Indigenous Peoples in International and Global Studies

A "weetigo" dance, photographed at the Sweet Grass Reserve in 1939: Saskatchewan Archive Board, R-A7671.

I am fortunate to be on sabbatical this year, thanks to the generous support of the Ruth Landes Memorial Fund at the Reed Foundation. I am studying how colonialism impacted Algonquian peoples in Canada, particularly women, by examining a particular form of spirit transformation called the windigo. In some respects, I believe that windigo cases acted like the Salem witch trials, in that they created a record of a society under stress, in this case of its encounter with colonialism. Over the course of four centuries, different outside actors created narratives around the windigo in order to assert their power over Algonquian peoples. In my book, I’ll be using Algonquian oral narratives, fur-trade records, missionary accounts, court cases and psychological case files to consider how the French, English and Canadian states interacted with different Algonquian nations through time.

It’s a fun project, but it’s also one that has led me to think about the meaning of International and Global Studies. When one well-meaning colleague saw me, after seeing a notice that I had won funding with a description of this project, she told me: “That doesn’t sound like the Shawn Smallman I know!” There are good reasons to say this, given that much of my prior work has been on Latin America, particularly Brazil. But I think that this also raises a larger issue. Even though indigenous peoples perceive themselves as sovereign nations, larger society does not think of them this way. Instead, they are often described as being the most “authentic” part of a nation. On the one hand, this perspective would seem to give First Nations (the Canadian terminology) a privileged position. But I believe that by not thinking of indigenous peoples in an international context, we adopt a perspective that fails to acknowledge the integrity of their culture.

In many ways, indigenous peoples are best studied from an International or Global Studies perspectives. This may be more obvious if we think historically. Iroquois diplomacy has been carefully studied, and tells us a great deal about non-Western approaches to diplomacy. Certainly treaty negotiations between First Nations and the U.S. and Canadian government are important case studies in colonialism. But while people might think of First Nations in an international context historically, they are much less likely to do so for the contemporary period. But I would argue that this means ignoring the historical, linguistic and economic forces that have shaped indigenous lives. When my older daughter studied Native Americans in school (with outstanding teachers!), she mainly learned about their lives in the past, rather than in the present. In Russia, the indigenous peoples of Siberia are referred to as the “little nations.” While the term may be unrealistic, given the vast geographical extent that some these nations encompass, this does recognize the distinctness of these peoples. To think of the First Nations only as being “authentic” Americans, Canadians or Peruvians, makes it easier to overlook issues of colonialism, which have been central to these peoples’ experiences, and remain so today. Colonial rule throughout the world collapsed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of the nation-state. But from a Global Studies perspective, how are to we understand internal colonialism?

One of my intellectual inspirations is the work of Ruth Landes. In the 1930s she did pioneering work amongst indigenous peoples in North America, and Afro-Brazilian communities in Brazil. Later in life, her scholarship extended to a wide array of international issues, including the relationship between minority languages and the state. Although I never met her, I feel a connection to her work, because very few people are like me, and have scholarly agendas that include both Brazil and Canada, as well as broader global issues. I like to think that her work on gender and race in both Canada and Brazil created an international perspective that shaped her later scholarship, much as it has for me.

I also think that to take indigenous claims to sovereignty seriously, means that we have to think of indigenous issues from an International/Global Studies perspective. If I were to have a student who wanted to do an internship on a reservation in Alaska or Montana, or to do research on treaty issues, I would consider that to be meaningful international work. Similarly, I think that learning Navajo or a Yupik language is every bit as “international” as learning French or Portuguese, and likely more challenging as well.

In the long term, I would like to return to do work on Brazil, in particular the experience of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, likely from a comparative perspective. I don’t see a large gap in my past research on Latin America, and my current work in Canada. Indeed, what I love about our field is the freedom to have a rich and broad research agenda.

But what do you think? In what ways does it help, or not, to think of indigenous issues from an International or Global Studies perspective? What are the limitations of this approach?

As a side note, if you are interested in indigenous languages, check out Jeff Muehlbauer’s blog on the Cree language, which also has a lot of great links:

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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