Impartiality questioned?

July 20, 2017

As an educator, and Indigenous scholar, I sometimes have my impartiality questioned, like today.


Things have become very fluid in my life—a lot of decisions are being made quickly. My research through Fulbright is coming to a rapid close. I will be heading back to Oswego on August 11th; and preparing for fall classes to start on August 29th. A lot of writing lay ahead of me. I feel harried, but always willing to have conversations.


But I had to pen this entry. I am a little troubled by assumptions or implications made in a recent request for an interview—especially as an Indigenous Scholar. There was a statement made by a local reporter that has caused me pause and consternation. But, first some background on the issue at hand.


I will expound on my shock in a bit;—and as is my teaching style—I will let you, the reader draw your own conclusions as to my impartiality as an Indigenous scholar.


Tall Ships Visit

The Festival Ships will visit Oswego, here’s a link from  In particular, the Niña and Pinta will dock this weekend (July 21-22, 2017) in Oswego’s harbor.


The Neighbors of Onondaga Nation (NOON) are organizing an informational table at the H. Lee White Maritime Museum; who is hosting the tall ships this weekend.


Some have called the informational table a protest—from the Onondaga Nation. Yet, as the title of NOON shows—they are the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation—who work in consultation with many groups—especially the Onondaga Nation. Language and wording are important to me—as they should be to all.


Part of communities (yes, plural)

I have lived and worked in Oswego for fifteen years now. As an Indigenous academic, not only do I educate my students on the complexities and constructed arguments as they pertain to Indigenous studies,  I do a number of other things as well. I conduct interviews as an academic and indigenous scholar. I write articles, op-ed pieces, and of course, write this blog. All to raise awareness and ask questions—so I can better understand my own thinking sometimes.


My goal as an educator, Indigenous or not—is to present numerous perspectives of an issue—raise questions, and thus raise awareness through dialogue. But I attempt with every fiber of my being not to demand anyone subscribe to my positions or thinking. In fact, nothing excites me more than to be engaged with others in discourse. I have long prided myself on not causing students, colleagues, or the public to conform to my positions on any given matter—rather I am excited to partake in the dialogue and discourse of the subject matter. I’m a nerd, what can I say?


In fact, I take pride when a student asks me outright—what my position is on a given topic—especially the controversial ones. Because this means I have done my job as an educator. Do I have opinions? Of course, I do. Do I always agree with people’s assumptions, critiques, or positions? Of course not. But that is the moment where I raise questions in order to understanding how an individual or group has framed, learned, or constructed their position.


Sometimes, I amend my own views based upon careful thought and consideration—and research. Other times, I gently but firmly push back on what I believe to be problematic conclusions and statements or even language—implied or stated, when other materials, data, or arguments have long since disproven a particular stance or position. I try to accomplish this through questions—rather than accusations or declarative statements.


Engaging History

While many will embrace and enjoy the experience of the tall ships visiting Oswego again. And the crew and captain will try to answer questions about what it may have been like to experience life five hundred years ago aboard these replicated ships—thus fueling an excitement for learning and engaging history from a hands-on experienced point of view.  That is not all these ships “celebrate.”


The ships are a celebration of a long contested, complex, and negotiated past. One often filled with violence, slavery, and warfare—with proclamations of righteous conquest, defeat, and subjugation. A past that largely remains a mystery to far too many Americans and Canadians—but the lived outcomes, sadness, and painful memories are all too real for far too many Indigenous peoples, Nations, and communities today. And yes, sometimes there is even anger.


That is not all this visit will do. Certainly, we ought to be engaged and discuss the interpretation of historical events more thoroughly as Americans, Canadians, and Indigenous Nations. Can America or Canada as pluralistic multicultural societies, whom prides themselves on inclusion and celebrations of diversity afford to yet again exclude and silence the voice of Indigenous peoples; or their allies today?


Raising Awareness through dialogues

NOON as an organization seeks to raise awareness about issue Indigenous peoples, in particular, the Onondaga Nation face in day to day living. NOON operates from a position of raising awareness and educating the public on issues of social justice, historical accuracy, and of course raising difficult questions; engaged though dialogue and education. But NOON at times, also raises uncomfortable questions about the accuracy and attempts to engage the past—and how it is portrayed, understood, and engaged by non-indigenous societies at large.


Because NOON is fundamentally aware of the position of power and privilege they operate from, while Indigenous peoples and nations often are muted or silenced—and told to get over it (the past)—since it happened so long ago?  So, NOON raises awareness through informational tables, social media, and dialogue.


But as I’ve asked before—what if we remove decade and century from our thinking—and reframe it in terms of generational thinking?


This is in some ways, really no different than what the crew and captain of these replicated Niña & Pinta ships seeks to accomplish as well-except for one major point of view.


Groups, who are often allies of Indigenous peoples and issues, raise awareness and challenge the positions of power and privilege that historical enthusiasts like the crew & captain operate from in a desire to excite dialogue about our collective past. Which the enthusiast deems, “our shared past.”  But can our past be shared if one side is silenced, or muted, or told to “simply get over it?”


This can and does lead to conflict, heated exchanges; but in the end, hopefully discourse of a shared history—rather than a preference of one past over another.


