Student-run course explores Native lands

Each semester, the college offers hundreds of courses in a staggering array of disciplines. Choosing a single class, let alone an entire course of study, is a challenging process, especially with the availability of curricular offerings at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Penn. For some, though, the course catalogue isn’t enough, and these Swatties have the option of designing and executing their own classes. This semester, a student-run course entitled “Indigenous Communities and the Lands They Belong to: An Indigenous History of North America” brings together nearly a dozen students, without a professor, to discuss the readings from an almost entirely student-designed syllabus.

Daniel Orr ’16, a special major in Native Education and officer in the Native American Student Association, explained that the course began to take shape during a previous student-run class of which Orr was also a part, entitled Colonization and Survivance in North America.

“Last semester, we had a lot of really cool people in there, and what came out of it was that a couple of people were interested in looking at how indigenous migration had changed throughout the centuries,” Orr explained. Students were specifically interested in the consequences of indigenous migration for communities, identities, and political and social relationships, Orr said, and the specific focus of this semester’s class emerged as he constructed the syllabus.

Though the course is in some sense a history of indigenous peoples in North America and follows a chronological path, it focuses less on the United States’ development and more on how indigenous communities were impacted during that time.

The class will also spend a week focusing specifically on the Lenape. The college stands on the Native tribe’s historical land, which included the Delaware River watershed. Orr said he wished the course could include a more in-depth history of the land on which the college is built, but suggested that this might be the basis for an entirely different class. Since his freshman year, Orr has spent time with one of the Lenape bands in the area.

“I know a little bit of one of the classic stories they tell, about the Walking Purchase, which was how the land was stolen from them, but I don’t know the details of how the land was carved up,” Orr explained. The Walking Purchase of 1737 was a supposed agreement between the Penn family and the Lenape, by which the Penns claimed and forced the Lenape to vacate 1.2 million acres of land.

Bruce Dorsey, a professor in the history department who helped Orr create the syllabus for the class, explained that the focus of the course had shifted from movements and diasporas to land and communities. Students are thinking through large questions about sense of place, challenges to this sense from first encounters to decimations of populations by disease and violence, the active identity of certain lands, and the meanings of being forced to exist in locations such as reservations.

Dorsey said that the class will also consider “Indians in unexpected places.” While cities are often assumed, in historical narratives, to be the place of white ethnic migrants and of African American migrants post-World War I, they hold Native communities as well, Dorsey explained.

“I think it subverts some of the mythologies and assumptions about American history,” Dorsey said.

For Julia Wakeford ’18, who hopes to go into Native law and policy in her professional life, the course’s focus on land is key.

“Native movements and functions are completely different from those of other minority groups,” Wakeford said. “We are of a separate status — it’s different to be a minority than it is to be aboriginal, and so the movements in diasporas and lands have always been important to us.”

For Wakeford, Native society functions differently around the concept of land, and so studying this functioning and the meanings of urbanization and reservation life are key, especially due to Native groups’ differing land statuses and interactions with the government.

“I think this class is really important because if you want to understand Native peoples and mindsets, you have to understand our relationship to the land,” Wakeford said. She feels that this relationship is often portrayed as environmentalist when this may not be accurate.

“That’s not Native voices — it’s something different, it’s about the memories and the lack and where you live. This land Swarthmore is on, this is Native land, and that conversation never happens,” she said. Thus, one of the tasks of the class is to consider why this question is rarely asked.

Though her overall intellectual commitment to Native Studies comes from her Native heritage and growing up around Native culture, Wakeford’s interest in Native law and policy stems from issues of land. In a case which the Supreme Court declined to hear, Osage land was demoted from reservation status to middle ground status for tax purposes.

“I was with my grandpa through this process, listening to him talk about it, and it really frustrated me to see that land status go away,” Wakeford said. “That was my first interest in Native policy and its land, but land is always there.”

The issue of land came up again for Wakeford during her time at a summer camp in Georgia, when she realized the camp was built along the trail upon which the Creek were removed.

“I called my grandma and cried,” Wakeford said. “I felt something with that — the idea that my ancestors would have been here in these lands and lived here.”

Beyond issues of land, Dorsey explained that the course incorporates a different perspective of history, one which early Americanist historians like him attempt to utilize.

