Hybrid Positioning and Student Agency in the Post-Colonial Americas: Why Teaching American Indian Literature Matters

By Bolt, Julie | Radical Teacher, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Hybrid Positioning and Student Agency in the Post-Colonial Americas: Why Teaching American Indian Literature Matters


Bolt, Julie, Radical Teacher


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Each semester in the classroom, I am reminded of the ongoing burden of colonial ideologies: the erasure of groups of peoples, essentialism, and ahistorical assumptions about the self and the other. Despite the civil rights movements of past decades, our students are growing up in an era of intense nationalistic discourse via media propaganda. In both institutions and in culture, students are inculcated by the deceptive rhetoric that the United States is democratic and free, that we are liberators, and that we are more technologically advanced and intellectually developed than other nations. Like most people in the country, it is easy for students, no matter their socio-economic background, to internalize this ideology, even if it works against their own political or socio-economic interests.

Therefore, in this era of globalization and erasure, I am privileged to teach a course about contemporary American Indian literature, which I call "Sovereignty, Hybridity and Resistance." I originally taught the course at the Art Institute of Los Angeles and now teach it at Bronx Community College, a campus of the City University of New York. At both institutions there are diverse, and largely under-represented, student populations with the potential to find solidarity with each others' stories, struggles, and aspirations--as well as with the authors presented in the class. It is my goal to use American Indian literature to create a specific context within which we can engage in decolonization from imperialistic movements across cultures. In the course, we are able to ideologically connect the old movement of Manifest Destiny with current hegemonic policies abroad, such as corporate globalization, within an arc of imperialistic thought. Immigrant students make connections to the colonial pasts and the hybrid present of their native countries. Overall, I find teaching contemporary American Indian literature to be an effective tool in understanding resistance to hegemony, as well as for building solidarity amongst global peoples in a time of imperialism and war.

Before further discussing my pedagogical aims, and the structure and outcomes of the course, I would like to address my own location and then the diverse backgrounds of my students. Growing up in New York City, I had little contact with American Indian cultures, even though my paternal grandmother was half-Cherokee. I, like so many Americans, was only exposed to stereotypes of Indian peoples and was unaware of the contemporary vitality and diversity of those native to the Americas.

My perspective about American Indian people, the American landscape, and American identity in general, was transformed after studying in New Mexico and Arizona, where there is a strong American Indian presence. My ideological shift began while driving across country en route to graduate school. I was struck by the fluidity of the landscape--that there are no "real" boundaries from state to state, that the topography is fluid, and, for the first time, I consciously saw that the borders are imagined social constructions. The "imaginary line" phenomenon was affirmed by my later travels across Mexico and Guatemala, where one could trace colonial and missionary efforts while still seeing cultural connections amongst thriving indigenous populations across borders. However, my most significant period of decolonization occurred while in Tucson, where I attended an intensive summer program called the American Indian Language Development Institute. The program is designed for Indian educators developing new teaching techniques for cultural revival within their communities. In this program I was able to learn first-hand how many indigenous people see themselves--and how their diverse self- perceptions contrast with what commercial society reflects back.

The educators I met at the Institute overwhelmingly do not call themselves "Native American," but prefer tribal names or, if speaking collectively, "American Indian" or simply "Indian," maintaining that the former is a "PC" term resulting from--as one Navajo/ Dine colleague told me--"academic liberal white guilt. …

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