An Indigenous Elsewhere: A Conversation with Sandy Grande




AT A TIME when too many rush to claim this mantle, Sandy Grande actually embodies what it means to be an “activist-scholar.” Sandy recently joined the political science department at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, and since then, I and my colleagues have been profoundly enriched and radically altered by learning from her. We have watched her work to transform institutional spaces that are much like many American universities: predominantly white and entrenched in settler-colonial structures. This energy of simultaneous disruption and transformation emerges from Sandy’s long-standing history of scholarship and activism within discourses of Indigenous pedagogy while attempting to carve out a space for Native American and Indigenous studies that continually resists epistemologies of erasure.

Sandy’s paradigm-shifting book, Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, which was published in 2004, exposed the limitations of a critical-educational theory that does not take the histories and concerns of Indigenous populations into account. She insists that scholars of critical pedagogy and American Indian studies must enter into productive conversation in order to build broader coalitions united in anti-capitalist and decolonization agendas. Red Pedagogy was so influential that a 10th anniversary edition was published, the new version rendered into a polyphonic text incorporating essays and commentary from a range of scholars in several disciplines.

Sandy is a considerate and loving caregiver to her 94-year-old father and a student-centric university professor, but she never takes her activist hat off, staying committed to organizing and movement-building work. In this conversation, we spoke about her growing up in a fiercely Quechua-identified family in Connecticut, her own experience of American education, and the futility of trying to decolonize the university today.

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BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: You describe yourself as a Quechua national who was born and grew up in the Connecticut area. Using your own life and upbringing as a sort of thread, could you speak about questions of nationhood, sovereignty, citizenship, and belonging as they play out in this settler colony, the USA?

SANDY GRANDE: Sure. I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, which is where I am at the moment. So, I haven’t gone very far. [Laughs.] Hartford has been and is a predominantly Black and Brown city. There’s always been a white population typically at the west end, but for the most part, it’s very Black and Brown, and also an immigrant city. Back when I was growing up, there was a lot of tension between the immigrant, Caribbean, Afro-diasporic community and African Americans or Black Americans, which was probably the largest population. But there was and continues to be a presence of Latinx immigrants mainly from Puerto Rico, as well as from other nations in the Global South. Growing up, my parents, especially my mom, very much identified as Quechua nationals. That was very important to her. People would ask her, “Where are you from?” and she would say, “Peru,” and they would say, “Oh, so, you’re Peruvian?” and she would say, “No.” Sometimes, she would feel like explaining that, and other times she wouldn’t. People would be very puzzled, but there was never a question in my family of who we were, which informed how we were excluded and understood as Indigenous peoples in Hartford. In other words, Peruvian nationals and most of the Latinx communities found ways to let us know that we were clearly not them. If you travel to Peru, Indigenous peoples are still considered to be at the very bottom of the social stratum. So, identifying as Quechua was very important to her. I had a sense of who I was in terms of this context, and also the betwixt-between.

Probably, it wasn’t until I went to college in Syracuse, New York, which is Haudenosaunee Mohawk territory, that I developed closer relations to Indigenous peoples located in what we now call the US. And there was such an immediate familiarity and much more immediate legibility. I was more legible than I had ever been in my life to any group. There was always a lot of explaining to do around here. In the Northeast, the genocide is real, you know? The Northeast US is the seed of empire, right? So, people aren’t used to Indigenous peoples. There’s such an erasure and invisibility both in Connecticut and the Northeast in general. My time in Syracuse was probably the beginning of my becoming very active in Native student organizations and all of that.

In Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, you say that this book is the dissertation you never wrote. You kept these ideas aside and then burst out with them when you had the freedom. What were the experiences in your own education, childhood, and so on that led you to those resounding insights?

Well, for starters, school was a nightmare from day one for me. When I teach students who want to become teachers, a lot of them say they love school and that’s why they want to teach. But there are always a few who didn’t love school. In these conversations, I usually start with the story of how I got kicked out of school on my first day in kindergarten and we go from there.

