The work of Kyle Mays Wabinaw: bringing history to young people

This post is the second last in my series as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. Tomorrow I will post the final interview and wrap up my time here.

Below is a conversation between Kyle Mays Wabinaw (@mays_kyle) and I about his work as a historian, and his experiences as a Black and Indigenous person in the American academy. I’m incredibly grateful to Kyle for taking the time to answer my questions, as he has been very busy of late–I’m very excited to see the work he produces as he takes up his new position as a post-doc at UNC Chapel-Hill. Hiy-hiy, Kyle, for sharing your insights and experiences with me.


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Z: Kyle, I was introduced to you through our mutual colleague and friend Danielle Lorenz, who is a PhD student in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you for this series in the anthropology blog Savage Minds is because I want to share this platform I was invited to write for as a space to talk about the experiences of Indigenous and Black scholars in the social sciences and humanities. I’m also interviewing Jenny Davis, a linguistic anthropologist and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and my colleague and friend Catherine Clune-Taylor, who is a Queer Black philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Alberta. But before we delve into interview questions, I also want to congratulate you on your recent graduation and your new post-doctoral position at UNC-Chapel Hill!

So, my first question is more of a background one to help situate you and your work: how did you find yourself working within the discipline of History in the USA? And what are you working on now?

K: Well, first, thank you, Zoe, for including me as an interviewee. I really appreciate your work and perspective. I came to history in a number of ways. 1) I attended James Madison College at Michigan State University, which is a residential college of public affairs. While I think it was an incredibly racist/sexist place, I learned the rigors of academic debate and critical thinking. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that history is fundamental to any discipline, and a keen sense of history matters for developing a critical perspective about the world. I also learned the value of taking a transdisciplinary approach to asking questions about oppression, with history serving as my base. Again, I appreciate the education at Madison because it helped shape my passion for history, no matter how oppressive it often was.

Second, during my sophomore year, I took a course with an Anishinaabe professor, Dr. George Cornell, and he noticed me right after the first class. I remember it like it was yesterday. After going over the course syllabi and course expectations, he dismissed class early. My aunt Tracy told me to introduce myself to him, because he had worked with my great grandmother on some things back in the day. A few students were in line to speak with him about the course, etc. I walked up to introduce myself as my aunt instructed me. He stopped in the middle of his conversation and said, “Mays! I know you. I know your whole family. Your grandmother and I did a lot of work on the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver back in the day. She was a fierce woman, and she didn’t take shit from nobody!” That brief moment led me to want to know more about the Indigenous history of modern Detroit (by modern I mean during the advent of the auto industry!).

When it came to choosing a graduate program, I chose history because I knew I wanted to recover, if not reconstruct, the history of Native people in Detroit. So, I asked Dr. Cornell what schools I should apply to. He recommended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and he specifically mentioned two names, who also served on my dissertation committee: Drs. Frederick E. Hoxie and Robert A. Warrior (Osage). He said that they would take care of me, a Native student, and see me through the doctorate. While I entered hostile territory (the University of Illinois has an egregious reputation as an unsafe space for Indigenous people, especially because of the legacy of a racist mascot!), Dr. Cornell was correct, and I couldn’t have asked for a better chair than Dr. Hoxie. I just finished a dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racial and Gender Formation in a Modern American City, 1870-2000. I would sum up my work in three ways. First, I am interested in exploring how Native people are not pre-modern and that they lived in cities, prior to federal U.S. policies in the post-World War II era. In other words, cities and Indigenous people are not incompatible. Second, I highlight the role of gender, both how white masculinity is constructed through indigeneity, and, also, how Indigenous women like my great-grandmother and my aunt Judy Mays (Saginaw Chippewa), were central to the development of Indigenous cultural and educational institutions in postwar Detroit. Finally, my work is predicated on the idea of reinserting Indigenous presences in a city that has systematically erased indigeneity from the history and the landscape, and is now known as a Black-White city. Returning to the work of the Native women in my family, I am inspired by them to uncover the role of Native women in urban areas, and to make sure that their histories are not only uncovered, but shared for the next generation of Native (and other) peoples.

Z: Now, I only have a little taste of your work because we have only just ‘met’ online in the last few weeks, but I’d like to know more about why you have chosen to look at urban Indigenous experiences in Detroit.

