The U.S. commemorates Native American Heritage Month every November. To understand what’s happening politically and in academia just now, Good Authority editor Nadia Brown reached out to Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, whose research examines the political boundaries between local and tribal governments. She began by asking about the consequences of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019 apology for the violence, discrimination, and exploitation that California Native American peoples underwent at the hands of the state.
Nadia Brown: What does Gov. Newsom’s formal apology mean in practice? How does the California Truth and Healing Council for Native Americans (created by Newsom’s executive order) work to rectify these atrocities at the state level?
Kouslaa Kessler-Mata: The California Truth and Healing Council is an appointed body comprised of 12 governing (voting) members who direct the work of historical accountability and healing between the state and California Indians. We were each nominated by our tribal governments prior to our appointment by the governor and while we do not represent specific communities or interests, our role is to help facilitate the broader processes of truth-telling across the state. We are time-bound in our work to focus only on the period around the California Gold Rush (roughly 1848 to 1852) to the present. Our final report and recommendations are due in 2025.
What challenges do you face in this effort?
One of the greatest challenges we face, unironically, is the state itself. State meeting laws, for example, prevent us from being nimble and working virtually. We come from across the state and at least half of the council members are located in rural communities without fast and convenient access to airports. We are often given only one month’s notice prior to Council meetings, which is difficult to accommodate given we all have day jobs, families, and community obligations, and many on the Council are elected officials for their tribes with even less flexibility than others of us. In order to receive reimbursements for travel and the like, we must be on-boarded through the state’s HR apparatus, which requires filling out an Oath of Allegiance to the state. This is the same state whose history we are attempting to scrutinize for its genocidal treatment of our communities.
How might this Truth and Healing Council set an example for the rest of the country?
If there’s a lesson or two I’ve learned from this process, it’s that if a non-tribal government office is going to take the lead in these efforts, then the executive branch is perhaps not the best organizational body to do so. This is thanks to the limits of the office to, for example, command the power of the purse. And we exist at the pleasure of the governor. Should the governor change before the report is finalized, we could be rendered obsolete.
The California Reparations Task Force, on the other hand – charged with examining the lingering effects of U.S. chattel slavery – was designed through legislation and placed within the State Attorney General’s office under the Civil Rights Division. There are staff attorneys and PhD researchers dedicated to assessing and quantifying the impact of state and federal policies on California’s Black population. This heavy investment in personnel and funding for the effort dwarfs our $400,000 annual budget. We do not have dedicated staff. Rather, we utilize the existing staff within the Office of Tribal Affairs, who are already managing relationships with the 109 federally recognized tribes in the state, plus the 70 or so unrecognized tribes.
California has the highest number of American Indians of any state. This disparity and the structured inequity in how the state addresses its history in relation to Indigenous communities is incredibly frustrating. While the governor’s efforts are laudable and, to his credit, he has moved forward on other policies to support California Indians, we desperately need to focus on an in-house inventory of how well the state serves California Indians in existing state programs, departments, and agencies. We lack basic data and there is no statewide clear definition of who constitutes a California Indian. How can we devise effective reparative policies if we can’t even identify the population we are talking about or say how well we are doing right now in serving them?
Suffice it to say, the state has its work cut out for it. It is my personal perspective that we should be focusing on inventorying the continued harms that the state, across all three branches, is inflicting on California Indians. Every arm of the state plays a role in the continued subjugation and domination of our communities, whether it’s harassment by the state’s Fish and Wildlife officers, CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) projects’ excavation and violation of burial sites, the state violation of Indian Child Welfare Act because a child doesn’t phenotypically “look” Indian,. This should be the focus of our work. It is not.
How does your work on the council inform your scholarship (or vice versa)?
