Native American academics do not endorse the boycott of Israeli academics

On December 15th, the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association declared its support for the academic boycott of Israel.   According to its website, “NAISA is dedicated to free academic inquiry about, with, and by Indigenous communities.”

NAISA is a minor organization, having been formed a mere eight years ago. J. Kehaulani Kauanui, a co-creator of NAISA, has written extensively about Native Americans and about Israel.  Her name is Hawaiian, although I have no evidence that she is of any Native American ancestry. NAISA’s current president is a certain Chadwick Allen, who appears not to be a Native American.  I have looked at photographs and biographies of several of the organization’s key members because I wanted to know who this organization represents.  One of its apparent members is Steven Salaita, who identifies as Arab-American.  Another source defines him as a first generation American born of a Palestinian mother and a Jordanian father.    He was recently hired as a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, slated to begin in the fall of 2014.  His credentials appear to be a phD in English.

None of these people happens to be Native American, and their resolution has nothing to do with Native Americans.  It is not about Native American people and does not represent Native American academics who work in subjects outside of the ethnic studies ghetto.  This makes me question the purpose of their organization in a large way.  According to her bio, Kauanui has a bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies and a phD from the University of California in the “History of Consciousness.”  I am not aware of the relevance of either degree to the study of Native American languages, customs, cultures, or history.  Whom do these people represent and what are they teaching? Why are they writing declarations about Israel and its academics? Why have  they allowed into their ranks an ethnic Arab who has no qualifications that pertain specifically to Native Americans or their languages, customs, or cultures?

I am an academic who happens to be classified in America as Native American/Alaska Native.  When people choose to study a subject, a culture, a people, their history or literature, there is a question of respect involved, not only for the subject but for the people behind that subject.   I am a specialist in Latin American fiction.  My work is recognized by my peers.  I have given papers at prestigious conferences at universities in Lima, Moscow, and Havana.  I have published on the subject.  Although my interest in literature is global, my work on Latin American fiction has sometimes centred on the indigenous mythology that is present in it, something that is familiar to me and sometimes easier for me to detect than for people of other ancestry.  That stated, I am careful to be respectful of my subject and of the writers I have written about and their respective cultures. That is because of the traditional upbringing I had which begins and ends with respect.

My question about NAISA arises from last week’s declaration which unfairly targets Israel and Israeli academics.  When people within a Native American community commit a transgression it is normally addressed in a traditional way.  Outsiders are not called in to intervene.  This is a broad, general statement, but I believe that most authentic Native American people would nod in agreement to this.

If NAISA members choose to speak out of turn in the name of Native Americans, something implied in the name of their organization and the use of the word “council” to describe NAISA’s leadership, then I state that it is my birth right and a right of cultural authenticity for me to respond to their declaration in a traditional way.  I have chosen this venue because it places you culpable NAISA members in the presence of and on the territory of the people whom you have wronged.

You members of NAISA spoke out of turn, and you misrepresented Native American communities and people without authorization, and without regard for authentic Native Americans, and my guess is that this resolution came directly from Steven Salaita and J Kauanui, two cultural outsiders.  Many of you are not Native American, and some of you are using some remote ancestry in a disrespectful way which has shamed other people, including and especially authentic Native American people.  By authentic I mean people who are legally  considered Native American or Alaska Native within the USA,  not persons of unacceptably low blood quantum, regardless of official enrolments in tribes that will allow anyone in.  If you know so little about Native American culture that you commit the worst social blunder by speaking out of turn and insulting a country and its academics, who would believe in your supposed expertise? Furthermore you are not qualified experts in Middle Eastern politics or history, so for whose benefit and on whose behalf are you issuing declarations about it?  Why would anyone who knows Native American culture have respect for you who are supposed to be experts on the subject but don’t know the first thing about social conduct?

You allied yourselves with people who are enemies of the USA, who burn the US flag at their rallies.  A lot of Native Americans serve and have served in the US armed forces, and their families would not be impressed by your behavior.  We are all proud of the Navaho code talkers.  So who do you think you are? Your alliances are insulting to us.  Steven Salaita penned an article in about how he does not “support our troops” which resulted in hate mail and death threats.  In a subsequent article in salon he stated the following: “The first rule for any serious writer is to agitate the contentious and embrace the disreputable.” Salaita has found the perfect partner in NAISA for just such an embrace.

I would suggest you change the name of your organization and stop calling your leadership a council, because we know full well that term is used by genuine, legitimate and authentic tribal councils.  We shouldn’t have to trademark our ethnicity to have to protect it from interlopers.  I am writing this here in front of the people you’ve wronged so that they will know what NAISA is and what it is not.

About the Author
Jay Corwin was born in Wrangell, Alaska. He is a member of the Tlingit tribe, of the Eagle moiety and Kaayaashkeíditaan clan, enrolled in the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and an original shareholder of Sealaska Corporation. Phd (1995) in Spanish and Latin American literature from the Florida State university and author of works on various pieces of 20th century Latin American fiction. He is currently Head of the Spanish programme at the University of Cape Town.