In recent years, scholars have shed a bright light on the lack of representation of diverse people and cultures in university and college curricula. This shortcoming harms not only Indigenous students, but non-Indigenous ones as well. Among the many people urging change are Alexandria Tafoya, a creative writing major at The University of Tulsa, and TU English alumnus Mason Whitethorn Powell (BA ’17).
Tafoya and Powell’s insights and recommendations appear in the latest issue of the scholarly journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction (ECF). Their essays were originally intended to be oral presentations made during a panel on academic approaches to Native American topics at the 2020 conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in St. Louis. When this gathering was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to publish their views in ECF arose. Being Indigenous themselves, Tafoya and Powell seized the opportunity to tell their stories as Indigenous students and how they believe representation can be improved.
“I am proud of Lexie and Mason for having the confidence to join in a conversation among established scholars of the importance of Indigenous studies,” said Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens. “Together, their ECF essays deliver a powerful, compelling call to universities to devote more attention to teaching and exploring Indigenous literature, culture and history.”
Coming from a mixed Tsalagi (Cherokee), Mexican and Irish background, the need for Indigenous representation has always been important to Tafoya. In her essay “The Importance and Power of Indigenous Representation in Literature,” Tafoya recalls the few pieces of Native American literature she has encountered during her academic career: “Anything I did hear or read depicted Native Americans as the only Indigenous people, and we only made appearances through colonial and conquistador perspectives.”
Powell’s experience from his time as an undergraduate was much the same. “Apart from Professor Stevens’ inclusion of Indigenous topics in her English literature courses, and several courses in the anthropology and history departments, there were no opportunities to focus on Indigenous literature or culture,” he writes in his essay “Witnessing the Reversal of Indigenous Erasure: My Undergraduate Experience.”
Powell comes from an Osage background. He has close ties to his heritage through his relationship with his grandfather, who is full-blood Osage, and whom he has been helping take care of amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue of Indigenous representation is not only academic for him; it is also personal: “Being someone who does have an Indigenous background and heritage, it’s not only a research topic, it’s who I am.”
Decolonization through inclusion
Tafoya and Powell agree that universities should start implementing changes to their curricula to make them more inclusive of Indigenous histories, cultures and perspectives. “We should definitely add more Indigenous works and studies into academic agendas,” noted Tafoya. “Even in cases where readings or sections involving Indigenous people can’t be included, discussions certainly can be held.”
“Everybody has to take literature classes, even if they’re not studying English or the humanities as their main discipline. Why couldn’t one include a novel, a book of poems, a play or a film by a Native American?”, asked Powell.
Folding Indigenous topics and materials into university curricula is, Tafoya and Powell argue, an essential step in the process of decolonizing American universities. Adding such content would help to create a more diverse educational environment in which Indigenous students would find themselves represented and non-Indigenous students would become better informed and aware of Indigenous cultures.
“Decolonization does not mean to ‘cancel’ non-Native European and early American literature we know and love,” Powell clarified in his essay. “It means adding Indigenous literature, addressing the ways in which it is often overlooked or misunderstood, and exploring how it relates to a canon that at times overshadows but can even come across as purposely anti-Indian in its subject matter.”
The voices of Indigenous students will not, Tafoya and Powell point out, be sufficient to spur on and implement these changes. These scholars emphasize that genuine change relies on non-Indigenous students and professors being open and willing to discuss this content and boost the Indigenous presence. In Powell’s view, humanities professors “can definitely expose students to Native American works and educate themselves. It’s very important to teach that because it’s not only who I am, but who we are as Americans and our past.”
When speaking about what non-Indigenous people can do to help, Tafoya remarked, “we can’t always depend on the surface. It’s a responsibility to read Native American authors and to listen to Natives in our communities and lives. Especially listen to the Native people in your life. I cannot stress that enough. We may have some shared experiences, but we live unique and complex lives. History is still being made, so don’t just stop at reading.”
Decolonization through independent research
Tafoya and Powell are also working to raise Indigenous voices through independent research they are conducting or have conducting in the past through the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC). This popular TU effort allows undergraduate students to conduct research with the guidance of a professor on a topic of their choice.
Stevens has mentored both Tafoya and Powell on TURC projects. “Working with students — individually and in small groups — as they pursue intensive research counts among my favorite and most rewarding experiences as an educator,” said Stevens.
During his time at TU, Powell researched the history of his tribe. “My time with Professor Stevens was amazing. She really encouraged me to follow my research path and really helped to build up that research.” Powell encourages current students to follow their passions and see whether they can create a TURC project.
Tafoya is currently working with Stevens on a TURC project dedicated to researching the young women who attended TU’s predecessor, the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls, which was a small boarding school founded in Muskogee in 1882. Her TURC research is only the first step for Tafoya, who intends to use her creative writing degree to bring more to Indigenous representation through her fiction writing.
After taking the last few years to work as a freelance writer in Oklahoma and Italy, Powell plans to return to school. He was recently accepted into the University of Miami School of Law and is waiting on other applications before he makes his final decision. His family and tribal background helped him to make the decision to attend law school so he can continue to educate himself on Indigenous matters. Down the road, he intends to study international law and assist tribal nations or do advocacy work.
Do you have a research idea that would be perfect as a TURC project? Reach out to your advisor or visit the TURC site for more information.