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Mexican American/Raza Studies senior Crystal on graduation day. Crystal was a student in the Mexican American Studies Program at Tucson High School featured in the documentary Precious Knowledge featured on PBS’ Independent Lens. Photo credit: Ari Palos 2009.

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Mexican American/Raza studies teacher José Gonzalez and student Pricila pictured in front of Tucson High School. The Mexican American Studies Program where both Gonzales and Pricila were featured in the documentary “Precious Knowledge” featured on PBS’ Independent Lens. Photo credit: Ari Palos 2009

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Arizona State Superintendent Tom Horne holds a press conference calling for the ban of ethnic studies classes in Tucson as featured in the PBS’ Independent Lens’ “Precious Knowledge”. Photo credit: Ari Palos 2009.

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Ethnic studies students and community members participate in a traditional ceremonial run from Tucson, Ariz., to Phoenix, Ariz., in an effort to save the classes as featured in the documentary “Precious Knowledge” featured on PBS’ Independent Lens.
Photo credit: Diane Ovalle 2009.

Independent Lens on PBS features Mexican-American identity film, ‘Precious Knowledge’
by Juan J. Lopez, Dawn of Nations Today

“Precious Knowledge” a documentary film that details the battle for the continuation of ethnic studies programs in the Tucson school district, will premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens at 10 p.m. on May 17, 2012.

The film has already had screenings and previews across the country, including the Land of Enchantment. The film was shown in Albuquerque on April 21, during the “Covering the New Southwest: Storytelling in the Heart of LaTierra” journalism conference hosted by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, or NAHJ.

Set against a backdrop of self-discovery, from the student’s perspective, and political/racial propaganda from opponents of a Mexican-American studies program, the film shows a window into the lives of the students and community who have been positively affected by the program.

The film details the genesis of ethnic studies programs through a brief summary showing how during the Civil Rights Movement cultural/ethnic studies programs began as a way to franchise normally marginalized minority populations. It was shown that these programs sought to instill cultural pride to help students improve their lives through education.

Filming takes place over the 2008-2009 school year and follows the classrooms of teachers Jose Gonzales and Curtis Acosta. Filmed are the interactions between students and teachers. The students are shown as they dissect problems and critically look for solutions. Both men are passionate, as Gonzales encouraging his students to not only read “the word but to read the world,” while Acosta advocates for his students to love and accept themselves and those around them.
Also shown is the history of the campaign to shut down ethnic studies programs, multiple times. Through legislation the continuation of the programs was imperiled through the efforts of certain individuals. Each time, these efforts were stalled due to the proposed bills dying while in committee or the threat of veto by former governor Janet Napolitano. Once Napolitano went to work for the Obama administration, the perfect storm began for the eventual passage and implementation of a bill known as HB 2281.

In the film this statistic stands out, close to 50 percent of Hispanic/Mexican, American/Latino children drop out of school and while 93 percent of Raza Program students go on to graduate. Why then would anyone question a program with an almost 100 percent increase in graduation rate? That question is never fully addressed, but we are shown glimpses of some of the possible causes.

Thom Horne, school superintendent at the time, states his opposition as being that ethnic studies programs segregate the student population into racial and cultural subgroups. The failure of his logic is this; students of any other race, culture, or belief system are not barred from taking part in these classes. His point is rendered even more moot when one realizes that these classes teach the history and heritage of a people that have been in place long before the United States was a reality.
The one weakness of the film is that it did not investigate the origins of opposition to ethnic studies programs. Who are the people behind the opposition and what do they have to gain or lose from the continuation or closure of ethnic studies programs?

The talking heads for the opposition of ethnic studies kept stressing the racism within the programs and the teaching of sedition were a factor. It would be telling to find who framed the talking points of the opposition and why these inaccurate and dishonest ideologies, disguised as fact, were able to mostly go unchallenged by the media.
Towards the end of the film students are shown during and after graduation, preparing for their perspective futures. Half of these students would not have reached this milestone if not for the program(s).

Anyone who claims to care about the future of this country and the future of the youth of today should see this film; we are shown both what can be gained by the inclusion of diverse sources of knowledge and what can be lost by its exclusion.


Commentary: Native American Studies promotes social justice for New Mexico students
by Tiffany S. Lee, Associate Professor, Native American Studies


Social Change as an academic venture at the University of New Mexico

Many colleges and universities across the country are creating entities (departments, schools, colleges…), which focus on promoting positive social change and social justice in our society.  Native American Studies (NAS) at the University of New Mexico has initiated such a movement among various interdisciplinary programs at UNM because we feel this approach to education and learning is a promising and valuable endeavor that honors our mission and provides the mechanism for similar programs to unite.  We want to re-envision the purpose of a college education toward the preparation of our students as change-makers and social entrepreneurs given the world’s challenges.  In particular, NAS, for Native communities, can move toward supporting our communities in applied and active ways.  The mission of NAS is “building Native communities for the 21st century” by educating ourselves and allies.  This mission, supported by an entity that values social transformation and change, makes it possible to practice community-based education in authentic and direct ways.  

