Montana Story, Part I: Erasure

During a cross-country drive last month, we stopped in Billings, Montana, where I lived in the mid-1990s. It was at Montana State University-Billings where I began my career as a professor in the fall of 1994. We drove around the town, looked at the houses where we used to live. It was clear that the city had changed a lot in the more than twenty years since I last had been there.

            I was eager to see the campus. I left my family at the hotel—they all wanted to hang out by the pool—and I drove up 27th Street North to the campus. I struggled to find my bearings. It had been a long time. An addition to the science building had taken over what formerly had been a faculty parking lot. I headed toward the Liberal Arts Building.  My office had been on the eighth floor, I believe, and all the classes I taught were held in that imposing edifice. I spent some time walking around the campus on a quiet Sunday evening.  All the buildings were locked, so I could not go see my old office or the classrooms where I taught.

File:MSUB LA Building.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
More Daunting than Mordor

            Much had changed, so much that I felt a bit lost. Buildings had grown. It seemed like a very different place, and I noticed things I had forgotten over the years, especially the small garden that stands in the shadow of the Liberal Arts Building.  The garden was named after an English professor named Bruce Myers, who had died young—younger than I am now—two years before I arrived in Billings. A centerpiece in the garden was a poem Myers wrote shortly before his death:

“Last Class”

Seeds are floating from the cottonwoods

And the wind is up. All around us

Poets gather on grass the air carries

White puffs. We read each other’s words

Wondering if this as close as we’ll come

To the flight of clouds? Or is this

What flying means—sitting in Spring

Our bodies, full of birds and grass and words,

Wondering as cottonwoods whisper at our ears?

I do not know the word for this vision

This congregation of poet bodies, poet words

Beneath this tree. But last this once

This single sunlit singing afternoon

Love will do.

What a perfect statement of the depth of the joy that teaching can bring.

Where is Cookie?: Remembering: Poet's Garden honors legacy of a fine teacher

            I learned a lot from teaching in Montana. It was the first time in my career where I had significant numbers of Native American students in my classes. They drove in from Crow and from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I learned from these students things that put my academic and scholarly concerns in perspective. Many of the debates that dominate the field of Native American Studies and Native American History on college campuses simply do not carry much register in Native American communities on the Northern Plains.

            I learned a lot, but I spent much of my time at Billings trying to find a job someplace else. I was in a deeply dysfunctional department on a struggling campus, where more people left than went up for tenure.  The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts had no respect for what I did and said that whatever research I produced should be “relevant” and “applied.”  I asked her what she thought that meant, and I never really got a good answer, but it was clear that unless she thought it was important and relevant, today, to her, that it would not count for much.  Bruce Myers’ words meant nothing to her.

            I would like to think that things are better in the field of Native American history than they were in the 1990s, and that the field is booming.  A tremendous amount of scholarship is produced each year. Native American history no longer exists on the margins of the field. But the same day I arrived in Billings last month, I read on Twitter of a bill introduced into the Texas legislature by one of the Lone Star Republic’s many East Texas lunatics. He sought, in his effort to combat what he saw as the mortal threat posed by “Critical Race Theory,” to remove from the state’s social studies standards a requirement that students learn about “the history of Native Americans.”  If we do not talk about the bad things, they never happened.

            Erasure.

            When it appears this baldly, it puts our academic and interpretive debates in perspective. We argue about interpretations, evidence, and approaches, and then there are those who could not care less about any of this.  “Cast all this aside,” they seem to say. History must be a celebration of White Christian America’s greatness.  Nothing else matters.

            I began teaching in Montana in 1994. That same semester conservatives worried about the spectre of political correctness.  Lynne Cheney had recently gone on a crusade against the National History Standards.  Liberal professors, she argued, were out to indoctrinate American students, to teach them that America’s story was one of racism, oppression, and greed.  They were teaching “multiculturalism” and emphasizing the bad parts of American history.  It is an old, old, argument, a tried-and-true Conservative tactic to avoid talking about historical moments that challenge their cherished and largely fictional narrative of the American past. Some of my colleagues in the department, too, shared Cheney’s concerns. They attempted, and to my embarrassment succeeded, in making my life miserable because I was newly hired on a tenure-track gig. I made the mistake of caring what these old racists thought. I hold no malice towards them now: they are retired, dead, or out of the academy, and I have spoken to none of them since the Clinton years. But they did not see Native American history as central to the American story.

            I have been at this for thirty years and there always have been people who claim to know something about my line of work that do not want to hear anything that is not a celebration of American greatness. I have friends who find it exhausting, the feeling of always having to justify their work. I am sympathetic. I felt that way during my four years in Montana, before I got out. As I walked around the quiet and empty campus, I realized how much I have changed. I have great faith in the power of teaching still, like Professor Myers, and I can view encounters with those who reject what I do as teachable moments, as opportunities for dialogue and engagement.  I feel like I must.  Of course, there are those who do not want this, and recoil from dialogue, who retreat from any situation in which their cherished notions of the past are called into question.  I have no control over that. So I work to keep my mind open, to exclude no one, to keep working with Indigenous communities, as I have done for the past 23 years, and to keep trying to produce scholarship as well. Doing good work in this field means trying to get it in front of as many eyes and into as many ears as possible.

            I learned from my time in Billings that in academia, as in so many other things, one must learn to accept that there are things beyond our control.  Accepting that brutal fact will help you sleep at night. The job market in higher education is, well, not much of a market at all.  Administrators can be cruel or obtuse, colleagues selfish and petty, and students, sometimes, just are not able to care.  There are those out there who reject everything we do without reading a word of what we write or listening to a word of what we say. Some of them are open to reason. You can engage with them.  But others will not listen no matter what you say.  Why let those people get to you?

            I do my work. I teach classes. I do service, on campus and off. I am fortunate to be able to work with, for, and in Indigenous communities. I write books and articles, knowing full well that more people will read this post on my obscure little blog than anything that appears in a scholarly journal.

            The first time an English-speaking writer put pen to paper to try to understand the Native American past and the Native American present on its own terms, there were English-speaking readers who not only rejected this work, but actively tried to discredit the author. Some tried to keep others from reading that author’s work.  The textbook policing of those little men who crusade against CRT—they are nothing new. Their assault on higher education, against free inquiry of any kind—may seem like a pernicious and unprecedented threat. It is not unprecedented at all. Remember what the anti-racists say. The rot is deep, and it goes to the core. It is fundamental. There have always been white loudmouths crying “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” and “MAGA!” as wittingly or unwittingly they seek to exclude, marginalize, and erase.

            Don’t laugh at these people. Don’t ignore them. Have the courage to engage them when the opportunity presents itself (and you absolutely should seek out those opportunities). Ask them questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Accept that this may be frustrating. They may be too fragile to engage you in dialogue. And that is the way it always has been. Take care of yourself, but do not give up and do not retreat. Peace.

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