Trans Indigenous Education
Today Kēhaulani Vaughn joins me to discuss Trans-Indigenous education primarily on Turtle Island, the name used by Indigenous peoples for North America.
Kēhaulani Vaughn (Kanaka Maoli) is an assistant professor in the Department of Education, Culture, and Society and the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative at the University of Utah. She has recently co-written, with Theresa Jean Ambo, an article entitled “Trans-Indigenous Education: Indigeneity, Relationships, and Higher Education” which was published in the Comparative Education Review.
Citation: Vaughn, Kēhaulani interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 295, podcast audio, October 3, 2022.https://freshedpodcast.com/vaughn/
Will Brehm 1:16
Kēhaulani Vaughn, welcome to FreshEd.
Kēhaulani Vaughn 1:18
Thank you. [aloha mai kakou]. Thank you for having me.
Will Brehm 1:23
It’s wonderful to have you on. Congratulations on your new co-written article. I guess I want to start by asking you from your own experiences working in higher education: how do institutions, how do universities that you’ve worked with, sort of think about and regard Indigenous communities and Indigenous students in particular?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 1:41
So, I’ve worked at a number of institutions both private, public, large, small, and a lot of these institutions, what they have in common in terms of their regard to Indigenous students is basically they’re on the margins. So, margins of the margins. Oftentimes, students are not being disaggregated from data such as Pacific Islanders. They’re aggregated within the Asian American/Pacific Islander rubric, which hides and basically suppresses the needs of the community. And coincidentally, or not, American Indian students are also not regarded when looking at datasets for higher institutions. Usually there’s an asterix, which a lot of native scholars write about that there’s not enough significant data to be regarded. So, both of the communities that I’m writing about in terms of Pacific Islanders and American Indians occupy vexed positions in these places. They’re not seen as a group that’s in the present tense oftentimes. They might be referred to in the past tense, they may be referred to as not a significant group of minorities, and not tribal nations, sovereign nations, Indigenous peoples who have rights to self-determination. And hopefully we get into the political reasons of why that comes to be.
Will Brehm 3:06
And we certainly will. I want to give listeners a bit more sense of this because it is so fascinating to think about who gets counted on some of these statistical census or whatever documents, whatever reports might be needed for a university. Because I’m sure administration needs different reports and different data to make decisions, supposedly. But I guess, when you said all of this issue about they’re being referred to in the past tense, where is this being referred? Is this like university meetings or university documentation? Like, what does it actually look like in a tangible way at the university level?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 3:42
Right. So, in a tangible level at the university, you may see a few Native American studies courses, if they have a Native American Studies department in the first place. Some of the institutions that we’re talking about do not have American Indian Studies, or Native American Studies, even though there are ethnic studies departments. And so, they may offer one course that’s based in a historical method. So, therefore, you’re only learning about Native Indigenous communities in the past tense and not in the present tense, which comes to have a lot of implications in terms of: why aren’t the students getting services? Why aren’t these communities being talked about? We can tie in the historical legacies into the present tense but a lot of times that part is missing. And so, it ends up becoming a larger issue where Native students felt like they’re not being seen, they’re not being heard, they’re not seeing themselves being reflected in the curriculum. They also don’t see themselves being reflected amongst the faculty and by and large staff, oftentimes. So, it’s a really isolating experience oftentimes for these students.
Will Brehm 4:53
It’s quite interesting to think of it in those terms, as well as initially you said that they’re sort of on the margins of the margin and that sort of “othering” that happened. And I guess to some extent, the diversity of Indigenous populations is sort of lumped together when they’re just seen as on the margins of the margins. All those groups on the margins are sort of lumped together in that. I think of, like, the census, because it’s that other category that has sort of shape-shifted over time to include all different groups of people, but we end up losing sight of who those groups are.