What is social change?

Native people in New Mexico know very well the level of inequities in social, economic, environmental and health conditions of their communities compared to the rest of society.  Social change addresses those historical, underlying problems on many levels from individual to institutional, to communal to international.  An education aimed at creating social change attempts to influence attitudes, behavior, and consciousness of people and institutions to reach a level of critical awareness about those unjust inequities.  Social change promotes fair treatment after critical examination of systems, policies, laws, and infrastructure that affect our communities.  Social change is rooted in working toward social justice, honoring human rights and pursuing equity based on our own culturally grounded values and definitions of justice and equality.  

Why NAS and UNM?

Native American Studies was originally established as an ethnic studies center in 1970.  Initially, it was established as a support program for Native American students at UNM and in September 1998, NAS became an interdisciplinary academic program housed within University College.  In fall of 1999, the minor in NAS was approved, and by December 2004, the Board of Regents approved NAS to deliver a Bachelor of Arts degree.  As an interdisciplinary academic department, our commitment is to Indigenous academic scholarship and research excellence at UNM. Our mission is to educate and inform all students about the Indigenous experience that comes from the rich cultural heritage of the sovereign Indigenous peoples of the United States and to create a department that collaborates with Native nations and engages students in Indigenous community building for the 21st century.

Why NAS and UNM? (cont'd)

Currently, there are over 1,600 Native American students enrolled at UNM’s main campus and an additional 2,500-plus students enrolled through the Gallup, Farmington, Taos, Bernalillo, Los Alamos and Valencia campuses.  The state of New Mexico and the 22 Pueblos and tribes of New Mexico have a pressing need for college-educated Native American students prepared to assist in the development of their communities and the state of New Mexico in socially and economically responsible ways.

We would like to see NAS and other programs and departments with similar goals to be housed under a College of Social Change.  The purpose of this new entity of social change will be to prepare students to become knowledgeable and contributing citizens who will use practical, experiential, and transformational education to influence and create a just and sustainable world.

How students and communities benefit

An academic entity focused on social change affords us the opportunity to focus on providing our students with important connections to transition, work toward transformation in our communities, and create opportunities for employment because of the heightened awareness and support for our mission and goals. Native and New Mexican communities may become more responsive and trusting of UNM when our goal is to work with and support them, rather than perpetuating the old model of university elitism removed from our local communities or worse, only taking from them.

A major benefit of this movement for our students is that they become engaged with Native and New Mexican communities.  Collaborating with other academic programs at UNM also housed in this College of Social Change will make our students’ education highly relevant to the specific issues and conditions affecting our communities.  Students become civically engaged and world minded.  We view this movement as a way for UNM to reposition itself as a driver of social change and establish it as part of the university culture where everyone is involved and dedicated toward addressing inequities and contributing to the betterment of New Mexico and beyond.


Matthew Skeets, reporter for Dawn of Nations Today interviews Qwo-Li Driskall, Ph.D., Cherokee, a professor at the University of North-Carolina. Driskall is author, scholar, educator and activist and was a presenter in the Indigenous Book Festival held at the University of New Mexico on April 12-13, 2012. Photo credit: Jodene Nerva/Dawn of Nations Today

Academics Mark Rifkin, Qwo-Li Driskill lecture at Indigenous Book Festival
by Matthew J. Skeets, Dawn of Nations Today

The Indigenous Book Festival 2012 was an event I had looked forward to for quite some time.  My main interest revolved around Mark Rifkin, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Qwo-Li Driskill, a Cherokee Two-Spirit writer and educator at Texas A & M University.  Both presented at the book festival on April 12-13, 2012 at the University of New Mexico.

My excitement was building as the room Lobo A & B in the Student Union Building (SUB) at UNM filled up with Indigenous scholars, students and community members. They all gathered to hear Rifkin’s lecture, titled after his book, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (Oxford Press 2010).  In his lecture Rifkin articulated that a major goal of Indigenous Queer Studies is to challenge Native American Studies not to forget about the sexualities of its people, and to challenge mainstream “Queer Theory to look at Heteronormativity as colonial tool.”

