Four Burning Questions for Audra Simpson, professor of Anthropology at Columbia University

As part of McGill's first Aboriginal Homecoming event on Sept. 18, Audra Simpson, a McGill alumna who is an associate professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, will deliver the keynote address. In advance of the event, Professor Simpson took the time to speak with the Reporter about the significance of McGill as a training ground for scholarship and engaged political life.
Audra Simpson, McGill alumna and professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, will deliver the keynote address at the Aboriginal Homecoming event on Sept. 18.
Audra Simpson, McGill alumna and professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, will deliver the keynote address at the Aboriginal Homecoming event on Sept. 18.

The 4th annual Indigenous Awareness Week will be held from Sept. 15-19. Organized by the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, the week honours the many Indigenous cultures across the country including First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

New to Awareness Week will be an Aboriginal Homecoming event to be held at the Faculty Club on Sept. 18. The event will give Aboriginal alumni a chance to meet, catch up and network.

The soirée will feature Audra Simpson, a McGill alumna who is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. In her address, Simpson will discuss the significance of McGill as a training ground for scholarship and engaged political life. In advance of her address, Professor Simpson took the time to speak with the Reporter.

What was your experience like as a McGill student?

I did my graduate work here so my experience was somewhat typical of all grad students: a combination of delight and slow sadness – this because I was undergoing intense intellectual growth while countering the constant fact that I was in my late 20s and still a student! I trained in a department that had very high expectations for written work so I was also very aware of my analysis and writing and, like other students in the department, sometimes had to revise course papers to publishable quality. That was the standard of excellence: publishable quality.

Although this was a completely tiresome process and felt like a defeating standard at the time, the long-term benefit is that it made me, at the level of my training, view writing as a process, thus I had to be fundamentally open to critique, but has also toughened me for the process of revision that all scholars go through as they publish in their professional careers.

So although this was a tough place, I learned a lot. Working with the late Bruce Trigger, a scholar’s scholar if ever there was one, was really my intellectual highlight. He was a careful and meticulous thinker that encouraged bold and critical work, but work that was well supported and well argued. I owe him debts that cannot be repaid.

I also had some good times in Montreal and also enjoyed my graduate student colleagues. We hung out at Thomson House and took advantage of the city — I went to cheap concerts ($5 ticket to see Dion Ferris at Club Soda, Celia Cruz at Jazzfest!) and really have not recovered my cooking skills since leaving. Montreal is conducive to great cooking on the cheap!

I was also 20 minutes away from Kahnawake and could be as close as I needed or wanted to be to my intellectual and political home. This was crucial for the thinking and writing and my own growth as a scholar doing work in my own community.

What are some of the challenges you encounter as an Indigenous academic?

I think in some sectors of my field I may be viewed in particular ways, and I am old both old enough and young enough to know what those ways are, to have experienced those perceptions first hand.

I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people especially after Oka. In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not “deserve” the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally “difficult.”

As well, there are specific stereotypes and expectations that attach to us depending upon what nation we are and where we are from. As Mohawk (and in this, Haudenosaunee) people we speak from the long history of relationship to territory and to others in our homelands, and are compelled to speak clearly and truthfully, from minds unencumbered by grief or pathos. And also, to listen to others. So I always found it ridiculous that we, especially we would be perceived as people that do not act or speak according to principles of fairness and reason.

Again, I am old enough to remember and to know these things and to have been treated in particular ways and by scholars senior to me, scholars who should have been mentors to me, so I know this to empirically be true and also to effect opportunities. But I stayed the course and worked very hard and there were and still are good people mentoring me along the way, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. I have learned so much from them, and they make me a better teacher and mentor for others.

Now that I teach in the ’States there is the overwhelming and almost hegemonic idea that we are dead! So my very presence upsets and defies that idea but my teaching and research also reveal in a scholarly manner, where these ideas come from and how they are used to undermine indigenous agency and sovereignty.

What advice do you have for Indigenous students pursuing higher education?

1) What you are doing is virtuous and is good. You are not wasting your time. Your parents and your family are proud of you and they will sing your praises to everyone, but maybe not to you. They are holding their praise so you can be strong in yourself and not get an inflated sense of yourself that will serve you poorly among other Native people. That doesn’t mean that they do not love you and are not rooting for you.

2) Take care of yourself, eat well, sleep well, exercise. A healthy body is also a healthy mind.

3) Seek out other Native students; they are going through the same thing, they come from the same place. These will be your friends for life.

4) If you feel overwhelmed and stressed, clear your mind with exercise or something like this, but also ask for help. What you are doing is challenging, many of us do not come from University backgrounds and this requires adjustment – sitting in a chair and reading for four straight hours? Listening to someone lecture for two hours? This alone requires adjustment, and the students here may not be people that seem at first blush to be friendly or nice, or people you want to hang out with. You may find out otherwise! But if it gets too daunting and you feel overwhelmed or extremely isolated ask for help. Go to the study skills workshop, go to the First Peoples’ House. Don’t be shy, or at least, be shy amongst others that may be experiencing the same thing.

5) Having a degree from McGill can only be an asset, so keep up the good, hard work. It will pay off in the end, and by this I don’t not only mean economic opportunity.

As the keynote speaker for the Indigenous Homecoming event, what are you going to be talking about? 

I will talk about McGill’s historic relationship to Native people and specifically to Haudenosaunee at Six Nations. I will examine how that history of financial transfer and gain may inform McGill’s relationship to Indigenous peoples and in general what that micro-history means to representational and political questions at McGill, and the larger question of justice in settler colonial settings. What is McGill’s obligation, based on this history, based on its location on Haudenosaunee territory, to Haudenosaunee peoples and to Indigenous peoples more broadly? How does this augment rather than detract from a scholarly commitment to excellence and to the ongoing project to being “world class” research institution? Is there an ethical obligation embedded within this project if it is itself indebted to unpaid debt to Indigenous peoples?

Finally, Native scholars that are at the forefront of their fields are McGill graduates. Among these are Ned Blackhawk, Shoshone, Yale Professor, class of ’92 (BA honours history), Dale Turner, Temagami Anishnabe, Dartmouth Professor, class of ’98 (PhD Political Science) and many Master’s students, law students, and certificate holders who work and live in their communities. In spite of a fraught history some of the best and the brightest of Indigenous North America have trained here and work in ethical and familial obligation to home, how can this be augmented for the future?

 To read more about the Aboriginal Homecoming event and Indigenous Awareness Week, go here.

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