Expert gives perspective on Native American rights movement

Published On:
Monday, December 7, 2009
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A candidate for an associate professor of English position in Indigenous American literature studies gave ASU students and faculty a preview of his work on the Tempe campus Friday.

Sean Teuton, currently an associate professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented “The Road to Red Power,” highlighting the lesser-known 19th century Indigenous rights movement that inspired the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Red Power movement, Teuton said, was a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous citizens and the American government.

“During the Red Power era, American Indians forged a new relationship with land and ancestry,” he said.

Red Power helped unite Native American activists, transforming the movement “from personal to collective … from isolation to interaction,” Teuton said.

But those activists ultimately drew inspiration from their 19th-century counterparts, who called for collaboration between the American Indian nations long before 1969, Teuton said.

Beginning in 1827, activists gained momentum through mediums like editorials in the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper and public lectures, all stressing “the human right to dwell in one’s ancestral home,” Teuton said.

Still, much of the bringing together of Indigenous nations was imposed through American government policies, such as forcing Native children into boarding schools, he said.

The schools were created in an effort to “Westernize” children, Teuton said, eradicating their various national identities.

However, one reverse effect of the schools was the creation of a new bond between the children, creating an unparalleled international identity, he said.

“It’s a piece of irony in a series of ironies,” Teuton said.

And it’s a subject that hits close to home for the Native American professor.

When he lectures on the boarding schools in his classes, Teuton said he comes close to tears.

“I can’t imagine anything worse,” he said.

Teuton spoke about returning to his ancestors’ land during his graduate studies.

“It was like breathing for the first time — painful, yet eye-opening, joyful,” he said.

Much of his teaching material is personal for Teuton, who is a citizen of the Cherokee nation.

Teuton, if hired, will teach classes examining Native American literature from different social perspectives.

On Thursday, students attended a question-and-answer session with Teuton. The English department organized the session in an effort to involve both Native American and American Indian Studies students in the hiring process.

Photography junior Erica Roman, in her first year in the American Indian Studies program, said Teuton would be a good match for the program.

“He gave me a new perspective on things,” Roman said. “I didn’t know the background of the movement before, and he put it all in context.”

Reach the reporter at jessica.testa@asu.edu