“Heteronormativity” roughly refers to heterosexuality and being male a dominant norm within American society.  Furthermore, according to this theory, the phenomenon creates “male” and “female” and dictates that men must act like men and women must act like women.  According to Rifkin, it also puts the two fields Queer Studies and Native American studies into conversation to further allow deconstruction of oppressive colonial tools. 

Rifkin said traditional modes of kinship and family are altered by the force of heteronormativity. 

He brought up an example of land grants during the Dawes Act of 1887.  When agents were taking down family plots, they did not realize that several generations and even extended families lived within one household.  How the agent ruled those types of lifestyles that are common, especially from the Navajo Nation, is an example of how heteronormativity is enforced and all other types of lifestyle is considered “outside.”

Looking into my own life, growing up, I realized that my own cousins living within my family’s household wasn’t peculiar but it goes against “normal” family constructs.
Lily Lawrence-Metzler,  a UNM student, said that she thought the ideas presented by Rifkin were some things people should understand more.  “I thought he was amazing.”  Metzler said.  I too was impressed and fascinated. 

In general, I believe that this type of work breaks down all the facets of how we view the world.  In trying to imagine a world where the categories of our identity, like straight, gay, bisexual, do not exist, it really opens up the opportunities of how people can identify themselves, so much so that the male-female system is also broken.
Navajo epistemology, from how I was taught, teaches of male and female as circular and fluid, not two static titles that people must belong. I, as a Navajo male, have been looking for any notion of acceptance. Through colonial oppression, my acceptance within the American society is a political feat. Not only must I get an education and break my Navajo accent, I must also conform to a heteronormative society. 

I also attended a panel discussion entitled “The Erotics of Sovereignty” that included Rikin,  Driskill and Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Diné, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and Deborah Miranda, an associate professor at Washington and Lee University, was also supposed to be a part of this panel but was unable to attend. However, Driskill found it important to share some of her work within the realm of sovereign erotics.

Driskill was dressed in a lavender skirt and a pair of black boots.  His clothes demonstrated his strife and bravery in challenging normal modes of what is masculine and feminine.  I thought he looked fabulous and even mentioned it to him.

He read off a few of his poems throughout the panel that addressed the “erotics of sovereignty.”  His poetry is something I look to for inspiration and I find myself carving new ground in Navajo-specific erotics.  Driskill named scholars within this field the “sexperts of Turtle Island.”  He also emphasized the importance of creative works that inform political measures and even indigenous theory.

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Matthew Skeets interviews Mark Rifkin Ph.D., following his presentation entitled “When Did Indians Become Straight?” Rifkin participated in the Indigenous Book Festival hosted by UNM’s Institute for American Indian Research. Photo credit: Caitlin Pozernick/Dawn of Nations Today

When Indigenous sexualities are being constrained by heteronormative constructs, Driskill said that erotics can be a prism that illuminates multiple facets of Indigenous life. Driskill states the idea of taking back our bodies, both historically and the present.  Driskill noted the violence towards Two-Spirit and LGBTQ peoples of tribal communities, he shared with the audience that he was a survivor of sexual assault.

Megan Frost, a senior majoring in Native American Studies at UNM, said that people need to overcome heternormative logic and stop thinking that, in her words, “queers are scary.” “I like it because it’s something that no one talks about,” Frost said. She called the panel and lecture “alive.” 

In my own research into this field, I ran into several walls regarding my own personal life and just academic scholarship within this field.  This new field at the very basic level, brings into conversation the intimate lives of indigenous peoples and the politics and theories of Native sovereignty.  At the same time, it also challenges heteronormative logic that continues to oppress tribal peoples.  I found my own expression within the type of literary erotica that Driskill articulates and within Rifkin’s open challenge of what people think is normal.  Driskill’s words, it expands all notions of Native studies.  When asked the importance of this type of study, Denetdale said, “It exposes the logics of settler colonialism and conquest.” 

Though late, there is an extreme importance within this type of study to stop thinking “queers are scary” and to start taking back our bodies.  Sexuality isn’t something people think about when expressing Indigenous self-determination, but I think they operate at the same level.  How can tribal communities self-identify without expressing their own body image? How can Indigenous studies not utilize an Indigenous Queer point of view because both fields seek to underwrite what people see as normal? 

I did leave the talks with more questions than answers, but I found a new drive and new meaning to my scholarship here at the university. In simplest terms, studying how colonial conquest sought out to “straighten” tribal communities to enforce their notion of what is “normal,” has an effect on how tribal communities define their own sovereigns and tribal governance.

Dawn of Nations Today Volumn 7; Issue 1; May 2012, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M.

Dawn of Nations Today is a special edition published by the Native American Studies Department, University College, University of New Mexico
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