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Co-Taught Indigenous Politics Course Brings Tribal Perspective to Pandemic

By Whitney Rich '20

Chuck Sams speaks at Whitman College in 2017.
CTUIR Director of Communication Chuck Sams gives a presentation during orientation at Whitman College in 2017. Sams is co-teaching Indigenous Politics with Visiting Assistant Professor Stan Thayne.

On a cold, early spring night this February, students from Whitman College and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) gathered in a classroom in the Nixyaawii Education Center for a presentation from Kat Brigham, the recently elected chair of the Board of Trustees for the CTUIR. She was there to teach the students about the importance of government-to-government collaboration.

“I like to say that I was drafted into politics. I would always ask questions. I was taught to ask questions and I am going to encourage you to do that as well,” Brigham told the class.

Brigham emphasized the importance of collaboration and the government to government relationship that the tribe employs when working with local, state, and federal governments 

“Working together through collaboration and partnership we can accomplish a lot. We push very hard for government-to-government consultation and collaboration,” she said.

Building a Spirit of Collaboration

The spirit of collaboration was demonstrated in the existence of the class itself: The course, Indigenous Politics 225, is co-taught by Chuck Sams, director of Communications for the CTUIR, and Stan Thayne, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies and politics at Whitman. Half of the 20 students in the course attend Whitman College, the other half are CTUIR students.

The course is taught at CTUIR’s Nixyaawii Education Center. The unique setting and format of the course has allowed for amazing collaborative learning experiences, and has also created distinctive situations — like when class was canceled in February because of flooding in Umatilla County.

Whitman student Claire Maurer ’21 of Scarborough, Maine, is a politics major with an interest in law. Since moving to Walla Walla to attend Whitman she has been interested in furthering her knowledge of the location and the particular law and politics of the area. When she first heard of the indigenous politics class, she knew it would be a great opportunity.

“The class is a way to get out of the college student bubble and realize there are contemporary issues around us,” Maurer said. 

The new Nixyaawii Education Center on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

COVID-19 Brings Indigenous History to Life

Before Whitman College announced the move to online teaching in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sams and Thayne had already made the decision to shift the course to an online format out of concern for the safety of students and the CTUIR community. 

That shift means scheduled guest speakers and field excursions to sites within the traditional CTUIR homeland were canceled. But it also opens up new opportunities for learning.

“The current situation does present students with a real-world education in the realities indigenous peoples have faced since their first contacts with European and American settlers,” Thayne said.

Disease epidemics are nothing new to tribal history. A measles epidemic in 1860 and cost the tribes close to 90% of their membership. Sams, who is now serving as head of the CTUIR’s COVID-19 response team, said the current happenings have brought new light on old information about epidemics and how people have responded in the past.

“It wasn’t because of genetics for the 10% that survived; it wasn’t because they were smarter than anyone else. They had just isolated themselves,” Sams said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “We had people who were away from this area, fishing at Willamette Falls. We had people who were at Buffalo during that time period, and then we had tribal members who had moved out of the larger encampment and isolated themselves. Those were the ones that survived. So we know isolation works. We’ve been explaining that to the tribal membership, that our history is repeating itself. And therefore, it’s imperative that you stay home, stay safe, stay healthy.”

In many ways, the CTUIR has been ahead of the curve with how they have dealt with COVID-19, Thayne said. They have ordered shelter-in-place and other actions prior to Oregon and Washington.

“The class continues online as a contemporary lesson in current indigenous politics — politics that are being lived today in an ever-changing world, but one that is also familiar to indigenous peoples like the CTUIR, who have been here before and will continue as they always have,” Thayne said. 

Creating a Co-Taught Course

The idea for a co-taught course began brewing in 2017 when Thayne first met Sams. The course was inspired, in part, by Thayne’s desire to offer more experiential learning opportunities in his courses and to collaborate and co-teach with the CTUIR. Sams was eager to teach the course with Thayne and to bring to the classroom his background of over 20 years of teaching American Indian history at schools such as Dartmouth, Willamette and the Yale School of Forestry.

Thayne, whose interests and research span the topics of religious identity, ethnography, settler colonial studies, borderlands and diaspora, earned his doctorate from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2016. Indigenous studies envelopes many subject areas, which has allowed him to teach a variety of courses in many departments. He has instructed courses for the religion, politics, anthropology and environmental studies departments at Whitman.