Really?

Yes. I never saw school as a place for me. At the time, I didn’t realize how much I was trying to follow my dad, but he’s an artist, and prior to that, he was a professional soccer player. I got to college through soccer, and I did art in college as well. I kept saying that, after I graduated, I would never go to school again. But I also felt very liberated in my first couple of years in college because I was basically playing soccer and taking art classes in these beautiful Gothic buildings. Syracuse is a nice campus, and they have these rooms with huge windows in the art studios. I thought, I can do this. I’m not tied to a desk in a classroom with fluorescent lighting and that attached table thing you can never really write on, it’s so restrictive.

And I stayed on that path until the summer I started working at a program at Wesleyan University for gifted students in the arts, for high school students. That was my first exposure to teaching. At the time there was basically two programs for the education of gifted children. One was at UConn and one was at Kent State in Ohio. I didn’t want to go back to Connecticut, so I just landed up in Kent, Ohio. Sight unseen! Initially, I really regretted it. But once there, I found my way and ended up in the program for the Cultural Foundations of Education and returned to much broader questions about school and schooling, and the question of why it was such a disaster for me. As an Indigenous person, school was a place that felt either violent or oppressive. So, I started to unpack all those questions and that’s sort of what led me …

To the book?

To the book — the dissertation that was going to be that book. But I’m glad it wasn’t. At the time, multicultural education was new and becoming a burgeoning industry, and yet I felt it did nothing to address the issues of Indigenous students or Indigenous education.

You use the word “violence” when speaking about school, and in your book, you identify education as a primary site of colonization. You write: “Indian education was never simply about the desire to ‘civilize’ or even de-culturalize a people, but rather, from its very inception, a project designed to colonize Indian minds as a means of gaining access to Indian labor, land, resources.” Can you unpack that?

One of my frustrations then and even now is how quickly when we start talking about Indigenous peoples and education, so many assume we mean culture and the realm of culture. In particular, at that time, multicultural education sort of operated on the assumption, “Oh, we all eat different foods and we all celebrate different things. We can learn about all that in school.” I was much more interested in the material analysis of what was beyond culture. What was the actual desire of colonizers when they encountered other “cultures”? And the desire, then and now, continues to be land. And so, I started to trace how it is that the civilizing project of Indigenous peoples started first as an educational initiative, mostly executed by white women who went West. How did schooling serve the ultimate project, which was to gain access to land? I started to trace that as one of my central questions. Part of the civilizing mission truly was to bring Indigenous peoples into the capitalist project and to abolish collectivities and, for sure, collective land holdings. And this was the curriculum, right? The curriculum, in so many ways, was and is about conscripting Indigenous students into individualism.

Private property.

Yeah, private property. And they thought that, if they gave Indians their own little plot of land like the rest of the “civilized” people, they could gain access to the “surplus” land. And Indians would relent and learn to be proper civilized subjects.

Yes, and you come at it by seeing education as a filter for those values or that consciousness. And I’m slowly nudging us into a conversation about the university. Your book was published in 2004, and it continues to be urgent and relevant with the anniversary edition. I do wonder if you are an autodidact. From what I can tell, the field is still fighting to be established. Native American Indigenous Studies (NAIS), if we want to call it that, is still fighting the system. It has not been canonized.

I’m 100 percent autodidact in so many ways. I don’t know that I should say this out loud, but even as a college student, the only academic class I had in my first year was English. They assigned the student athletes to a particular teacher. I’ll never forget this guy who wore a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and sandals in class. And we came in and had our little slip of how many classes we were going to have to miss for games and all that. And he was sort of like, “Sure, whatever you need.” We got the message that we didn’t really need to be there. And at the time, I thought, this is amazing, all I have to do is play soccer! It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a disservice that was. Writing is still such a struggle for me! I didn’t go to a good grad program, and so much of what I read and learn, I just had to teach myself or I learned through conversations with other people. So, it’s been challenging.

