‘academia has its own set of rules’: Jenny Davis on language revitalization and Indigenous gender and sexuality in North America

Today is a tough day for many Indigenous people in Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its findings from its years of work collecting testimony from survivors of the Indian Residential School system in Canada.

In a way, I am thankful that I get to finish my guest blog post with Savage Minds on a day that is so important for Indigenous people across Canada. And I am thankful I get to sign off by sharing an interview with a brilliant Indigenous scholar, Jenny Davis.

I hope that through this guest blog series I have brought your thoughts to the visceral and lived experiences of Indigenous people in North America and how this drives our research, stories, and our passion for scholarship and action. I hope that I have provided food for thought–planted seeds as my friend Dawn-Marie Marchand says. I hope that we continue to examine our relationships to one another, in an accountable and loving way, for years to come. I know that I am dedicating my career to this ‘loving accountability’ that Cree legal scholars like Tracey Lindberg have taught me to honour.

hiy-hiy for listening and hiy-hiy to Jenny for kindly taking the time to answer my questions about her work.


Zoe: So, I’ve danced a bit around the elephant in the room in the last few weeks, which is something I want to bring up in a loving and gentle way before we begin. As I’ve sought out Indigenous and/or POC people to interview for this series, I have found myself in the rather awkward position, as a Métis scholar, of asking you (and others) to do an interview on your work and your experiences in the academy for a blog titled Savage Minds. So, I guess before we begin I just want to get it out of the way that this title bothers me somewhat. And I want to re-iterate that I say this in a loving, open way.  I mean, I understand that it is a nod to a highly regarded French anthropologist. And I love a good play on words (especially one that involves wild flowers!)–particularly ones that draw attention to contested words, or those that draw attention to words with baggage. And I acknowledge that Levi-Strauss has perhaps one of the most influential people in Anthropology in a great long while. But, as an Indigenous woman, it’s another one of those moments that puts me in a ‘double bind‘, so to speak–I want to celebrate anthropology while at the same time, some of our language and our phrasing, even when used ironically, alienates me from the anthropological academy—how do I explain to my non-anthropology friends that in writing for something titled ‘savage’ that the title is meant to be a nuanced commentary on anthropology’s history? It has made it awkward for me to seek out Indigenous interviewees for this series because I feel that I have to keep explaining the context of the title in an apologetic way in order to move forward. I don’t know how to address this, other than to preface our interview with a gentle statement about it just so it’s clear that I myself am struggling with the complex position of wrangling with the multiple, complicated facets of using words like savage (or indeed other loaded words from Anthropology’s past, like primitive or ‘hunter-gatherer’) in our work. Because while this title is playful and purpose-full (and politically informed), I have also been the person in the room critiqued for ‘going native’ by a classmate. How do we make space to talk about what happens when ironic use of phrases can unwittingly create space for the un-ironic, deliberate and pejorative use of phrases within our discipline? Hiy-hiy for letting me start off with this!


You are a linguistic anthropologist working at the University of Illinois. And you are an Indigenous scholar. I always like to ask other Indigenous scholars how they wound up in anthropology! How did you end up here in the discipline?

JD: I started out studying English and Spanish at my undergrad university (Oklahoma State) where I was able to take classes in linguistics. After my first class in sociolinguistics as a junior, I knew I wanted to work in that area. At the same time, my tribe (the Chickasaw Nation), was starting to build language documentation and revitalization efforts, and I was interested in being able to work with them in various capacities on that project. My interest in both language documentation/revitalization and indigenous gender & sexuality took me to the linguistics program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I was able to combine coursework in both linguistics and anthropology.

Zoe: How has your work shaped your relationship to the discipline? Are there hopeful aspects you see with regards to the value of linguistic anthropology as a place to explore topics that are meaningful to you as an Indigenous scholar? Are there challenges to doing your work within anthropology?

JD: My work is centered at the intersection of several disciplines—linguistics, anthropology, and Indigenous studies—and each is driven by a different, equally important focus on language, culture, and indigeneity, respectively. As a result, it is easy to see the strengths of each field as well as their weaknesses. In general, I see linguistic anthropology working to create the tools to discuss the role of language—and broader semiotic systems—in indigenous life and identity at levels ranging from single utterances all the way up to national or global language policy, and that really appeals to me.
One of the major challenges for any “Native” anthropologist working in Anthropology is the difference between Anthropology having acknowledged certain issues as a discipline versus whether or not those issues are addressed and challenged on an individual or institutional level. Our field’s origins in colonial endeavours, for example, have been the topic of countless conference panels, journal articles, and books. However, comments to those of us who do research within our own communities still demonstrate that an “outsider” view is considered more academic, rigorous, and “real,” and there is a tendency within the field to (begrudgingly) acknowledge the problematic nature of those settler colonial enterprises without actively changing their/our behaviour.
As an example, I was recently at a national anthropology conference where 3 separate people made reference to their fieldwork location as “my village.” One waved off potential critiques of the use of that phrase by recounting how ridiculous it was that a fellow scholar had once been chastised by a senior colleague for using it at some earlier conference. Another put the phrase in air quotes while laughing—thereby acknowledging that they knew it was a problematic way of referring to a field site yet were refusing to drop one of the long standing discursive tropes of Anthropology that position predominately white researchers from settler colonial countries as having some ownership or claim to indigenous communities around the world. Such discursive moves make it clear that there is still little expectation that the “researched,” or those that have very different claims to the “villages” under discussion, might also be in the room.

