2012 Retreat Reflection: Bolstering public intellectualism as tribal writers

by Tasiyagnunpa Livermont

It is not news to most in academia that a wave of anti-intellectualism has pervaded the American public discourse for well over the last decade.

This is as troublesome to tribal scholars, academics and writers as it is to many others elsewhere in the American intellectual landscape, however, as we discussed during this year’s Oak Lake Writers’ Retreat, perhaps we take it a bit more seriously.

Since a good deal of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society’s mission is “to reaffirm our peoples’ political statuses,” we cannot allow ourselves as tribal citizens to be swept away in this tide of American anti-intellectualism that obscures and masks the facts, issues and problems of our time and that of a history that, as Elden Lawrence shared with us this year, we may not be responsible for, but are most assuredly, responsible to.

Several retreat participants had recently heard of an American scholar’s call for the reinstitution of the ‘public intellectual,’ as an antidote to this destructive force. [If any of our Oak Laker's remember the person's name and the media outlet that was referenced, please share in the comments.]

The public intellectual seems to have a shifting definition according to what has been written about it in the last couple of years, but overall it indicates a person of some higher (undergrad) or advanced (ph.d) education, a person of research, a person who applies themselves to the issues of their communities, and often writes materials that are accessible to the general public in which they see themselves a part of.
Since I can let you google this idea to your heart’s content, let me describe how this might shape up for a young member of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society, by sharing how I was deeply challenged and inspired by this idea.

As I write this early on Thursday morning of the retreat, I am actually soon heading my vehicle westward to home. Balancing the needs of my young family as I start a new position on Monday as editor of a weekly newspaper in the midst of Indian Country, I will be heading home with plenty of driving time to further consider this idea of the tribal public intellectual.

While the Oak Lake Writers’ Society is gifted with amazing academics from various disciplines, many of us are simply writers, journalists, poets and storytellers telling, caring and shaping narratives based in critical thinking and tribal knowledges.

I think for me, I always sought the way of learning and ‘well-roundedness’ in college. Add to that my desire for motherhood and other civic duty, and I think that we can begin to see a person aspiring to the most simple level of the public intellectual.

Even though citizenship by definition is an introduced colonial idea, it is still a form workeable and understandable to the average tribal member. Coming from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, where relationships and defense of the people was well understood, we seek to continue that heritage.

For the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, commonly called the Sioux Nation, we must have those public intellectuals that can drive, stimulate and address the conversations needed for a robust, educated, thoughtful and active tribal citizenry.

While most of us express our citizenship as members of federally-recognized tribes scattered onto reservations across our original lands and lands that still should be ours according to treaty, those of us willing to begin these conversations in our communities, whether rez or off-rez, should begin aspiring to this idea of tribal public intellectual.

I am blessed with mentors who are academics, some who work elsewhere in the country, doing important research and work that better informs the lives of those of us back home. We need these people to continue to focus on their disciplines, and we need to show them a place to come home to, as well, when they weary of the American agnosia regarding tribal peoples–whether they return to us from California or the cities in our treaty lands filled with people who think they won the ‘Indian Wars.’

Then we can send them back out, the intellectual warriors that they are.

Some of our academics do return home, but in an effort to continue their work, must keep their nose to the grindstone of research and theory.

How then, given these very real realities of tribal academicians do we educate the average tribal citizen in those things most necessarily for self-governance, protection of our natural resources, etc., things certainly not taught in our high schools?
I truly believe that the answer can be found in the application of tribal writers and journalists to a life of the public intellectual. We need people who can digest the work of our academics in useful and applicable ways that encourage and inform our civilian lives and citizenship responsibilities.

So much understanding in tribal communities is an intuitiveness based in oral traditions and our relationship to place, while definining us as tribal people, must be built on if we are to engage those civic fields of battle that will protect the land, feed our children, preserve our cultures, re-engage our languages, care for our elders and our sick and defend our ceremonies and spiritual knowledge.

We are not unaccomplished peoples. If anything, many of us tribal members suffer as much from the lie of American exceptionalism as do many other Americans. Our best and brightest are encouraged to go away to college and then when they try to come home, they are not supported with jobs, vocations or even at times, simple acceptance. Those families pushing their children to ‘succeed,’ are often as caught up in the idea of education as the ‘ticket’ to ‘making it’ financially. We might encourage them to serve the people in some way, but rarely is that way validated and shaped for all those who do not go away to college–children growing up, having children of their own, struggling with substandard living and wages and other issues.

If we do not support our young, educated tribal members, I am convinced we also do not support our young tribal members who do not leave their communities.
So, as an average person who has a knack for ideas and explaining ideas, mostly through writing, I am compelled by this idea of the public intectual. As a tribal member, mother, writer, journalist, newspaper editor, homemaker, etc., and overall generalist, I am very much interested in seeing more and more of our tribal academics’ works getting to tribal people via newspapers and other media, as well as critiques and reviews and other items that further challenge, shape and condition the tribal public discourse.

While much of media is talking heads and sheer ignorant stupidities on the part of the American public, my sincerest hope is that within even the next 10 years the same will not be said about communities of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate. That we can immediately begin bringing a greater depth to tribal newspapers and all newspapers in our treaty lands.

Recent protests and actions against large corporate expansions on our reservations have been met with brave protests by people, but more must be done. Bravery can take us only so far, but armed with the research, knowledge and statistics of our own tribal academics, we can begin to truly make some headway.

I am not a public intellectual, but I aspire to be.

In some ways, it is a great relief. I no longer have to feel guilty for not getting further in my education, for ‘failing’ to leave our treaty lands for success elsewhere, applying myself to academia, foregoing journalism for tenure, or worrying myself on how to juggle success and motherhood and family life.

I know that I am not alone in this…our ambitiousness as tribal people can be as much of a downfall in accomplishing meaningful community and family building work as too little ambition.

I am heading home today, to my sons’ reservation, a couple hundred miles north of where I am enrolled. It’s all treaty lands, it is all part of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, and while there’s a great deal of work to be done and questions to be asked, I am inspired and content to begin that work.

I truly hope more will join me. Mitakuye Oyasin.