I thought it was important from the start to establish that none of the council members would be able to profit directly from the work of the Council by using it as a kind of research project on which to write books, etc. While the data being gathered (if you want to classify it as such) is public and is being probed by other researchers, I think it’s important to draw a line between what I do in my professional career and what I do as a community member. I’ve seen many of my peers in other contexts exploit their relationships with communities by using them as a breeding ground for their own research agendas, extracting information and re-presenting it to their fellow academics without any of the necessary permissions and considerations. I feel like this violates the trust of our communities and can be incredibly damaging to both interpersonal and professional relationships. This kind of tokenization of Indigenous faculty is an example of how we continue to encourage extraction and exploitation. I do not want to be used or to use my own relationships as access points for the primary benefit of academics.
In spite of all of that, there is a huge, untapped arena for research for folks working on reconciliation and historical accountability, particularly using comparative case studies. As far as I know, few if any projects are diving into the goals, effectiveness, and structural differences among the various councils and commissions that have emerged in recent years. Even if it were my area of expertise, I don’t have the time or bandwidth to take on such important work. But lord knows, as someone on the ground, we could seriously use the insights and support. As a council, we also do not have any connection to other entities doing this work and can’t cross-pollinate our successes or discuss our challenges. Everything is moving so fast.
What are the benefits and challenges of doing research at the intersection of the field of Native American studies and political science? What emerging trends are you most excited about?
Native American Studies forces political scientists to rethink what’s important about the questions we ask and the purpose of the research we conduct. As initially designed, Native American Studies intended to bring forward not only Native perspectives into existing conversations in academia but also to expand how academia understands itself in relation to Native communities. Importantly, the discipline never saw itself as defined primarily by race, but by political sovereignty first. Many in the field rejected being included in Colleges of Ethnic Studies or the like, because that would mean tribes were being treated as racialized minorities and not as political sovereigns. There is still a strong sentiment within and across Native American studies and Indigenous studies more generally that racial paradigms and frameworks are quite frankly inappropriate as starting points when addressing issues facing Indigenous communities.
For political scientists who are interested in working on research related to Indigenous communities, we must be open to expanding well beyond what we are traditionally taught in political science graduate school programs. There is absolutely a role and place for traditional political science approaches to answer questions related to American Indians or Indigenous populations more generally. However, Native American studies provides us with a different set of considerations and helps us rethink several things: our relationships to the people being reflected in the data; what “productive” or generative questions might look like; and for whose benefit those questions are being asked.
Rather than thinking about locating our research in only academic contexts as a way of establishing legitimacy (as happens in the work of a standard literature review), Native American studies has us expand our considerations to include how we also locate ourselves as researchers in relation to the people implicated in the research itself. What are our obligations and commitments to these communities? How are relationships of accountability established? Additionally, how data should data be collected (method), what happens to it (analysis), who owns it (storage), and who controls it (dissemination) are all vital questions in the field of Indigenous Data Sovereignty, which has emerged in the era since Decolonizing Methodologies was first published in 2002 by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.
It is imperative that social scientists working on issues facing Indigenous communities dive into the rich literature that has emerged from Native American and Indigenous studies in order to shape meaningful research programs that offer insights that don’t just describe or depict Indigenous people, but which seek to partner with them. It is a lot more work and investment in ways that many folks may not be familiar or comfortable with, but that’s what is expected. Most tribal governments have their own IRBs and the processes for partnership and creating accountability mechanisms can be quite rigorous and complex. This is in part to protect Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge. In academia, we place a high value on the autonomy of the researcher and on the idea that our work reflects the noble pursuit of knowledge (and that most all things are knowable). However, within Indigenous communities, knowledge is often considered as a form of property and obtains to particular people who play particular roles in those communities. It is not for everyone to know. Therefore, tribes as governments play an important role in minimizing harm that academics can do when engaging with Indigenous people. This is just one of many tensions researchers have to work through when designing questions and methodological approaches in these contexts. In addition to Tuhiwai Smith, I’d recommend folks check out the works of professors Kim TallBear and Audra Simpson.