As a scholar, you are arguing against individualism and scholarship. Can we ever get out of that? How does one even shift that thinking?

It’s going to sound way too easy. I mean, you have to have a strategy and a plan to chip away at it in a really granular but persistent way. But there’s always another way. I think of the women of the Combahee River Collective who just did it and wrote as a group. And that was part of my inspirational thinking. And, you know, we do other things as collectives in movement work. And we do organizing work as collectives where we don’t always know the specific individuals, which functions as a form of protection. It just makes sense to me that we should do scholarly work in similar ways, particularly when we’re choosing to write dicey stuff. It makes sense to be part of collectivities for so many reasons.

One of things I was struck by in one of your articles was an argument about refusing the university. And it makes sense when you speak of undoing the individual as being important to that, for example. I also wonder how indigeneity reframes and decenters our existing analytics today. By this I mean race, gender, sexuality, the Global South, and so on. Most of us are very comfortable in those analytics, but what shifts when you put indigeneity into the mix?

I was thinking about this because I just read Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs with my class. It’s very rooted in Black feminism and I know your question was about indigeneity, but it does have certain resonances for me. We had a conversation about where knowledge comes from and who might be the teacher in this instance. It’s the marine animals and what we learn from them. And that’s one way in which Indigenous analytics changes things. It decenters the human. I know there’s a lot of that happening in different spaces right now, but that has been a part of indigeneity since time immemorial. It’s also important to think about this with the Land Back movement. It is taking land back, but it is also about taking seriously land as a relation or water as a relation and all other than human beings as our relations. It’s not just about how we care for these relatives. We start with an understanding that it is us who belongs to them, but what is it that they teach us about how to live in the world? So, the source of knowledge is completely different, and it is a radical decentering of the human.

I was thinking about that other question through the university. Coming on the heels of an authoritarian administration that took over the White House for four years, maybe the best iteration of the university, maybe it’s true horizon or the best version of itself, is in the form of the liberal university. I really don’t believe in the project of decolonization for the university. It’s an institution and site that stands for the ideals of the nation, whether it’s freedom of speech or belief in the liberal arts, all of that stuff. But if it ever was actually that, if it actually lived up to its own vision, that would still be better. I know there’s been a lot of conversation about conflating fascism and liberalism and whether they lead us to similar places. There’s a lot of collapsing of things, but I do think there’s a difference, there is a distinction that makes a difference between fascism and liberalism as much as I don’t like either as a political project. But there is a difference, and I thought that especially at this time when fascism is so much more readily apparent to a wider scope of people as a kind of dog barking at our heels, maybe the best thing that the university can do to is become the place that holds down the liberal front. And the decolonial project happens, as always, somewhere else.

Oh, okay, so now that shifts my future questions!

[Laughs.] I mean, I just don’t know, and I worry about it. And I’ve written about this in other places. For example, there was this intervention when Indigenous students would talk about their dissertations as “ceremony,” and I was like, I don’t know. I always feel conservative when I think like this, but I think the dissertation is a dissertation, and ceremony is ceremony. I don’t need them to be the same thing. You know, I can learn from both things.

Yes, of course.

Quechua peoples are very syncretic, and it’s even built into the language. They have concepts that would never exist in English, where it’s really about coexistence and tensions as constitutive and productive. I don’t need everything to be the same thing.

So, tell me again about the university “holding down.” I like this idea. In another essay, you say “refuse.” In a way, you know, there’s an unsettling, a decolonizing process that is happening, though not in the exact way we wish. It does feel like US universities have become so unmoored. In the last few years, we know that decolonization became a big buzz word, and it has basically turned into diversity — decolonization has become diversity. We don’t ask questions past the diversifying. Then the other critical term that also rolls off everybody’s tongue very easily is that the university is a neoliberal institution. We have all these terms at hand which nowadays aren’t helping, but you’re envisioning something else. Is there some dream scenario in your head? What does holding down entail, for example? How can I do that? How can you do that?