Zoe: You have written about gender, two-spirit gender, and queer theory. Do you think anthropology is doing a good job of engaging these issues? If so, how? If not, what can we work on to be better and more accountable for how we address these topics?

JD: There is phenomenal scholarship in gender, sexuality, and queer theory going on in Anthropology—research that is driving anthropological theory, methodologies, and ethics forward for the entire field. In fact, this week I’m looking forward to reading a new edited volume that has just come out, Queer Necropolotics, that looks at the intersection of queerness with structural violence and death in different contexts around the world.

An important aspect is to see queer theory and the anthropology of gender and sexuality as a core element of anthropological inquiry rather than at its margins. I think we can see some promising examples of the integration of queer scholarship in discussions that aren’t singularly about gender or sexuality, which is necessary for a robust engagement in Anthropology with these areas. Last year’s AAA conference provided several examples. For instance, a double panel on ‘Parsing the Body’ included a wide range of papers—one of which by Lal Zimman explored the role of the larynx, and its production of creaky voice, as an index of gender across both cisgender and transgender speakers. Another paper, by Wesley Leonard, on a panel focusing on ‘Producing Language Reclamation,’ included data from a number of indigenous language activists—some of which happened to be Two-Spirit. The inclusion of Two-Spirit people in discussion of language activism and revitalization—rather than only in discussions of indigenous gender and sexuality is actually a powerful move that positions them not just as “footnote deviants” (Hall 2003), but as speakers of endangered languages or otherwise typical representatives of contemporary Indigeneity.

Zoe: Where are you focusing your attention now?

JD: Broadly speaking, my research interests lie in the relationship between indigenous language(s) and identity, and my current research is focused on continuing two (related) projects: language and urban and/or diasporic Indigeneity and Two-Spirit identity and activism. My dissertation looked at the social dynamics surrounding language revitalization within my tribe focusing primarily on those living within the tribal jurisdiction in Southeastern Oklahoma. But a significant percentage of my tribe—and Native Americans in general—live outside of their tribal jurisdictions in urban “hubs” like Chicago, Denver, and NYC. These urban spaces provide interesting challenges and opportunities for language documentation and revitalization, and represent different sociocultural and linguistic dynamics than are usually the focus of research in linguistic anthropology on American Indians.
My research on Two-Spirit identity and activism takes place in many of those same urban spaces—where Two-Spirit organizations have formed over the past decades. Two-Spirit individuals are indigenous North Americans who spiritually identify as both female and male, and who may also identify as GLBTI Q (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer) Natives. As multiply marginalized position, Two-Spirit identity is often discussed and theorized by people with very little or no connection to the individuals and groups that live and define those position(s), and research on Two-Spirit people often focuses on “male bodied” Two-Spirit experiences, which erases the wide range of gender and sexual identities and experiences within the community. I’m interested in the ways that all Two-Spirit individuals, families, and groups negotiate all of the intersecting aspects of their lives in highly multi-tribal and multi-lingual contexts and how that informs our understanding of contemporary indigenous realities.

Zoe: Do you have any advice for other Indigenous scholars within the discipline? Anything you wish someone had said to you when you started grad school?

JD: First, academia has its own set of rules (many of which are based on a very different culture than yours), and much of your time will be spent figuring out, and crashing up against, these rules. Find someone (or several someones) who can help make them more transparent. It may be helpful to think of graduate school as an ethnographic study of Anthropology—take notes. Your etic observations may some day be invaluable to the community should it find itself needing to reclaim its cultural traditions or defend its existence to some government agency.

Zoe: (anything else you want to add!)

JD: Thanks for inviting me to the conversation, and including me with such an awesome group of scholars!

hiy-hiy, again, for this opportunity to guest-blog. It has been a positive and thought-provoking experience and I am grateful that it has nurtured kinship with other thinkers within and beyond our discipline.

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.

One thought on “‘academia has its own set of rules’: Jenny Davis on language revitalization and Indigenous gender and sexuality in North America

  1. Savage means primitive, uncivilised and barbarous according to Webster’s College Dictionary.
    My research over the last 18 years reveals that pre Columbian Amerindian groups were nothing of the kind.
    The failure of academia to understand the level of sophistication that Animistic/Shamanistic cultures reached prior to the indoctrination of organised religion is purely a matter of pre cognitive bias and hardly scientific.
    Sadly, it will be many years before this error is put right by the next generation of young scientists.
    Sadly, I don’t expect it to be in my lifetime.

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