Kēhaulani Vaughn 5:25
And oftentimes, students are trying to look for community and institutions who are not recognizing the needs of Indigenous students by and large. And they regard Indigenous students by and large, monolithic. So, they may have Native American heritage month, or something like that, where they’ll bring in speakers, but by and large, they’re not actively engaging with local Native nations. They’re not engaging with significant pockets of Indigenous communities locally. Like, for example, I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have a significant Pacific Islander population here. And so, you know, universities and colleges need to do better by their Indigenous students, and really look at the diversity and the strengths of that diversity because we’re not monolithic. We have diverse histories, we have diverse cultures. And certainly, with a lot of the ongoing issues with climate change, we could be also the ones that are brought into these conversations that have this knowledge since time immemorial.
Will Brehm 6:35
That is a really fascinating point, that last one. We have a lot of international listeners to this podcast. And so, it might be helpful to sort of give a sense of the diversity of Indigenous populations, I guess, in general in the United States, but specifically in the location where you’re sitting -Salt Lake City, Utah. What is the makeup of these diverse groups?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 6:57
So, currently, I’m on the lands of the Ute, Goshute, Paiute, and Shoshone nations and people. Further down south, we have Dine’ or the Navajo people. And then, we have an urban Indian population. So, basically, there’s a history of relocations that have happened in the United States, where people were being pushed off the reservation and into metropolitan areas for labor purposes. And then we also have a Pacific Islander population here due to the history with the Mormon church. And so, you have all of these Indigenous groups in this one place, and you know, very distinct. Very distinct culturally, very distinct histories, even amongst Pacific Islanders, right? Pacific Islanders in the United States, there’s like 20 ethnic groups identified on the Census. But we know there’s a lot more. And even within that group, you have citizen, you have US national, you have Compact of Free Association, otherwise known as COFA, you have undocumented, and that’s within the Pacific Islander category. And so, when we talk about diversity, it’s very diverse, it’s very vibrant. But when the university oftentimes regards – if they regard, if they recognize this student population, or this community, it’s regarded – as a monolith.
Will Brehm 7:07
When I read your article, what’s so nice is seeing that diversity of different types of students from all these different nations, and seeing the opportunity that that has sort of pedagogically in terms of the experience one might have at the university. And you end up calling for this idea that, to be honest, I never heard about before, and maybe that shows some of my ignorance, the word is Trans-Indigenous Education. And I just loved this idea. So, I mean, what is Trans-Indigenous Education by way of introduction?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 8:48
Trans-Indigenous Education is thinking about education between and amongst Indigenous communities, Indigenous students. So, oftentimes when we’re thinking about education with Indigenous people, it’s situated in relation to the settler or the settler institution, right? So, we learn a history of settlements, what have you, in a particular area -if we learn that history at all. But what Trans-Indigenous Education is calling for is: there needs to be space for Indigenous communities to learn from one another and the power in that. So, not only can we collaborate on ongoing issues affecting our communities, but like the solutions, so there’s so many exchanges that are taking place outside of the educational institution that’s looking at sacred site protection. For example, Mauna Kea, happening in Hawaii. We had all these beautiful exchanges taking place where other Indigenous communities were coming to our sacred mountain and saying, “We stand with you because we understand the importance of protecting a sacred site but we also understand the importance of water”. And so, there’s all these exchanges taking place. And what if we can kind of build a space within educational institutions where Indigenous students can learn from one another? Not only their histories, but also their resilience. And when there’s a call for protecting a sacred site, or there’s something happening with destruction, there’s actually more people that will come to your aid because now you understand how that relates to even your own lived experience.
Will Brehm 10:32
So, what would this look like in a university? I mean, is this something that is sort of extracurricular? Can Trans-Indigenous Education be integrated into existing curriculum and courses and going back to that initial example of using the past tense to talk about Indigenous communities, to actually using the present tense. It seems so simple but also sort of important and powerful. So, how does this get integrated into a university?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 11:00
So, currently, I teach courses and my understanding and my approach to Pacific Studies in Turtle Island is that we need to situate where we’re at. We need to situate the local. And kind of thinking about even cultural protocols, right? So, when you come to someone else’s land, you ask for permission, generally and you’re granted that permission. But that also means that there’s a responsibility in giving you that permission to enter someone’s land and taking part in someone else’s resources. So, I think the way that I approach Pacific Island Studies in Turtle Island is really thinking about how do I talk about the local contexts and how we come to be in these places as Pacific Islanders? And I engage with trying to provide context. Like who is here locally, in terms of Native nations, whose land are we on? And previous, when I was teaching in California, in the Los Angeles area, in particular, the Tongva people are an Indigenous group that’s not federally recognized, who is largely erased, even though there’s a very urban Indian population in Los Angeles.
