The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) held its annual conference in Vancouver, Canada, on the traditional and unceded lands of the Musqueam Nation.  Hosted by the University of British Columbia (UBC), the conference reflected the vibrant explosion of work in this field, and brought together a group of scholars, artists, activists, and community members from nations across all continents (except Antarctica) for three days of work, play, and celebration.

The conference opened with a ceremony at the University’s First Nations Longhouse.  Jim Kew of the Musqueam First Nation introduced those in attendance to a history of the territory and his own experience with the law of his Nation. He traced the long history of Musqueam and their survivance in the settler state of Canada, stressing the necessity (and hopefulness) of his and other Indigenous histories, contemporary experiences, and futures in our challenging present.  Other speakers at the event introduced aspects of UBC’s relationships with Indigenous nations and NAISA itself.  The ceremony closed with performances by Salia and Leigh Joseph (Squamish). The sisters’ performance interlaced song with commentary on the provenance of their artistry, the role of higher education in promoting Native futurity, and—with the performance of a song dedicated to the missing and murdered Indigenous women—a reminder of what this community [of scholars and activists] is fighting for.

These principal themes of sovereignty, activism, and survivance animated the conference.  Given the variety and sheer quantity of scholarship—one hundred and sixty panels over three days—this year’s NAISA meeting had something for everyone; collapsing the conference’s “takeaway” into a paragraph is truly an impossible task.  The Association has become increasingly interdisciplinary and intercontinental, bringing into conversation Indigenous communities from Aotearoa to Taiwan to the many nations that share geography with the present-day United States.  Many panels at the conference focused on contemporary issues, such as NoDAPL, language revitalization, food sovereignty, and pedagogy, as well as featured performances and film screenings, such as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s award-winning Angry Inuk.  Some panels were schematized by themes of history, theory or methodology; others, by place and/or nation.  The tenor of the conference was connected and celebratory.  From individual panelists to the Presidential address, speakers discussed the interconnectedness of scholarship, activism, and community responsibility.

As a distinct disciplinary interest, the history of anthropology was not strongly represented.  The most direct nod to the field took place in a panel entitled “Race, Indigeneity, and the Social Sciences.”  Sarah Bonnie, a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Maryland, called for a scholarly re-assessment of the ground-breaking work of ethnographer and anthropologist Ella Cara Deloria (Yankton Dakota).  Bonnie described Deloria as both a protégé and mentor to Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.  Yet while her findings contradicted the accepted canon as epitomized by James Walker—whose Lakota Myth, Bonnie pointed out, is still taught today—much of Deloria’s work remains unpublished, housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA, and the Ella Deloria Archives in Sioux Falls, SD.  Bonnie pointed out the contemporary consequences of using Walker’s rather than Deloria’s work, arguing more generally that contemporary anthropologists must be mindful of historical context such as the persistent marginalization of work by Indigenous women when using historical works.

Incidentally, the field of anthropology itself was also largely absent from NAISA; in a discussion with a senior scholar in the field, I was informed that it rarely has been a feature.  This reminded me of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s comment on anthropologists in Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), in which he wrote:

The fundamental thesis of the anthropologist is that people are objects for observation, people are then considered objects for experimentation, for manipulation, and for eventual extinction.  The anthropologist thus furnishes the justification for treating Indian people like so many chessmen available for anyone to play with.  The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network of theories has contributed substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today.[1]

Critical studies in the history of anthropology must continue to contend, as does the discipline of anthropology itself, with the problematic founding principles of the field, the frequent racism of its practitioners, and the overwhelming erasure of Indigenous participants, both professional and not.  Given American anthropology’s historic preoccupation with American Indian people, and the many repercussions of anthropological scholarship and how it has been carried out, active participation in conferences such as NAISA will be both academically fruitful and ethically important for those of us who choose to pursue these studies for our careers.

[1] Deloria, Vine. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press: 1969, 81.

Margaret Flood: contributions / / Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota