A different lens

A different lens

10-12-2015

Recent discovery in a Michigan farm field of the bones of a butchered mammoth dating back perhaps 15,000 years, not to mention Michigan State’s many links to contemporary indigenous communities, remind us of those who inhabited the North American continent well before the voyage of Columbus in 1492.

Maps and historic accounts describe how our campus sits on land frequented by Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) peoples, while recoveries of indigenous artifacts here give clues of very long occupation.

For 200 years, many Americans have observed Columbus Day, yet the perspectives of those indigenous to these lands and their descendants were not broadly considered. Today, a number of localities around the country celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative. This is progress, but we have a good ways yet to go.

Tribal communities in Michigan and elsewhere increasingly are involved in research that uses a different cultural lens to provide a perspective that has not been well represented historically. In the area of environmental study and planning, such work lends a more diverse frame of reference to urgent questions facing all of us. A recent grant awarded to an MSU faculty member, for example, will connect researchers with the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin to combine Western and indigenous concepts of research, ethics, and evaluation when addressing climate change.

The university offers a number of programs examining contemporary Native American issues. Undergraduate and graduate students can gain context from courses offered by the MSU College of Arts and Letters American Indian Studies Program and from 23 affiliated faculty members in about a dozen departments. The MSU College of Law’s Indigenous Law and Policy Center trains students to work with tribes, tribal courts, and others on legal and policy questions.

And our Native American Institute—which will observe its 35th anniversary this time next year—partners with various tribes, affiliated organizations, and MSU units. Next month the institute will present tributes to American Indian veterans and tribal leaders, including a public lecture at the Wharton Center.

Finally, I shouldn’t mention historic artifacts without adding that Michigan State is an active partner with tribal communities to repatriate historic objects as mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

It is important to remember that observing a day can be a powerful symbol and that our views are influenced by our individual experiences. We must respect and acknowledge the value of diverse perspectives and how they influence our research and teaching, as well as our ability to learn and move forward as a community.

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