Landscapes of Tribal Engagement at Brown: Reciprocity and Access

March 12, 2024

Photo courtesy of endawnis Spears

In 2022, Brown University “established an official land acknowledgment that recognizes and honors its location within the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett Indian Tribe” as one of the “five commitments Brown is making to build understanding of the relationship between its campus community, Indigenous peoples of the region and the land on which Brown is situated.”

endawnis Spears, a member of the Navajo Nation and currently Practitioner in Residence for Tribal Engagement at Brown University, describes her work as guided by the five commitments and focused on reciprocity and relational work between New England tribal members and Brown. Part of her work is building capacity within Brown to collaborate well, which requires knowledge of local history, law and culture: “It is really important for us to make sure that anyone who is living and working in Narragansett homelands has a working understanding of the tribal landscape that they are situated within.”

Ms. Spears emphasizes the continuous nature of this “new and emergent way of doing higher education” for long-term change. “The work that lays ahead of institutions of power in the Northeast needs to take a multi-generational viewpoint” with a goal of “laying groundwork for future generations of leadership at Brown and future generations of students” to continue the process of “reconfiguring systems of knowledge and access” in just and reciprocal ways with acknowledgment of the tapestry of Indigenous experiences. This project requires emphasizing the principles of no harm and reciprocity, as well as learning about New England’s tribal communities and the legal aspects of tribal nations.

This semester, Prof. Honor Keeler’s courses, NAIS 1205: Indigenous Human Rights and NAIS 1240: Indigenous Women and the Power of Rematriation, increase access to Brown for local tribal members while highlighting the complex legal and political histories of tribal nations. Prof. Keeler’s work centers on questions of genocidal removal, repatriation and indigenous human rights within international law, and she is the former director of the International Repatriation Project. Both her courses draw on her experiences with tribal engagement and legal activism. Whereas NAIS 1205 is a culmination of her UN involvement and Indigenous human rights work, in NAIS 1240, Prof. Keeler, herself a member of the Cherokee nation, emphasizes the work of Indigenous women and the intergenerational nature of Indigenous women’s movements, a demographic historically marginalized in multiple ways.

Prof. Keeler has invited local tribal members to attend her courses and practice how to advocate for Indigenous rights within the international law framework while advocating for repatriation implementation within the United States. These practices are highly significant in a context where state jurisdiction has been extending into Indigenous territories through various administrative decisions, threatening tribal sovereignty. Cultivating legal advocacy is thus a part of the broader efforts to increase tribal consultation in the executive branch of the government. Prof. Keeler emphasizes that “Brown needs to develop further partnerships” with tribal communities of New England “because of its positionality and location on Indigenous land that was stolen.” Adopting an open course practice as Prof. Keeler implements, as well as sharing Brown’s resources, would be an important move towards reciprocity and contribution to the conversations Brown is having about its commitment to reciprocity and accessibility. Moreover, learning from the experiences and knowledge of tribal members is crucial for Brown students to develop a comprehensive understanding of Indigenous human rights movements.

In addition to the legal status of New England tribal communities, endawnis Spears emphasizes the power of language. Part of her work focuses on unpacking the historical and political nuances of the terms frequently utilized to refer to tribal communities, such as Native American and Indigenous. She describes encounters with language as opportunities for honest conversation and reflection on our local and global histories. Preservation of Indigenous languages is also vital due to their fraught history enmeshed with various forms of colonialism, reclamation, and identity.

ANTH 1840: Indigenous Languages of the Americas: An Introduction, co-taught by Scott AnderBois and Paja Faudree with a hemispheric focus on Latin America, centers on the linguistic ecologies of Indigenous communities. Dr. AnderBois emphasizes that the co-instructors have “a lot to learn from each other, drawing on the different kinds of expertise and different disciplinary backgrounds.” The course focuses on “how the distinct grammatical properties of these languages intersect with various aspects of their social contexts -- from the politics surrounding their use to their presence in popular culture – as we grapple with the complex current realities of these languages in the lives of the Indigenous people who speak them.” Students work with language experts from tribal communities to understand the social ecologies of Indigenous languages they are focusing on.

Community engagement is a powerful avenue for considering the specificities of working with Native people and learning about the very complex historical and political landscape while tailoring academic work to the priorities and needs of Native communities. Dr. AnderBois has been conducting research in Ecuador, where he collaborates with A’ingae-speaking Indigenous populations and other researchers to collect resources for the A’ingae Language Documentation Project. He describes this project as tailored to “creating materials that are good for lots of different purposes,” including the intentional creation of a community-facing database with the input of Indigenous communities, cultural preservation work, and data that would be useful for the academic linguistic community. Discussions on the ethics of the engagement process and the accessibility of engagement products are central to the documentation project.

Although Ms. Spears’ work is “hyper-focused on tribes whose lands Brown occupies” as an institutional priority, she points out that the Brown community is “also quite global in our academic interests,” as exemplified through the engagements of Keeler, AnderBois and Faudree. Prof. Keeler invites non-tribal members who practice tribal engagement to be mindful of information taken from tribal communities and sensitive to Native nations’ decisions regarding which information should be open to the public. In this vein, alternative tribal institutional review boards (IRBs) provide models that offer useful guidance before planning a community-engaged project. This is a crucial step to understanding the goals and limits of research that would be reciprocally conducted with tribal nations. For example, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Institutional Review Board “requires community involvement and officially documented support from elected Tribal Leaders as the primary sovereign authority for their respective reservation and Tribe/s” and “endeavors to eliminate exploitative research practices where benefit flows only to external entities and not to the individuals and Tribal Populations who are actually being researched.” Prof Keeler suggests that establishing a series of Indigenous methodology courses at Brown University, developed and taught in partnership with members of tribal communities, would be an important step in establishing ethical collaborative practices of tribal engagement.

Ms. Spears invites non-Indigenous Brown community members interested in tribal engagement to embark on “a journey of cultural humility” and to contact her if they are interested in arranging a workshop or consultation. She emphasizes the importance of understanding how tribes situate their positions within their particular landscape and history and “willingness to be the only non-Indigenous person in a place.” Most importantly, Ms. Spears says, “Quiet your heart and spirit and learn as much as you can from tribally sourced materials that are available to everyone.”