From the Desk of John Goodwin: Leadership in Native Intellectual Activism

John Goodwin received his PhD in History from Arizona State University. He is a Subject Expert Teacher at BASIS Phoenix in Arizona. He teaches U.S. history, Native American history, and an interdisciplinary research and writing course. His new book, Without Destroying Ourselves: A Century of Native Intellectual Activism for Higher Education, is now available.

Recently, one of my students approached me and asked if I’d speak for a student organization’s upcoming meeting on the topic of “leadership.” Of course I was flattered, and eager for the opportunity to contribute, but as soon as the student left the room, a bit of panic washed over me. Leadership? I’m a historian. We like to sit back, to see how things unfold, to contemplate continuities over the course of decades or centuries, or to identify crucial moments of change based on careful research and the benefit of hindsight. Rarely do we leap into the fray at just the right moment, with the energetic and charismatic appeal to rally together an inspired group of followers.

Fortunately, it soon dawned on me, leadership is one of the central themes of what I’ve been researching and writing about for years in Without Destroying Ourselves. And I now see the examples of Native intellectual activism in the book as a beautiful lesson for students today.

So much of Indigenous history is understandably viewed under a dark shadow of colonialism, with all the violence and dispossession that comes along with it. It can be difficult, especially for young students, to work through a careful study of this history with any sense of optimism left. And yet, if we look closely at the words and actions of Indigenous people themselves, we still see it. We see not only a bare sense of resilience and survival but at times a true optimism and an infectious energy that comes from leaders’ ability to highlight and target shared opportunities for growth within struggle. In these moments of opportunity—however brief and confined by powerful outside forces—over the course of the twentieth century and into the present era I found Native leaders who wove together a powerful intellectual argument for utilizing the dominant structures and trends in American education for the benefit of Native people on both individual and collective levels. As they did so, they repeatedly exemplified a flexible but durable adaptability, as opposed to assimilation. The words of a young Navajo student in the 1970s—“without destroying ourselves”—thus became a sort of thread that remained unbroken throughout the trajectory of the book.

As I prepare to speak on leadership for my student’s organization, I no longer feel that hint of panic or imposter syndrome. I can draw on a wealth of inspiring examples from my own research, and I hope in a broader sense that my book serves as not simply an informative but an energizing work in its own right. The following excerpt comes from the book’s conclusion, and I think summarizes this overall feeling:

I hope this history can contribute not only to the historical scholarship on Native intellectualism and activism but also to contemporary discussions of the ever-present questions in America’s policy toward Native people. A key aspect of Native American history and Indigenous studies today is the effort to not only advance scholarship about Native people and their communities but to serve those people and their communities. I hope my work will offer a useful—if modest—tool in that effort by revealing the deep history of both continuity and innovation, from the work of Native intellectual activists like Henry Roe Cloud to the still-developing efforts in higher education and Native American self-determination more broadly. Part of the value of the sources employed in this history has been the ability to capture Native intellectual activists in those moments when the challenges became toughest. It must have been difficult, for instance, for Henry Roe Cloud to pen thank-you letters for five- and ten-dollar donations when by the 1920s his American Indian Institute required $1,500 per month to operate.[i] Similarly, Jack Forbes’s weariness and fatigue in the late 1970s seemed to leap from the page as he admonished, “Isn’t it clear that we need to support an Indian-controlled university?”[ii] These examples echo what Lucy Maddox has observed—that even the most eloquent and determined Native leaders have found it difficult to bend modern American discourses and political forces to their needs, and have suffered “difficulties and frustrations that, in hindsight, can seem unavoidable and even predictable.”[iii]

The sources utilized in this history, though, have also captured Native intellectual activists in moments of unbridled optimism, and it is crucial to understand that the optimism was—and is—no less warranted than the frustration. I hope this history sheds light on that optimistic energy not simply for the sake of a feel-good story about the underdog. Rather, I hope it reveals how that energy in many distinct instances brought about real change for Native communities and individuals; how that energy can still serve many of its original goals even as it innovates; and how that energy, with greater investment and commitment from responsible parties, can still do much more to realize those goals in the future.

Sixty years ago, Ute student Joan Noble witnessed this energy and delivered an admonishment to her fellow founders of the National Indian Youth Council. As she observed the exciting activist spirit for leadership growing among her peers, she spoke of it with a quiet urgency, as if it were a small flame, and wrote simply, “Let us not let it die in our hands.”[iv]


[i] Henry Roe Cloud to E. E. Olcott, January 10, 1923, reel 1, records of aii; Henry Roe Cloud to Mary S. E. Baker, April 17, 1923, reel 2, records of aii

[ii] Forbes, “Development of a Native American Intelligentsia,” 83.

[iii] Maddox, Citizen Indians, 166.

[iv] Joan Noble to Herb Blatchford, July 30, 1961, box 1, folder 11, records of niyc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s