Unfit for Native American Studies?

Longtime Stanford English professor says he's stepping down from a teaching a Native American literature course after students complained he was culturally insulting and possibly unqualified.

January 16, 2019
Kenneth Fields

A professor of English at Stanford University says he will no longer teach an undergraduate class on American Indian mythology, legend and lore after students complained that he was “insensitive and inappropriate” with respect to course content.

Kenneth Fields, professor and poet, said via email Tuesday that he voluntarily stepped down as the instructor for the course, which was last offered in the fall quarter. He referred additional questions about his teaching to the English department chair, who did not return a request for comment. Fields, who is white, has been at Stanford since 1967.

A Stanford spokesperson said the English chair has offered to meet with students to hear their concerns but offered no additional details.

In a widely circulated petition, students who have taken Fields's class in recent years complained that he didn't seem to have “the crucial background information regarding the mythology, legends, traditions, etc., that he needs to properly teach this class.”

The petition, written by first-year student Sha'teiohserí:io Patton and signed by several dozen other students, says that Fields has failed “to discuss the tribes’ original intentions for their stories or discuss the differences between those intentions and Western ideas of analyzing literature.”

Fields has discussed “Night Chant,” a Diné tribe sacred chant, for example, without talking about the strict cultural rules that dictate who should discuss or sing the chant and when, if at all, according to the petition. In other instances, Fields has said certain Native American stories and symbols therein are “open for interpretation," Patton wrote. Yet, from a cultural standpoint, she said, they are not.

“The fact that analyzing these stories through a Western view itself can be seen as disrespectful towards the tribes from which these stories originated, should at least be touched upon in class,” the petition says.

Beyond apparent knowledge gaps, Patton wrote that Fields frequently veers off topic, to “anecdotes using insensitive or profane language, which has no educational value in context and further inhibits learning.” In one instance, Fields allegedly concluded a lecture about N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain with a story about a suicide survivor he knew, saying, “The motherfucker should have thought about it before he tried jumping off the Golden Gate.”

Fields also is alleged to have said during a class on John G. Neihardt’s solemn Black Elk Speaks that his own friend’s last words were “At least now I won’t have to worry about how big my dick is.”

“Native American culture is sacred because it has managed to survive and thrive under the most damaging turmoil,” wrote Patton, who is from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Canada. “It is essential that people become more educated on topics such as the mythology, legend and lore of Native Americans. However, it has to be done in the right way.”

Kim TallBear, associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said that Stanford has done more than many other institutions to recruit and support Native American students. Still, she said, some institutions that don’t have large Native studies programs tend to pull professors from other departments to teach some of those classes. TallBear said she hadn’t been following the Fields case but said its outlines highlight the care that any professor -- but especially a non-Native professor -- must demonstrate when teaching Native American studies.

TallBear, who is enrolled in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, said that in her own classes, she’s able to tease out the intended humor in some literature due to her “insider” status. Still, she said, some Native students will understand that humor, while others will not, or even find it triggering. And origin and other kinds of sacred stories simply aren’t made for that kind of treatment, she said.

Non-Native instructors have to be even more mindful, TallBear said.

“There are non-Native faculty who are so careful and ethical and who do not put themselves first -- they’re big on collaboration and foregrounding Native voices and student voices.” Unfortunately, TallBear said, the “academic industrial complex” doesn’t typically reward those values.



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