The Native group of the area is largely erased, and it has kind of this discourse around, “They no longer remain Indigenous, because the past tense”, right. Because of the mission history that kind of has been romanticized in California and with the fourth-grade curriculum where students build missions and talk about how it was so great. And not understanding that these were places of genocide, these were places where the first place where kind of hetero-patriarchy or Christian notions of gender were being instilled, and that separation. And so, like really thinking about how to create a curriculum that contextualizes the local, talks about the history, talks about the native nation of the area. And then also talks about how did people end up where we’re at? And then thinking beyond just this is something that I needed to do in terms of education, I took a course. But what is my responsibility to this place, and to this people. And so, creating courses around those notions in terms of like education as kinship, building relations to the local, relationalities to land and to place and to people, and thinking about education in that way is very different than just a history course that you’re going to take on the Pacific. And then talking about “Okay, so what is our responsibility? If we are here on these lands, and we understand the context of settler colonialism and that history that erases Native people, what is our responsibility and what are we going to do?”
Will Brehm 13:45
And so have you been able to start building some of these programs to talk about kinship, to talk about responsibility, to talk about land and people in some of the ways that you’re expressing now. Has that been successful in any way in programs that you’ve worked on?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 14:00
Yes. I mean, the most recent example I can think of in terms of programs that have been successful has been teaching at the Claremont Colleges, for example. I used to teach Pacific Islander and Indigenous Studies courses there and there were not that many Native American students across the five-college consortium. They were not that many Pacific Islander students across the five-college consortium. And so, what if we just created a space around indigeneity and really think about having a mentoring program that centers indigeneity and talking about our responsibilities to the local. Because a lot of the Native American students who were at the Claremont’s were not from the local tribal communities themselves. And so it was like educating all the Indigenous students in terms of where they were at in some local Native nations, some of the Elders, some people who are involved in education to talk about the ongoing challenges but also like the tremendous programs that are being built around resilience and thinking about how to create a mentoring program in which these students felt empowered, they felt supported because often they’re like one of one or one of two from their communities that end up in higher ed. But also, like how to use your education for empowerment. You know, we’re in these spaces, and it’s hard and it’s isolating, but how do we give back to our community? And then how do we give back to the local community? So, what are we doing with our education? And so yes, the Claremont Colleges, we established the Indigenous peer mentoring program, which I discuss in the article. And then we also had another program called the Saturday Tongvan Education Program, which brought local Tongvan community into the Claremont Colleges. And then we had a lot of the Native American mentors take part in this program of mentoring youth. And the exchanges that were taking place, learning about their different cultures, but also having role models and also feeling like the students were able to give back to the local community in a different way.
Will Brehm 16:06
And this giving back in the local community in a different way: do you find that this is happening after students graduate?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 16:12
So, I do find this happening after students graduate. They remain, they keep in touch with one another. By and large, they’re thinking about their next steps in terms of graduate professional programs, their research interests have now shifted, they’re collaborating, we had students that were working with the local tribal communities, but also, they’re going to Hawaii to stand with Mauna Kea. And so, you have these beautiful things happening where not only are they being successful in higher ed despite all the ways in which the institution has made it very difficult for them. But they’re also – outside of the education institution – engaging in these really beautiful collaborations that are taking place amongst Indigenous communities. And they do feel like their purpose in terms of maybe going on and pursuing higher education, graduate professional school is tied back to this notion of what kind of resource can I do in order to give back?