When I dream or in my imaginings, my horizons are definitely outside of the university. It is what it is. I appreciate it when people push this question of reform and I benefit from that work. People have written about the multi-versity and if we move from the uni- to a multi-versity that might be an improvement.

Yes, but how?

This is a genuine question and the reason why, at some point, I decided it’s just exhausting labor because it never really shifts anything. I feel like the university has a default setting, like on our computers. The default setting for the nation is the settler history it refuses to contend with. I really do believe its attendant institutions — the university, the church, etc. — are designed to support settler futurity. We see it over and over and over in the rhetoric and actions. So, when something is the default setting, I think you can move the needle a little. You can change the settings temporarily, but the default means that, at some point, it’s going to revert back.

We all saw this most emphatically when a whole crew of people believed so much in the Obama administration and the changes that were happening — the Yes, We Can! Change we can believe in! Those same people experienced the shift to Trump as so radical and so unmooring, as you say, and so dehumanizing in such a short span of time. I’ve experienced that same thing at the university where you have one president and a leadership team who are moving along, you know, doing the work, diversifying or creating more equity. And then, somebody comes in and it’s a brand-new plan. “I’m president now. I’m the decider.” And then you see all the work quickly disappearing. And so, living that and witnessing it at the level of the state and witnessing and living through it at institutions, I just wonder about our labor. If we’re ever going to create lasting change, then I think we have to continue to build elsewhere.

There is a way in which Indigenous peoples tend to talk about Indigenous futures that are different. For example, in the Black scholarly tradition, there are often references to a project of radical imagining or a project of fugitivity, indicating that you have to leave something behind. And I often think that approach reveals a lot about our imbricated but also distinctive histories. Not all but many Indigenous peoples still have the possibility of their nations, which have survived. You know, maybe not exactly as they were, but you have the knowledge of your ancestors. They’ve been afforded that at least — genocide wasn’t complete. They might have been moved, relocated, removed, and more, but they still have a nation to call their own. The removal project and disconnection for Black peoples was quite different.

I don’t know how I wound up there other than to say that if I’m going put my labor somewhere, it will be outside of settler institutions and in my own community, peoples, and Indigenous nations more broadly … And there’s other projects too. I’m part of an effort in New York, working with the folks of Decolonize This Place, and have joined the #StrikeMoma effort, which is working to think beyond the museum as a site of colonization. I feel like I can contribute something to all those efforts. It’s a much more conscious, calculating approach to where I put my labor.

And there’s also the general pessimism around US educational institutions, right?

Settler institutions, I would say, because they’re just designed to support that system and to see that system continue. There’s clearly a rupture happening and that will continue to happen. Nothing is forever, right? Empires fall. So, it will happen at some point.

Yeah, that is such a good answer. Coming back to your book, I have two questions. First, could you rehash your critique of identity politics or what you call the “identity paradox” for Native Americans? And I mean this question for today because I know you wrote it first in 2004.

So much of identitarian politics has been taken over and it no longer resembles how the women of Combahee talked about identity politics or even Audre Lorde or some other folx. It’s shifted and so much of it centers the individual and the human in ways that I don’t think are helpful for the overall political project, not a decolonial project, anyway. If that’s the starting point — the individual — then, to me, you’re already defeated. Whereas if you start elsewhere, with care for land, care for water, then it would be different. It’s just so wrong. And I don’t get it because we’re facing total disaster, right? Whatever we do politically, we’re poised to not have clean air and water in the near future, and there’s still an inability to center something outside of ourselves. I don’t know what it is, I just don’t know what it is! I’m not sure if that’s helpful in terms of what you’re thinking about.

Yes, I do think it’s helpful and I really loved that chapter. But let me move on to your very delicious chapter where you say, “I’m not a feminist. Rather, I’m an Indígena.” You are a very critical of feminism, white feminism, mainstream feminism. But I know that you understand the stakes of using the critical lens of gender. What is your critique and what does a better feminism look like?