What if we all seek to learn and engage history in all its good, bad, and sometimes ugly events and rhetoric?  Would we be then able to move away from the romanticized and mythologized past into a meaningful dialogue and discourse—even at times an uncomfortable conversation—that then would allow all to participate as equals in a cross-cultural co-existence?

Thing go askew

But here is where things went askew for me. As a longtime educator, and indigenous scholar, I create and build points of contact across the political and cultural spectrum. In cases like this, while I know people in NOON, I also know people in Oswego who have helped organize the Tall Ships visit.


And there are times where groups reach out to me, and ask something akin to, “Hey Kevin, we’re want to reach out to someone to create a dialogue and information table when the Tall Ships visit Oswego soon. Do you have anyone we could contact?”


So, as an educator and scholar, and community member of Oswego—I suggest x, y, or z person(s). And in cases like this, that people from NOON reach out to people at H. Lee White Maritime Museum and talk to each other.


In the end, an informational table was agreed upon by mutual interest of both parties—with nothing more than introductions or suggested place to start by me. I simply was a connection between peoples, cultures, and communities—as I think is my role as an Indigenous scholar and educator.


Emails Exchanged & Confusion Reigns

Now, flash forward to today—as I am working on a number of projects related to my research and Fulbright. I receive a request from a local reporter seeking an interview or referral regarding the tall ships visit, and NOON’s informational table. Here’s a quote from the reporter’s original email:

I’m working on a story about the visit of two Christopher Columbus ships to the Oswego Harbor. The Nina and Pinta will be available to the public this weekend, as will an informational booth from the Onondaga Nation.

They are part of a couple of protests in the region to the ship, arguing that Columbus discovered nothing and that people who visit the ships should also be informed about the Native American history in this country. 

My first email response was:

I would be happy to do the interview—if we can accomplish it over the phone. I am currently still away on Fulbright Research near Six Nations Community (Reserve) near Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

I feel I should also disclose that I suggested NOON (Neighbors of Onondaga Nation—has organized the informational table—not the Onondaga Nation to my knowledge) contact H. Lee White Museum…to set up the informational booth for the ships’ visit this weekend. Beyond initial connections points, my role has been very limited for these events—as I am away on Fulbright still.

However, as Director of Native American Studies at SUNY Oswego, a Mohawk scholar, and educator for 15-20 years in the field of Native/Indigenous Studies, I can contribute to the interview I believe.


Now comes the part that shocked me. And feeling unsure, I was at first flustered by the implication of this subsequent email. Then I became frustrated; but am striving to use this a case study in the inequity of assumptions and implications Indigenous scholars face continually.


The reporter’s response was akin to, “thanks, but can you recommend someone else?” To be accurate, here is the reporter’s response:

Thank you, sir, for your prompt response and offer!

While your credentials are ideal for this, I am looking for an impartial voice as I have already gathered interviews with representatives from NOON and the ship.

Is there anyone else here at SUNY Oswego whom you would recommend?

(*Emphasis added by me)


Impartiality questioned as Indigenous Scholar

As an Indigenous scholar, and even as a student, loaded and problematic language is and was often directed overtly and covertly towards me. But here is the thing to think about more deeply, and earnestly—my dear reader.


Are my corrections (NOON versus Onondaga Nation), and self-declared suggestion of being a mere contact point, in my initial response— cause for an overt questioning of my impartiality as an Indigenous scholar?


Or am I assumed to be inherently impartial simply because I am a scholar who is Indigenous–teaching, raising awareness, and challenging historical norms and stereotypes?


I wonder if this reporter would have questioned an American historian’s impartiality from a privileged and power position, as a professor of US History in the same manner the reporter challenged me?


Or would there simply be an assumption that an American historian is somehow more nuanced, balanced, or neutral in seeking to understand the collective past of diverse peoples and nations in the early colonial period—or better yet, neutral in why Indigenous peoples are seeking to raise awareness and participate in dialogues about what Columbus actually did to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas?


But an Indigenous scholar is somehow not impartial or nuanced because of this, that, or other reason?


See,to my exasperation and dismay;  my impartiality is questioned for the simple act of connecting interested parties who sought a valuable and important discourse and conversation—about Indigenous Peoples, Tall Ships, and Oswego.


I  see value in both NOON’s efforts and desires, and those of the tall ship’s captain and crews—both parties seek to excite a necessary conversation about the past.


Clips on engaging Columbus’ legacy

To end on some thought invoking videos of the past and present—here are some clips I use in my classes almost every term for dialogues such as this one.


Here is John Oliver raising the Columbus question in 2014:  Here is a video from 2009:  Here is a vintage cartoon I remember from my childhood–


(Clearly, John Oliver uses parts of the vintage cartoon—but then alters it to make an interesting point too).


Raising Questions to the end

And as an Indigenous scholar, and educator, I seek to raise questions and dialogues—yes, even the challenging and uncomfortable ones. I read and watch things happen, and attempt to understand what we all can learn through a variety of lenses, conversations, and events. And finally, as a Haudenosaunee person—I continually strive and seek to use Good Mindedness in my thinking, writing, and simply put—my existence.  Though sometimes I can be flinty too.


So, I leave it to you dear reader—here are perspectives from a number of angles. What is your conclusion—am I impartial as an Indigenous scholar simply because I make connections between people and communities?

Kevin J. White
Toronto, CA