“Part of that training is to newly configure the way in which you think about early American history — it’s not a history that’s the story of a kind of passive group of indigenous populations that gets invaded and conquered and disappeared,” Dorsey said.

Classes such as Dorsey’s Early American Honors seminar, he explained, attempt to do what Dan Richter terms “facing east.” This requires historians to consider history “without the assumption of the westward inevitability of the movement of Europeans, European civilization…,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey explained that Native history is key to much other work in which he is interested.

“It’s the centerpiece of any kind of American history you want to do: whether it’s environmental history or cultural history or history of critical race theory, you are going to confront the questions and issues of the histories and stories of indigenous peoples,” Dorsey said.

An enormous amount of work is involved in creating a student-run course, Dorsey explained, adding that Orr’s production of the three courses is fairly unheard-of and astounding. This semester’s course is the third student-run course in the Native studies field for which Orr has designed much of the syllabus, as he also drove the creation of the U.S. Federal Indian Policy course in the spring semester of 2015.

When asked by Orr to support the course, Dorsey explained, he simply suggested a few textbooks for Orr to consider, rather than handing him a reading list. Exploring the suggested readings, topics, and questions raised by these textbooks, and specifying the focus of the course more fully, was entirely up to Orr, who drew on various online resources, conducted research into related classes at other institutions and looked at extant syllabi through Tripod. Once the syllabus was more fine-tuned, Dorsey suggested pairings, additional readings, and further questions.

The class counts towards a major in history, and all the students in the course write weekly blog posts and a group midterm paper, and will be creating collective or individual final projects of their choice.

Despite the effort required, Orr suggested that Swarthmore might provide a uniquely receptive environment in which to create a student-run course.

“One of the really nice things there is about Swarthmore is that we can just create these classes — you have to do the work, but there aren’t really any people standing in your way,” Orr said.

Orr explained that he prefers the student-run format to professor-led classes. Though he is studying education, Orr does not feel he knows how to be a professor, and has much to learn in terms of educational practice and familiarity with a topic, but he believes that student-run courses fit his learning style and intellectual interests more closely.

“It’s basically just like an in-depth book club, usually with people you enjoy being around. Of course there is some work to be done, but at least for me, in classrooms it feels like you have to be an academic and talk and behave in a certain way, but in student-run courses, we’re just sitting around talking.”

Dorsey contextualized the development of student-run courses in various political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Black Campus Movement and the women’s liberation movement.

“All the things we take for granted, like women’s studies, Black studies…because of students who’ve been thinking theoretically about things that might not always get put there such as race theory, those kinds of things have been approached from student initiatives,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey also remarked upon the recurring focus of student-run courses on people’s histories. In 1970 and for years before, for example, Black students at the college repeatedly created and led their own Black Studies courses as they pushed for a formalized program. In more recent history, a fall 2012 class that provided an introduction to ethnic studies took place, thanks to Shelly Wen ’14, a special major in multicultural education.

“We’re a small college, and so you would lose what Swarthmore would be if you had a student body large enough to have a faculty large enough to have someone to teach every aspect of all the people’s histories that need to be told, which happens at big universities,” Dorsey said. “We need greater diversity, and so it’s great to have students who want to do those kinds of courses — we usually have visiting professors offer what would be expanding our possibilities.”

Dorsey added, “I think it’s just a really bold and brave endeavor. I know they’re going to have a great time exploring the difficult issues but also the really fascinating, deep history that exists.”

Student-run courses in Native studies have felt very validating for Wakeford, she said.

“I didn’t realize that academics were writing about the things that I was feeling, and it turns out they were,” Wakeford said. “A lot of [the readings] answered questions about things I’d always wondered about in Native politics and being Native, living in a white world.”

Though there are nearly a dozen students in this semester’s student-run course, only three are members of NASA, which Wakeford appreciates.

“It touches me that there are other students on campus taking courses on Natives,” she said. “That makes me happy — it means that they want to learn about my history and my culture that I love so much.”

In the future, Orr hopes a more definitive program in Native Studies might emerge at the college, based upon the framework of the student-run courses he and others have created.

“Eventually, that would be great. The ultimate goal really is to destroy the higher education system, so who knows?” he concluded.


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