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News & Notes

Wordcraft Circle Response to California State University - Sacramento

Lee Francis

Here is our response to the situation involving a Native student and a faculty member (read more about it HERE).  The letter was sent to the Chief of Staff at Cal State Sacramento and cc'd to the chair of the History Department.  Please circulate as you see fit and thanks!

Dear President Nelsen,

For the past twenty years, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers has supported the work and words of Native American and Indigenous peoples. Our mission is to ensure the voices of Native & Indigenous peoples - past, present, and future - are heard throughout the world. Over the years, we have worked with thousands of Native students across all grade levels. We have a number of faculty mentors and several institutional programs dedicated to promoting the stories of Native students and communities.

As our work is about supporting and strengthening the voices of Native and Indigenous people, we were incredibly distressed to read about the interaction between Ms. Chiitaanibah Johnson and her instructor, Mr. Maury Wiseman, during the history class this past week. As reported, the conflict began when Ms. Johnson questioned Mr. Wiseman's claim that genocide was a strong term for what happened to the Indigenous people of North America. From there the conflict escalated.

Though we are strong proponents of academic freedom and an individual professor's right to set the terms of engagement in his or her classroom, we feel that Mr. Wiseman went beyond the boundaries of civil classroom engagement and exerted his authority in a way that was detrimental to the academic environment for Ms. Johnson as well as her colleagues in Mr. Wiseman's class.

Lest we be accused of being PC, an issue that is clearly in the collective consciousness, the definitions of genocide, as established by multiple bodies around the world, have been clearly articulated and numerous Native and Indigenous scholars have written on the subject of North American genocidal practices, including the use of biological warfare to target a specific ethnic population based on their race. Perhaps Mr. Wiseman's objections to the points Ms. Johnson raised are due to his lack of access to scholarly material on the subject of Indigenous genocide. Perhaps Mr. Wiseman is primarily concerned with modern understandings of genocide, such as the Armenian massacre or the Holocaust. Perhaps Mr. Wiseman is seeking to challenge conventional notions and understandings of genocide as a way of expanding the theoretical framework. Whatever the case, Ms. Johnson had a solid understanding of the Indigenous genocide when she made her passionate assertions in the class based on well documented evidence.

What is more troubling is the approach Mr. Wiseman took toward Ms. Johnson. Many of us have been in the classroom and have faced difficult content and students who have

challenged our perspectives. Yet, our efforts are and should be dedicated toward cultivating strong methodology, inquiry, and assertions not subjecting students to public shaming, isolation, and expulsion based on a perceived ideological conflict.

But more importantly, the silencing of Native and Indigenous voices has been a practice of colonial engagement since the first settlers came upon the shores of North America. For more than three hundred years, the voices of Native and Indigenous people have systematically been marginalized, ridiculed, and destroyed in order to make way for a colonial narrative, wherein actual recorded practices of genocide are reduced to instances of collateral damage and intercene warfare. This marginalization and silencing has a chilling effect and sends the message to not only one Native student, but to all Native students that they, we, are unwelcome in the California State University system. Although it has been made clear that the instructor cannot unilaterally expel a student from their course, Ms. Johnson has effectively been silenced; her story and the story of Indigenous peoples suppressed, once again. Though this may not have been the intent of Mr. Wiseman, his actions reinforce a narrative of power and oppression in which Native people have been forced to assimilate or be expelled. I am sure you can see the similarities and understand why this incident is not simply a student-instructor conflict but one that has deeper implications embedded within the settler-colonial relations of North America.

Though we would not presume to dictate your response to Mr. Wiseman and the matter at hand, we would like to offer several ideas for consideration. As Ms. Johnson has been targeted by Mr. Wiseman, we do not believe that continuation in the course would be beneficial to her academic and emotional health. We feel that perhaps a better solution for Ms. Johnson would be to complete the course as an Independent Study. To that end, we would be glad to offer the time and attention of a number of Native and Indigenous scholars who would be thrilled to support the educational journey of Ms. Johnson. Further, we would recommend that the History Department reach out to the local Native American community (eleven federally recognized bands of Miwak are located in the region) and invite members to interact with students and faculty, so as to learn their stories. Finally, we believe this is a great opportunity for Mr. Wiseman and students at the University to learn more about the concept of genocide and we think that a speakers' series might be a positive and productive way to engage the students and faculty in conversations regarding stories of North American genocide. We would be glad to assist you in establishing the series and provide you with speakers who bring expertise and the ability to facilitate difficult dialogue.

There are numerous sides to any incident but the shaming of passionate students and the diminishing of the all too real struggles of the Indigenous peoples of North America should not be endorsed by any institution of higher education, especially those that operate as part of the public trust, a public of which there are many citizens of Native American heritage.

We thank you for your time and attention to this matter.


Dr. Lee Francis IV