those other departments can be.
If they’re all the same, why is Native Studies winning?
One of the core differences between the feudal situation in Native Studies and that in Physics or Philosophy or Economics is the student population. For better or for worse, Native Studies is largely a program taught by aboriginal faculty for aboriginal students about aboriginal issues.
The weaponization of these students has been the key innovation for Native Studies in the past decade. Faculty in Native Studies can be easily induced to brag about how angry they make their students, how emotional, how unwound. A good Native Studies class results in crying in the hallway. A good Native Studies student learns that there are conditions to being Native - conditions that entail doctrines, behaviours, political positioning. With any luck, they will graduate with a degree in Native Studies, not being able to find their own tribe on a map, not knowing who Poundmaker or Big Bear were, not being able to speak a word of their heritage language, but yet being able to rattle off accusations about who is at fault for current controversies. They won’t know what their own surname means, but they’ll agree with every expansionist aim of their Native Studies faculty. They’ve undergone a conversion. From the perspective of conquest - that’s the important part. The boots on the ground are what win these campaigns.
It’s nothing new that faculty politicize their students. I saw it in every graduate program I visited. What is different about aboriginal students, however, is the way that the rest of us are forced to cope with their politicization. Non-aboriginal graduate students from a Formalist school whisper criticisms to each other during a Functionalist talk, and they are publicly scolded by faculty. An aboriginal student interrupts a conference talk to shout down the presenter with a string of slurs and condescensions, and we are all made to stand and look down at the ground, shamefaced, as though there is something somehow holy about being abused by a person with one kind of racial designation rather than another. With the aboriginal student, there is no fighting back. You must stand at the plate and take the fastball to the face, again and again. And everybody knows it.
It would seem, then, that Native Studies has concocted an invincible army, capable of attacking and attacking, demolishing the Colonialist Heterodox Philosophy class, uprooting the Inherent Racism of English Literature, Holding the President Accountable for Past Colonial Practices, and generally allowing Native Studies to expand to every corner of the Academy. There is a minor problem, however - these students self-destruct. The same traits that make them able to be manipulated by faculty and willing to attack also make them very fragile.
These students are humans and have feelings and minds of their own. Most of them cannot manage the brutal Bolshevism of their faculty for too long. Eventually, these students break down - they do something that leaves the faculty exposed. They break a major rule, they put everything on paper or Facebook, or someone actually puts up a stiff fight. At this point, the Native Studies faculty take advantage of the inherent hierarchy in the university and discard the student. In meetings with administration, they shake their heads sadly. The whole thing was a
fabrication. We never put the student up to anything. It was all lies. Mental illness is implicated. Betrayed, the student collapses in a heap, drops the program, ends up out of the university, perennially angry and confused. Native Studies has a new crop the next term, and they begin again. They lament the attrition rates, blame Colonialism, and wave to their former straight A student who is now directing traffic for the highway crew.
From the point of view of faculty, these burnouts and explosions are always wins. The faculty in other departments are shell-shocked, frightened - or purged entirely. Admin is frightened. Everyone else has either “learned their lesson,” as my old Department Head put it, or they are excised from the university. Every faculty member, every department, every unit of the university that refuses to do what Native Studies wants will get this treatment. The process repeats until - well - until everything Native Studies wants is gotten. How much is that? It’s technically an open set, like it is for every other department.
It is an interesting paradox that the modern university system is purported to be trying to “give aboriginal people voices,” but it is organized in such a way that this can never happen. In the terrible calculus of Canadian aboriginal politics, the students who were thrown at me have to suffer a particular kind of fate - the invalidation of their agency. In a vulnerable time in life, they are manipulated into hurtful and ugly behaviour by people who stand to gain from it. When they hurt others, they are not given the credit for even doing this intentionally. They are treated purely as pawns in others’ schemes. Victims through and through, they shout and no one shouts back, they rage and are met with guilty silence. They are what Hannah Arendt terms “private” people - ones who cannot act or talk in the public sphere.
What should we do about all this? Try to understand it
My understanding of what happened to me, then, derives from two observations. First, academics are generally feudalistic, ambitious, expansionist obsessives who are keyed to look for weaknesses and opportunities. Second, racial politics in Canada has concocted a situation in which one group has no agency and the other groups have no defences. Native Studies exists at the intersection of these two issues, and I was lucky enough to work at the intersection of those intersections.
Having said what I think, I suppose I must answer the favourite question: How would I fix this situation? The truth is, I don’t think it can be “fixed.” It exists within a structural logic - the university - that would rather burn to the ground than change. This system is situated within a Canadian society that is extraordinarily emotional about aboriginal issues, cutting, as they do, into the raw nerve of how Canadians conceive of themselves. To explain how to “fix” this would be like trying to talk Catherine the Great back to Kiev. It’s more realistic to simply try and understand how she got so far into Poland.
Native Studies will inevitably collapse on itself - these sorts of endeavours always do. In the process of expansion and collapse, its faculty will experience a particular kind of misery. People have a need to be circumscribed, to find themselves at the center of a system that keeps them from exploding out into the vacuum. Our reach should never too far exceed our
understanding. Native Studies has lost these boundaries - it is exploding in size and shape, and has already become hideously disfigured. The contortions that this situation works on the faculty are terrible to watch. Most of them are trying to do the right thing, somewhere in there, once upon a time. They just want to be powerful more than they want to be good.