All too often, the subjects observed in anthropological studies are not in control of their own story. However, authors like UC Santa Cruz anthropology professor Renya Ramirez are changing the trend, putting the observed in charge of their own examination.
Frustrated with the attempts of non-Natives to tell her grandparents’ story, Ramirez published Standing Up to Colonial Power: The Lives of Henry Roe and Elizabeth Bender Cloud in December 2018. Ramirez wrote with the intention to combat criticisms of her grandparents and instead highlight the successes of their activism.
“Basically, non-Natives had decided to write about my grandparents, but of course didn’t really get at that family perspective or the tribal perspective,” Ramirez said. “This was something that was frustrating for our family.”
Roe and Cloud were members of the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe tribes of Nebraska and Minnesota. They were intellectual leaders who worked to change government policies threatening Native rights during the first half of the 20th century. One of their most significant contributions to the Native community was founding the American Indian Institute, a college preparatory school for Native men in Wichita, Kansas.
The school did not promote revolutionary activism and, as a result, was criticized for not being radical enough in its teachings. Instead, the school taught Native men how to become “Christian Warriors” educated in the tools of the dominant culture to fight it from within.
“This movement that happened in the school was an important beginning,” Ramirez said. “It was an important consciousness for these young men to be proud of who they were as Native people and to learn how to fight back against the government.”
Being a woman of Native descent, Ramirez writes her book from a historically underrepresented group within the anthropological field. Most studies that examine Native communities are done by non-Native anthropologists. Having a personal stake in her research gives Ramirez an insider perspective rarely present in her field. Books like Ramirez’s combine critical examination with a personal vulnerability seldom seen, bridging the gap between insider and outsider.
“Professor Ramirez’s point of view as well as her analysis are both equally important,” said anthropology department chair Nancy Chen. “She offers not just an Indigenous perspective to the significance of the work of her grandparents, but she offers a scholarly perspective too.”
By being a professor, Ramirez contributes to the development of future anthropological thought. In sharing her unique perspective with students, she helps form a new mode of thought for future anthropologists. Students and readers of her book will have a more complete picture of approaches to fighting colonialism and will be more aware of how colonialist forces affect their own perspectives.
“Obviously, having Native people directly determine anthropological research programs and methods can help to assure a level of accountability that was generally absent in the past,” said Ramirez’s former student, Daniel Schniedewind in an email.
In developing her book, Ramirez felt a profound sense of pride in her grandparents and was grateful for the opportunity to present their story to the world. Through their activism, Ramirez’s grandparents helped foster generations of progress for Native people and did so during one of the most difficult times for Native people in history of the U.S.
“I feel a tremendous amount of respect for my ancestors that they were able to stand up to colonial power during very difficult times,” Ramirez said. “That gives me strength every single day to do the very best work I can do and try to support others while we’re living through a very challenging time, a very colonial time. Learning from our ancestors gives us the strength to keep going.”