Will Brehm 17:09
It just occurred to me. I’m going to use the word subversive but it’s not in a bad way because what it’s doing is instead of trying to necessarily change curriculum in higher education, which, of course, it’s going to be a very difficult fight for all sorts of reasons -you’re sort of creating these spaces parallel. And then the students themselves are bringing this new knowledge and new way of thinking into these old sort of structures. And that’s quite subversive, you know. I love it! It’s really kind of powerful.
Kēhaulani Vaughn 17:36
You know, there’s higher ed and the neoliberalization of higher education. What it does -it’s really about meritocracy, it’s individualism, it’s counter to everything that Indigenous students have been taught in terms of what values they should have culturally. And so, we can either create spaces in which we’re honoring Indigenous cultures and values and work against these notions of individualism. Or we could see what we already see in higher education, where there’s not a lot of Indigenous students going to higher ed because they don’t find it culturally relevant and two: they don’t find the support that they need while they’re there. So, what can we do to change these statistics and this cultural shift that needs to happen in my opinion?
Will Brehm 18:29
The other thing that really strikes me is I think, since I’ve been in higher education over the last 15 plus years, I’ve noticed more and more land acknowledgments at conferences, at different academic settings. You know, I spent time in Australia, this is quite common there. But it seems like what you’re talking about is slightly beyond just getting up and sort of acknowledging the traditional owners of the land.
Kēhaulani Vaughn 18:54
What we’re seeing with land acknowledgments is that there was an initial impetus, right, of really trying to educate folks in terms of whose land they were on. And I think a lot of times education institutions, and maybe even some social justice organizations ran with this idea but not thinking about the protocol that usually is entailed with this type of acknowledgement. So, there’s Indigenous protocols that recognize a place but when you do those types of protocols, it also requires responsibility. So, it’s about building relationalities with the local, kind of thinking about ways in which we can assist, support, or do better. And having those ongoing conversations -it’s not just a one-off thing, which oftentimes land acknowledgments actually become a way of kind of move to settler innocence. We will talk about what happened or even if the land acknowledgement does that, which oftentimes it doesn’t, it just says this is the land of this group and this group and this group. And oftentimes, maybe we should do a study on this, it’s in the past tense. So, even seeing how that discourse plays out within land acknowledgments. And usually, it doesn’t come with any sort of conversation that moves us beyond that. So, if we made this acknowledgment, how do we move beyond that and start actually being in relationship with the local community and asking, “So how can we do better as an education institution to meet the needs of your local Native nation, your community? What are some programs maybe that we can -Native students, Indigenous students should be going to higher ed for free. That’s first! And a lot of institutions are moving. Some institutions have announced that but what we’re seeing also is there’s no wraparound services, there’s no support systems being set up in place. And they’re just like, “Oh, if we give you free tuition, you’ll be great, you’ll be successful”. But we’re not actually thinking about the systemic ways in which this has been set up all along that has made it so that Native and Indigenous students are not feeling welcome in higher ed because of the lack of cultural significance for them. And these places that reinforce these ideas that their communities are in the past tense, but also the whole justification for colonialism and settler colonialism and western knowledge production in the first place.