A few of these courses gave Thayne insight and field trip ideas for the Indigenous Politics course. His popular Politics of Salmon class takes students to Celilo Park and Celilo Village near The Dalles, Oregon, along the Columbia River. The site is of cultural and religious significance to the CTUIR, Nez Perce, and many other indigenous peoples of the Plateau. For centuries, indigenous people caught chinook and other salmon as they swam over Celilo Falls on their journey upriver. The waterfall is now submerged below the waters of the Columbia River due to the Dalles Dam and many others.

“Politics of Salmon, more than any other class, just really got us out doing lots of field trips and I was able to meet quite a few people with the tribes,” Thayne said.

This spring’s indigenous politics class is the first iteration of the co-taught course model. Thayne is planning a similar course in Fall 2020 about First Foods, co-taught with Modesta Minthorn, education director at CTUIR.

“I try to view my job in these particular classes not just or even primarily as teaching, but as facilitating experiences in the field where students can learn from others. I find experts on a variety of issues relating to fisheries, etc., and invite people to speak from their positionality, experience and indigeneity,” Thayne said. 

Tribal Board of Trustees Chair Brigham’s February discussion was an example of that in action.

She told the students about how the tribe is always thinking in terms of the future and the next generations when they are making political and financial decisions for the tribes. Brigham pointed out that this planning and collaboration is not always easy, but that by working together through the protocols and difficult processes, progress can take place.

“We can fight, we can really fight, or we can find areas in which we agree,” Brigham said. 

President Kathy Murray and Kathryn Brigham, secretary of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, sign the Memorandum of Understanding in June 2017.

Supporting a Memorandum of Understanding

Both Sams and Brigham emphasized that for the CTUIR and Whitman students, the experience and opportunity to learn about tribal politics in a classroom setting is unique.

“I didn’t learn about tribal treaties in school, I learned about them in court,” Sams said. “This is an exploratory class. Indigenous politics and the American Indian lifestyle isn’t static. We are always growing like any other culture. We are complex, and we are also separate from the American system.”

Making these opportunities available to both Whitman and CTUIR students is part of the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by Whitman College and the CTUIR in May 2017. It is a formal commitment to collaborate on developing curricula focused on Native American studies and to strengthen Native American recruitment and retention at Whitman. During the drafting of the MOU, indigenous student leaders and allies from Whitman’s Indigenous People's Education and Culture Club (IPECC) were able to meet with the MOU committee to talk to them about both the content and the process of writing the MOU. The MOU paved the way for the formation of the Whitman College and CTUIR Collaboration Committee, which coordinates work with the tribes. Part of the memorandum details desires to see members of the CTUIR as instructors of record at Whitman. 

Through all of these experiences, Thayne has met many CTUIR members that are now involved as guest educators and participants of the classes. 

Another resource that has made possible this unique learning opportunity is the Mellon Grant. This three-year grant is from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and aims to diversify perspectives and curriculum and promote community engagement.

“When I found out about the grant, it just seemed like a great opportunity to propose a class. I approached Chuck with the possibility of co-teaching and he was interested,” Thayne said. 

Sams and Thayne then proposed the co-teaching and guest speaker model to the funding committee for the Mellon Grant and were awarded the funds to teach both the spring Indigenous Politics class and a fall First Foods course, which Thayne will co-teach with Modesta Minthorn, education director for the CTUIR. 

Lydia Lapporte ’20, an art and environmental studies major from Lafayette, California, said the diverse class and unique format offers many opportunities for discussion and collaboration. Before the class moved online, the students participated in tribal cultural events, including the Celery Feast at the Long House. In January, they attended the “Looking for Tiger Lilly” performance by Anthony Hudson at Whitman. 

“The Whitman students are all full-time students, whereas the tribal students are a mix of undergrad, grad and working professions. So they are able to bring a real world application of indigenous politics and the Whitman students bring the variety of majors and studies that they are undertaking,” Sams said.

Thayne and Sams hope that more collaborative courses can be taught each semester. 

“If we could find a way to fund this so that it continues to take place and be co-taught, that would be great, and it would be a step in the right direction of fulfilling the MOU on a continuing basis,” Thayne said.

Published on Apr 13, 2020
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