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New faculty unpack Indigenous issues, both past and present

From left: Hiʻilei Hobart, Doug Kiel and Beth Redbird

“Northwestern has the resources, the cultural structure and the ability to be a leader in the way universities interact with Native Americans and Native issues,” sociology professor Beth Redbird says. “And I’ve been really pleased with the way Northwestern has embraced Native studies.”

Redbird, along with history professor Doug Kiel and post-doctoral fellow Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, are the first three faculty hired for the forthcoming Native American and Indigenous Studies Research Center. All three agree that helping Northwestern students understand that Native issues are still relevant is a key component of their work on campus.

“I think it’s very easy to think of Native issues solely as issues of the past,” Kiel says. “I try to push against that.” 

In his research, Kiel explores Indigenous nation rebuilding movements and race relations since the start of the 20th century. And in his courses on Indigenous social movements, representation in film, and Native law and policy, Kiel strives to put the past and present in relation to each other.

“One of the hardest things about teaching Indigenous studies is helping students understand that many of them continue to benefit in a material way from the suppression of Indigenous people and from the occupation of Indigenous land,” Kiel says.

Hobart, whose research looks at the ways in which the introduction of ice to Hawaiʻi impacted Native people’s relationships to their environment, says people might not believe Native studies pertain to them, even though “a strong argument can be made that Native studies is a bedrock for understanding what America is.”

“The entire history of the U.S. is premised on the Native experience,” Hobart says.

Keeping that interdependent relationship between Native and non-Native in mind, Redbird says addressing Indigenous suppression can have broader implications.

“We have this idea that the solutions to Indian problems come from Indians,” says Redbird, whose research is focused on economic status of Native Americans today. “But Indians are integrated into a larger economy, and the solutions to Indian poverty, for example, are most likely highly related to the solutions to a lot of U.S. poverty.”

Redbird, Kiel and Hobart are looking forward to helping Northwestern develop its new center, and they believe the university’s commitment is a sign of progress in the appreciation of the Native experience.

“It’s clear that Northwestern wants to make Indigenous studies more a part of its institutional fabric,” Kiel says.

As the development of the center gets underway, these three new Northwestern faculty have one collective goal for their classes: They aim to open students’ eyes to the Native experience of the past, and, just as importantly, the present.

“I hope students leave my class with a sense of literacy around Native issues,” Kiel says. “That will give them important perspective as engaged global citizens.”