Will Brehm 18:56
It’s such a large task at hand. I mean, the ideas of what you’re sort of talking about here. You know, the idea of giving free tuition sounds fantastic but then, as you say, all these additional side effects or other structural issues that need to be sort of dealt with. And then that’s potentially only in higher education. You then have to sort of think all the other levels of education, all the other parts of society and the economy that probably have discriminatory structures built in over generations. And the task sort of becomes a bit just enormous in a way. But it is really nice to start sort of thinking through it. One of the things that I often wonder when I engage with literature on Indigenous populations, on decolonizing, which is becoming quite popular – it’s sort of Zeitgeist right now in higher education for good and bad. But I do wonder, someone like me: white, male from the United States, non-Indigenous, grew up in suburban New Jersey, now lives abroad. I’ve lived abroad for many years. Now, I’m living in the United Kingdom. And so, I’m not really part of the United Kingdom but I also sort of fit in in the majority population in the United Kingdom: in what ways could I support this project that you’re talking about? How can I sort of advocate and be part of Trans-Indigenous Education?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 22:39
So, I think, there are a lot of ways that people can support. It could be from the everyday conversations that you have with other people that have no idea in terms of the local Native nation. Figuring out where you’re at is a huge thing, especially for the people in Turtle Island who continue to kind of live especially in urban areas where oftentimes those Indigenous communities, Native nations are not being talked about, not being regarded, or seen as the past tense. So, first I would say: get to know where you’re at. Get to know the land that you’re on, get to know the Native nations, get to know the history but also the contemporary, right -the current groups. There’s all sorts of things happening locally in terms of what people can get involved with, what people can support. And because we’re in a capitalist system, time is so precious, but you can support in various ways, right? Having these conversations you can support monetarily, do various organizations you can support, if you’re in higher education, basically advocating. There’s a lot of institutions, like I said, that don’t even have Native Indigenous Studies. And for me, I’m still struck by that even in the times that we’re in, and we’re still not talking about Indigenous peoples in the contemporary. And thinking about ways in which we can advocate for these programs to take place. And Trans-Indigenous Education is not to have spaces that don’t have individual Native American studies or Pacific Island studies, it’s actually to complement both or to complement Indigenous Studies.
So, it’s really thinking about having a grounding where we’re at. Also thinking about if you’re not Indigenous to the area, but you are Indigenous, what is your responsibility to this place? So, that even is with me as a Pacific Islander, as a native Hawaiian, living on someone else’s land. So, there’s so many ways that you can support and get involved -volunteering. A lot of times my students will ask the same question and I’m like, you all have so many tremendous gifts like, some of these organizations are being run on a five-cent budget, some duct tape and so they could really utilize supports. Like whether it would be social media, webpage building, petitioning whether it would be like creating an artwork. For example, some of my students who took my course we’re working with STEP, the Saturday Tongvan Education Program at Claremont, the way that I pedagogically approached the community engagement was, “You’re lucky to take part in our community, you’re lucky to be in this space, you’re lucky to be in relationship with these families. So, what are you going to give back? You have all these gifts; you understand what you’ve learned in terms of settler colonialism and why there is pathway issues with Pacific Islander Indigenous communities? So, what are you going to create and give back to the program?” And they created a coloring book where they were highlighting Indigenous scholars, artists, activists, and they just wanted the youth to know that, “Hey, you can be part of this legacy” because oftentimes, they’re not seeing this in K through 12. So, what are the ways that you can use your gifts in order to support? So, it could be time, it could be money, it could be the ways in which you can create something to assist, it could be part of the everyday conversations that take place in educating others where they’re at and what they can do to support.
Will Brehm 26:13
It is fantastic. I mean, I guess by way of conclusion, how do you see some of these initiatives that you’ve been working on under that title of Trans-Indigenous Education: how do you see it connected to sort of this movement towards decolonizing the curriculum in higher education today?
Kēhaulani Vaughn 26:29
I see it definitely as integral to it because it’s not just about empowering one group of Indigenous students, right? A lot of times, as a Pacific Islander scholar, other people are going to ask me, “Well, why did you get involved with doing Native American stuff?”, and I was like, “Because it’s our responsibility as other Indigenous people who are living and occupying space and utilizing resources in Turtle Island, our responsibility to give back and to resituate Native nations in the local context who are often erased by and large. So, it’s emphasizing who’s the local native nation or people or nations and peoples, it’s where we’re physically located, beginning to understand and trying to build a relationship with the land you’re on because that’s also important. But like talking about interdependence, talking about reciprocity, talking about community building and getting us away from this individualism that allows us to turn a blind eye to a lot of these ongoing issues that we know cannot be solved by individuals. It’s going to take collective community action.
Will Brehm 27:41
Kēhaulani Vaughn, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It’s just absolute pleasure to talk to you and congratulations on your article.
Kēhaulani Vaughn 27:48
[mahalo nui] Thank you so much for having me and thank you to all the folks in Pacifica, Oceania, and Turtle Island.
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