Dr. Shannon Speed is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. She received her PhD in anthropology from the University of California – Davis and represents an inspiring activist-intellectual. Dr. Speed currently directs the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and serves on the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Additionally, she is a well-published academic working as an associate professor in gender studies and anthropology at UCLA. Her research centers on the topics of indigenous politics, legal anthropology, human rights, neoliberalism, gender, indigenous migration, and activist research. Dr. Speed has received numerous awards for her activist efforts, such as the 2013 Chickasaw Dynamic Woman of the Year Award and the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the State Bar of Texas Indian Law Section.
In addition to an accomplished resume, Dr. Speed was selected as the interview subject due to her unique theoretical contributions within indigenous politics and focus on activist research. Specifically, Dr. Speed emphasizes the politics of knowledge production while highlighting the importance of the research process. Some important theoretical contributions made by Dr. Speed include a focus on human rights and discourse as a form of resistance, the relationship between indigenous women’s rights and neoliberalism, as well as applying an intersectional analysis to examine gender violence against indigenous women migrants. I aspire to analyze similar topics while researching American women through categories of race and gender. These contributions can potentially be utilized when establishing theoretical approaches central to this topic.
Interview Questions and Answers by Dr. Shannon Speed:
Conway: As a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, what were the main influences from your cultural background that inspired or guided your academic work? What were the main obstacles or challenges introduced by being Chickasaw?
Speed: Being a tribal citizen has given me a life-long concern for Native issues, particularly issues of social justice. Having grown up with an understanding of the profound injustice that this country is founded on in terms of settler-generated genocidal policies (and the ways those were extended out to other countries through imperialism), the direction of my academic interests was not surprising. I think I am fairly unusual in that as a U.S.-based tribal citizen, I work with indigenous people from Latin America. I think that it is wrong to embrace settler-imposed nation-state boundaries that divide the indigenous people who populated this continent prior to European arrival. Indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere have far more in common than we have differences and united we are stronger.
The “challenges” question is a little harder to get at. As a light-skinned, white-passing Native, I do not suffer the overt racism that many of our people do. Because of the fields I circulate in (Anthropology, Native Studies, Gender Studies, Latin American Studies), I have also suffered little overt discrimination based on being Native. To the extent that I suspect any, it was in anthropology, though I experienced much more obvious opposition as an activist researcher.
I did find it a challenge, however, working in Zapatista communities, and identifying as Native. It just seemed preposterous there, in a context in which I comparatively enjoyed every kind of privilege (as a gringa, a guera, a PhD student, etc.) to claim indigenous sisterhood. In most communities, I waited until I knew people well to even mention it, which felt weird with such a fundamental aspect of my identity. It was interesting, though, to think across those lines.
Conway: How does being an academic (and comprehensively understanding the way research is conducted on/about Native peoples) assist or influence your other projects – such as serving as a council member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association or co-chair of the Otros Saberes/Other Knowledges section of the Latin American Studies Association?
Speed: Otros Saberes was founded, as the name indicates, to take a decolonizing step within Latin American Studies, which remains a profoundly colonized discipline, by asserting the value and authority of other (indigenous and afro-descendant) forms of knowledge and knowledge production, as part of collaborative knowledge production. So, certainly, my understanding of the often neo-colonial aspects of research on/about indigenous peoples, including what knowledge gets valued and who gets the credit/benefit, was fundamental to this.
NAISA, as a Native association, is different because, for the most part, people in this field are Native, or at least are cognizant of the issues regarding research, and have a commitment to knowledge production that benefits Native peoples. Indeed, it was this knowledge that led people to recognize the need for the creation of the association a few years back. I think the understanding of the problematics of research on/about Natives and the need for better forms is at the very heart of NAISA as an enterprise.
Conway: In an interview with Vine Deloria Jr. in 2004, a central theme of his work emerged as “whether Indians should be allowed to present their side of the story or will helpful and knowing whites be the Indians’ spokespeople.” As an anthropologist, do you think Indians have come to represent themselves adequately? Do Indigenous scholars still encounter resistance from “helpful and knowing whites” who would like to remain the primary spokespeople for Indians?
Speed: I think we are on the path. There are more Indians in academia now than there were in 2004. However, there is a significant distance still to go. We don’t have nearly enough Indians in higher education in general, and in anthropology in particular. There are of course a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Indians know the pernicious role anthropology played in the colonial project, and are disinclined to engage in this discipline. Vine Deloria Jr also famously said, in 1969, “But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists.” That stuck with us.
Anthropology has also become more sensitized to the critique and the need to engage indigenous people as actual living, agentive, intelligent beings. There is a lot of good collaborative work being done by white anthropologists. Of course, there is still a lot of retrograde work being done on (as in over) indigenous people, with a remarkable degree of arrogance, including from folks who would understand themselves as nice liberals who want to “help us.” That is definitely still out there in anthropology.
