Dr. Stephanie A. Sellers

Interviewed By: Samantha Cotter

        Dr. Stephanie A. Sellers is a Native American Studies (NAS) scholar who is a professor at Gettysburg College. She teaches in the English department, as well as the Women, Gender, and Sexualities studies and Interdisciplinary Studies programs. Dr. Sellers has a doctorate in Native American studies and an M.F.A in creative writing. She has published works on Native American studies including her second book, Native American Women’s Studies: A Primer. Her work has appeared in many journals such as Native Literatures: Generations, American Indian Culture & Research Journal, Calyx: The Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and Americana E-Journal of the American Studies Institute at the University of Hungary. She is a large contributor to the unrecognized field of NAS. I have had the pleasure of taking two classes from her in my time at Gettysburg College, including her introductory to Native American Studies. Her classes are made to expand the mind and question western knowledge. 

How do you approach taking down the incorrect idealizations that people have about Native Americans? More, how do you convince people what they have been taught their entire life is inaccurate?

Educating to decolonize and talking back to the pervasive colonial narratives about Native peoples, and the mainstream settler and academic ownership of those narratives, is an on-going endeavor for all Native American/Indigenous Studies scholars in the Americas. My approach in the classroom to addressing the stereotypes and misinformation is first to recognize the psychological resistance I will encounter from most of my students, understandably, because they have been learning throughout their K—12 education (even from the most prestigious private prep schools in the country) essentially that Native people are artifacts of the past to be studied in the anthropology and history departments and looked at in museum displays. They have also learned that George Washington is a hero, not a mass murderer called the Town Destroyer by Eastern Woodlanders. This can be a lot to take in for students, so I start slowly. Before my classes, students learn that “all the real Indians are dead and the few living today are assimilated”—this is a common line NAS educators hear. The curricular absences in the preparation of K—12 teachers is part of the problem. Two West-coast states have responded to this crisis by mandating Native education in their public school curriculums. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian plays a key role in filling gaps in the Native education of teachers through their Native Knowledge360 program. These recent changes/ programs give me considerable hope.

Outside the classroom is another story…I do not try to “convince” anyone about misinformation about Native people and, in fact, avoid those conversations that seldom (ever?) turn out well after meeting new people who inquire what I do for a living. To avoid getting into what will inevitably become a disturbing exchange, I just say “teach in the English department”…that usually ends the conversation, thankfully. The problem is due to most non-Native individuals’ sense of ownership over Native histories. For example, I have heard comments like “how can you teach Native American literature when Native people can’t write?!”—this was accompanied by hysterical laughter. The person making this comment was a college-level educator I had just been introduced to. I am lucky that 99% of my students at Gburg can and do welcome this learning.

What is your proudest contribution to the field of Native American studies?

Honoring iconic Native American Studies scholar and writer, the late Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo), in my most recent book I co-edited with Menoukha Case is particularly dear to me. Paula mentored me and advised my doctoral dissertation. She was a primary shaper of the NAS discipline who, because she was from a matrilineal Native nation, a woman herself, and a lesbian, has not received a fraction of the posthumous recognition that her deceased male Native peers in the discipline have received. Paula started the first courses in NAS at Berkeley and later at UCLA, and published the landmark work THE SACRED HOOP that has influenced generations of scholars and writers. She mentored key Native writers and helped launch their careers, like Joy Harjo, Mary TallMountain, LeAnne Howe, and, most notably, Leslie Silko. But even some Native people in the academy today do not want to recognize her because she was “too controversial”, meaning, too female, too outspoken about colonized-tomes by Native academics, and too lesbian.  The anthology I co-edited, that includes poetry and essays from some of the most important Native writers of the Native Literary Renaissance, recounts Prof Auntie’s legacy, and the writers join me in strongly memorializing her for posterity. Her book on Pocahontas was posthumously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. When the going gets tough for me as a NAS educator, I think of Paula for inspiration and strength. When she was inspired by my research and writing, she would call me and say “Great writing, girlfriend”…and when she didn’t, I got a long lecture and good guidance. Everything from her was treasure to me. I am lucky to be her final student, though she will never stop teaching the rising generations from the legacy she left. The book will make it less easy to ignore her, and I am proud of that.

Do you believe Native American studies will grow as a field, and possibly be offered as a major at more schools, including Gettysburg College?

There are approximately 130 Native American/American Indian Studies Programs in the U.S. at this time—a paltry number, certainly, but it is growing. The first graduate program offering the Ph.D. in NAS was at the University of Arizona in 1997. We still have a long way to go in my discipline, especially since many college-level educators apply the methodology, theoretical frameworks, and colonial mindset of their disciplines to the study and teaching about Native peoples as a “specialty” area in their fields. This only promulgates the colonial narratives, despite their best intentions to do otherwise. Offering undergraduate programs, as in a NAS minor, is a good way forward to address curricular absences, but appropriately trained faculty in those programs is important, if not critical, if such programs will succeed in not adding to the colonial narratives. 

 

What is your greatest piece of advice that you would give to someone starting a career in Native American writing? 

For students interested in studying any component of Native American Studies, I strongly encourage them to enroll in programs that include Native academics on the faculty or have faculty of any identity who can educate students from a position of honoring traditional Native knowledges and they had Native teachers. An Indigenous-centric, or Red Pedagogy, is imperative, as the meanings of Native literatures are only convulted when the tradition in English is applied to them or a feminist or social-justice stance. Very often, the ancient stories of Native peoples are respectfully taught by academics as relevant and important, to Native people at least, but they are not taught as being true. To Native people of the desert southwest, for example, the story of Spider Woman is not merely a relevant and important teaching, it is the true and lived experience of those nations stemming from their ancient creation stories that influences their decisions as nations today. As you know from our NAS course, Indigenous cosmologies recognize communal kinship networks that span eternity and interface across time in a concept of perennial existence—and this gets translated into tribal policies today. We don’t talk or think that way in American/ western culture outside of sci fi entertainment! At their core, traditional Native stories are living beings; again, we don’t talk or think that way in the literary tradition in English where those cultural concepts would be inappropriate, so studying with a Native-centric teacher who gets it is important.