Yeah, I like that. I like the way you parse the question, actually, because for feminist politics, the stakes couldn’t be higher, right? Within Indigenous communities, with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), with questions of climate too and the man-camps around the different pipelines, the feminist project is a life-and-death issue.

The tension for me is when … and it’s like this with everything: when you identify as a Marxist, or you identify as a feminist. And I always think of my mom, I guess. She had an identity: “I’m a Quechua national.” That’s what she is, and I think that’s who I am. And it’s different. Do I read Marx and Marxist scholars? Of course. And I learn quite a bit. Do I read feminist scholarship? Of course. But it always comes down to naming who I am and what I do within those schools of thought. And somehow it feels assimilative to identify as something else, because I think our way of understanding the world precedes all of those projects, right? The tension is all about how I understand my own entry points into the work.

There’s now a whole field of Indigenous feminisms and great women that work within that frame whom I talk about in the revised version of the book. They are doing the work of how mainstream feminism can learn from Indigenous feminism. And similarly, it is about decentering. In particular, it is about other than human relations and what that valence may add to the conversation.

Is there a kind of divide between settler-colonial states that have histories of removal, relocation, renaming, and other extreme measures versus those differently structured as in India or Kenya where there might not always be removal or relocation. Many groups have been severely underdeveloped and are continually brutalized in all these places. So, is there a divide — theoretically or in terms of solidarities — between those types of indigeneity?

There’s a divide in the literatures, yes, and there always seems to be, unfortunately. But I do think now, more than ever, that there’s a commitment in the field to think across these lines and there’s folx leading that charge. And I think it’s absolutely critical. I got a question just the other day about the Kurds and how they might fit into a connected global Indigenous project. And people doing work in Palestine and Kashmir have been in conversations about building global solidarities. Probably, some of the most important conversations happening now are among peoples thinking about the crossroads, distinctions, intersections, the points of coalition and solidarity. And then, in what we now call the US, there’s also people doing that work between Black and Indigenous peoples, about the specificities of the history of the settler state. And those conversations, to me, are the most exciting and generative.

You’re talking a bit about technology and increasing solidarities today. Do you think there have been any shifts in the popular narrative of Indigenous people? Not just in the US but more broadly? I can only think of the commercial aspect and what looks like fetishizing sometimes, but maybe there’s a deeper answer.

On the level of pure optics and public discourse, it is important, especially when the erasure has been as profound as it has been in the US. I think, post–Standing Rock, more people in the US now know that Native peoples are still alive. I mean, that’s how low the bar is! People are super-critical of the limits of things like land acknowledgments, but that practice has at least raised the consciousness of people, lessened the erasure.

I remember one time in class we discussed a case where Geronimo was referenced in public discourse, when the code name for the military action to apprehend Osama bin Laden was nicknamed Geronimo. I walked into class and I was not happy and went on a bit of rant. But the students were just staring at me and not quite sure what to say. Finally, one student raised their hand and sheepishly asked, “Professor Grande, who is Geronimo?” I asked, does anyone know who Geronimo was? And no one knew! I said that it’s okay and told them they weren’t meant to know who Geronimo is, their schooling was designed so that they would not know. And I think about that and about Indigenous history all the time. Particularly here in the Northeast, it’s hard to hold people accountable on some level because the erasure is so profound. I mean, you can but they truly weren’t meant to know Indigenous history.

So, the problems and debates continue. There was a big campaign recently to have Jeep not use the name “Cherokee” anymore, and they’re like, “Yeah, we heard you, but we released a whole new line of Jeep Cherokees!”

But you’re saying there is some visibility, and even if the bar is low, you feel like there are some positives.