K: I might be repeating myself here a bit, but here goes nothing! Let’s look at historical discourses about (modern) Detroit. The city is known for its once thriving auto industry led by Henry Ford. It was a major hub of Black migrants escaping the grip of Jim Crow racism of the South. Culturally, Detroit is known for its Motown music factory, led by Barry Gordy. We also know a fair deal about the city’s rapid rise in the early 20th century, and then its swift and epic decline. As far as the city’s decline, the narrative suggests that the city declined after the 1967 race rebellion (I say rebellion to highlight its revolutionary roots) and even more after the election of the city’ first Black Mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974. All of these narratives place the blame on Black folks, instead of more critically highlighting the larger structural forces that go back to the 1940s (see Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis). And, quite frankly, placing the blame on an elite group of white people, but I digress.

Okay, so I had to say all that to get to the urban Indigenous experience. You see that I said nothing about Native people, and that is not surprising. In the bulk of my work I explore how elite white men systematically erased the Indigenous experience from Detroit’s past and also how they memorialized indigeneity to construct ideas about their race and gender (masculinity). In so doing, I hope to move historians and everyday people to consider the Indigenous experience in Detroit as a part of the city’s past, but also point to the Native people who still live there. So, the Indigenous history of the city is important not simply for history’s sake, but also to tell non-Native-people that Native people have remained, even though they are largely invisible to most Detroiters today. In other words, I want to completely rewrite the history of Detroit so that we can no longer even think about the city’s past and present without Indigenous people; we shall see if I’m successful haha!

Z: I have written lately about the experiences I have had as a white-passing Métis woman working in anthropology in the UK. I am asking those I am interviewing for this series what sort of experiences you have had as an Indigenous person, as a POC, within the American academy?

K: I always like to tell people that I am Black and Saginaw Chippewa. For me, that is important because if I deny, or even ignore being Black, I essentially deny my mother, her culture, and her family’s history. My experience is unique, being Black and Indigenous. I was teased as child for either not being Black enough or not Native enough or for being either one (I was a nerd, which didn’t help!). While I have always been comfortable in my own personhood, I often feel the double consciousness, shit, perhaps even triple-consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois referred to in 1903, because I am racialized as Black, I am considered Black and Indigenous by people who know me, and yet my experience is often rendered invisible in predominantly white spaces like the U.S. academy. But I think it’s easy to talk about white/settler-Indigenous relations; it’s much more difficult to discuss Black-Indigenous or even Indigenous-Indigenous conflict. Let me give a few examples.

I’ve had Black colleagues tell me about their great-Cherokee-grandmother or ask me how they can find out more about their supposed Indigenous heritage. I always reply nicely, but I want to tell them that I’m not a fuckin genealogist. I’ve also had Black faculty, upon hearing me explain my background, ask rudely, “are you ashamed of being Black or something?” Actually, a prominent Black Studies scholar at the University of Illinois said that to me. I’ve also been in majority Indigenous spaces and a Native person, assuming I identify solely as Indigenous, say pretty racist things about Black people. I’ve had Indigenous people in the academy try and challenge my identity because I don’t do “traditional” things–whatever that means–or because I didn’t grow up on a reserve/ation. I don’t let those things bother me because I come from a long line of bad-ass Indigenous women/activists, whom I can look up to, to keep me focused on fighting against oppression in a settler regime (the combination of settler colonialism and white supremacy).

Z: What do you hope to bring to the table in your new position at UNC Chapel-Hill? What are you really excited about? What are your goals with regards to working within the discipline of history?

K: During my two years as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of History at UNC Chapel-Hill, I hope to bring to the table a strong commitment to writing for both academic and non-academic audiences. My goal is to reach as many people as I can with my research. I’m excited just to finally get to marinate on my ideas without having to respond to my committee haha! In all seriousness, I want to write for a variety of publics with the hope of reaching as many people as possible.

My goal for working within the discipline of history is to change the game. I don’t mean that as a cliché. I actually desire to bring history to young people, especially Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth in urban areas. While I will remain a dedicated researcher and teacher in the academy, I believe that I was also put on this earth to work with young people–and history is one way to do that. I think we should ask important questions about how to teach–historically– the next generation. First, what do our youth know, and how do we build on that knowledge? Second, how can we use contemporary popular culture (i.e., Hip Hop) as a mechanism to teach critical approaches to history? Lastly, how can we use history as a tool for liberation and aid in the decolonization of our minds, our hearts, our communities, and society? I think we need to ask questions like these and more carefully use history to teach the next generation so that they can understand themselves in relationship to the past, their present, and our collective future.

So, I hope to contribute to the discipline of history creative ways of teaching and learning for the purposes of decolonization, however that might play out. I don’t want history to remain in the ivory tower, but also move beyond it, and be relevant in the 21st century.

Z: (anything you want to add!)

K: Thank you so much for interviewing me. Keep up the good work, friend!

Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. In July, she will become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.