Conway: Some of your methodological approaches, such as critical engagement in activist research, are an example of how Native scholars adopt techniques used to convey and contribute to what is coined “traditional knowledge”. What are your thoughts regarding Native scholars who adopt or refuse to adopt specific methodological styles in the hope of acceptance in the mainstream of the academy? Does the refusal to adopt certain traditional techniques undercut the legitimacy of Native scholars in non-academic Native settings?
Speed: This is a tough question. I think we all have to find our own path, and for some this will mean adopting classic disciplinary methods in order to gain acceptance in their field. I wouldn’t want assert that they are doing something wrong. It’s just that they aren’t contributing to the decolonization of the discipline. For some, the goal is not decolonizing, it is just belonging. The latter, however, isn’t likely to gain them much appreciation in non-academic Native settings, since that type of individualism isn’t generally our way.
Conway: As a feminist scholar myself, my work engages with theoretical debates centered on Western patriarchal values. For instance, I draw on the work of bell hooks, Pamela Conover, and Iris Marion Young to examine the boundaries of feminist consciousness. Are inequalities between men and women within Indian nations identified and addressed through distinct Indigenous resources and in ways that draw on non-Indigenous ideas and models?
Speed: Absolutely. There is of course a strong literature in indigenous feminism (Mishuana Goeman, Shari Huhndorf, Devon Miheshua, Haunani-Kay Trask, Joyce Green, Kim Anderson, Cheryl Suzack, Myrna Cunningham, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Qwo-Li Driskall, Jodi A. Byrd, Kehaulani Kauanui, Jean O’Brien, Kate Shanley, Noenoe Silva, Kim TallBear, Jacki Rand, etc.) that is also engaged with non-indigenous feminisms such as the theorists you name (and Kim Crenshaw, etc.), while bringing an analysis of settler colonialism, imperialism, and of course, white feminism.
There is also a great deal of organic theorizing being done by indigenous women who are organizing in struggle. Zapatista women have theorized triple oppression from their own unique experience; Mayan women in Guatemala have theorized gender parity and the role colonialism played in defining patriarchy in its current form in indigenous communities. Native women in the U.S., such as Maureen White Eagle, have done fantastic work on gender from their locations as domestic violence advocates, as well.
Conway: You have been recognized by the Chickasaw Nation as an Indigenous community leader who values advocacy through service and scholarship. How do you combine service and scholarship? Which of your academic or political projects are you most proud of or do you deem most important? Why?
Speed: This is a question I am often asked by graduate students who hold engaging in activism while becoming academics as a goal. My perspective is that these should not be two separate things that we find a way to combine, but rather they should be one thing. Our knowledge production and pedagogy are our activism, and our activism is our knowledge production. Producing knowledge is, of course, a profoundly political act. That’s why it is important, at least for me, that our products serve the people we work with and for. Indeed, I would say that for me there is not even a possibility of doing academic work that isn’t activism, no teaching that isn’t designed to generate critical thinking that could and should lead to future activism. So, I don’t really have projects per se that I would be proud of. It is just my way of being (and being an academic) in this world.
I would add that I believe the most fundamental act we can engage in as feminists is to consciously build healthy, respectful relationships with everyone around us (including the folks who don’t get us and don’t behave in a way that merits respect). It might seem simple and mundane, even a capitulation, but I think it is the hardest and most profound thing we can do in life. Can you respect everybody for where they are right now, even if you disagree with it, and meet them there in a healthy way? I feel it is a crucial part of my work, each and every day.
Conway: Your journal article, “Limiting Indigenous Autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico: The State Government’s Use of Human Rights,” that was published in 2000, highlights the importance of evaluating human rights discourse according to the intentions of social actors that enforce these norms and practices. Specifically, you show that enforcement of human rights can, in certain contexts, constitute another form of colonialism. For current and future generations, what should be priorities in addressing the ongoing violation of human and civil rights in Chiapas?
Speed: Yes, I would even go so far as to say that enforcement of human rights on indigenous peoples is almost always colonialism. It is a Western concept and a Western set of laws and norms, imposed by Western settler states on colonized peoples. The question you raise is the crucial one: how do we stop the ongoing violation of such rights or, more importantly, how do we stop violence, discrimination, and injustice in the indigenous communities of Chiapas (or anywhere else)? Is human rights activism the only way? I think the Zapatistas have answered that question by building their autonomy and their “good life” outside the realm of the state. There is a fundamental contradiction in asking the state to protect us when, in most cases, it is precisely the state that we need protection from. Asking the state to grant us rights only (or mainly) reinforces state power.
Carolyn Conway is in her third year of the political science doctoral program at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests include feminism, political psychology, political participation – specifically voting behavior, intersectionality theory and mixed methods research. Carolyn plans to produce dissertation research involving the 2016 election, examining participation based on racial and gender categories.