Yeah. Even with the recent consternation around the acronym BIPOC, which started in Canada as a way for Black and Indigenous communities and their distinctive histories to be more visible. But it’s fascinating because, in the US, people still don’t know what the “I” stands for. Some don’t say Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color and just say the acronym as one word. So, it still gets erased, but at least there is some disentangling and folks raising the question of why we use BIPOC now. Sometimes I’ll even see a conversation on Twitter where someone will say, “The ‘I’ is supposed to be Indigenous.” And so even in a frustrating conversation like the one on the use of acronyms, the “I” is being registered and it matters.

That’s a good answer because, for me, one of the projects is to not let them take away or kill decolonization. As in, you can’t take all the good things away. I mean, yes, go ahead and co-opt and tweet and influence or whatever. All that is fine, but part of it is also that my book series on the subject is trying to take the conversations outside of the discourses of the university and to think about embedded coloniality in lifestyles, coloniality in places you didn’t think of before. So, it’s good to be reminded, in a way, that one need not throw it out every time that there is some trend and dilution taking place. It’s not always useless.

Yeah, I think it all serves a purpose on some level.

We have come up with a kind of Proust questionnaire for this final section. We will be asking these same questions of everyone we interview for the series. So, first, what would you DECOLONIZE?

Well, when it comes to decolonization, I always think that you can’t decolonize something that hasn’t first been colonized. And I understand those terms in very traditional ways. I don’t know that you can decolonize the syllabus, for example, because the syllabus has never really been colonized. I mean, literally colonized. If that’s my entry point, my immediate answer is the settler state or what we now call the US, including and beginning with giving land back to Indigenous nations, including Hawaii. That would be the starting point.

Well, that’s a big one. Perhaps the only one, I feel, sometimes.

The response is often like, “Oh, we’re sorry for all of the colonization, but we can’t do anything now.” It’s interesting to see the limits of the settler imagination because all these things seem impossible to them. But the impossibility of how we live today somehow isn’t a problem.

What would you DEFUND?

Everybody’s talking about defunding the police right now. But I would go broader than that, and I’m torn between extractive industries — which, if broadly defined, could be almost everything, including education. But by extractive industries, I mean the traditional ones like oil, gas, etc. At this moment, though, I would probably go with the military-industrial complex. It would include the police, but absolutely the military and the entire carceral system. I think the last time I looked, it was something like, you know, over $750 billion that we spend on defense. And that does not include the police. The police are like $100 billion. And prisons are close to that or just below what we spend on the police. It’s insane. It’s insane.

So, if you think about defunding all of that and what that would then free up. It’s so taboo in this country to talk about the military in any way that isn’t …

Revered.

Yeah, genuflecting, but I don’t even know that the people who defend military spending, and taking care of veterans, of course, understand the scope of it. As in, what we spend is something more than the next 10 nations combined. Not even alone but combined. So, if you look at a graph, you would see the United States spending and then everybody else. It’s definitely a place to start.

What would you ABOLISH?

I would say capitalism because, if I start with the settler state and then defund the military, the next thing to go would be capitalism. And I’m not sure of the exact number anymore, but the number of billionaires has ballooned during the pandemic. We’re all supposedly worried about the economy, but billionaires have actually increased. We’re at an all-time high, in the US anyway. I don’t know if that’s true globally too. Right now, there are over 600 billionaires in the United States.

They’re getting richer as we speak.

Yeah, as we speak. So, yes, I would abolish capitalism.

And much like the secular state, this is another area where the imagination immediately becomes limited, so that you can’t imagine an alternative or a beyond. So, it’s important to say. It has to seep in, at least, as an idea.

It’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than the end of the capital. It’s like, hey, we’re running out of water, but capitalism has to stay!

Absolutely.

We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.

First, “Expansions” by Lonnie Liston Smith.

Then the second is a gospel song called “Grateful.” I try to listen to it first thing in the morning when I sit down at my computer to remind myself that there are things to be grateful for.

The third song is “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.

Thank you, Sandy.

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Bhakti Shringarpure is associate professor jointly appointed in English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. She is the co-founder of the Radical Books Collective.

 

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