American Sociological Association

Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
September/October 2018
Volume 
46
Issue 
4

Making Space for Indigenous Sociology within the Discipline

Kari Marie Norgaard, University of Oregon

“I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are holding our meeting in the ancestral and un-ceded territory of the Lenape people. . . “

This is how Eduardo Bonilla-Silva began his 2018 ASA Presidential Address. He went on to underscore that “Sociologists must recognize that settler colonialism…is not past history, but a contemporary social force [and] is a racist project.”  

For the handful of us in ASA who identify as Native American, work with Indigenous collaborators, or hold commitments to theorizing and undoing settler-colonialism, these were exciting words to hear. Twenty-five years ago, Matthew Snipp (1992) observed that “American Indians have remained outside ordinary sociological inquiry.” This trend has unfortunately continued. Just as Aldon Morris (2015) brought attention to the racist context within which U.S. sociology developed and Julian Go (2016) underscored the imprint of imperialism in the founding structures of sociological thought, it matters that U.S. sociology continues to be imagined and developed in the wake of unacknowledged indigenous genocide, from a standpoint of a nearly silent occupation. It matters that nearly all U.S. sociologists craft our theory within a colonial perspective. 

Beyond American sociology, Native studies is on the rise and the concept of settler-colonialism is exploding across the social sciences. Australian political theorist Patrick Wolfe (2006) emphasized that because of the permanent aspect of settlement in places such as North America, colonialism becomes a structure of the new society rather than a series of past events as it has more commonly been understood. Also, integral to settler-colonial theory is emphasis on struggles over land, and the ongoing erasure of Indigenous political, social, and epistemological systems through the everyday operation of institutions and cultural practices of settler society. 

Scholarship by and about indigenous peoples continues to be under-represented. For instance, ASA lacks a section on Indigenous peoples or colonialism, and few scholars identify as Native American. Sociologists whose work focuses on indigenous experience are frequently told their work is “not sociological” or their article was “outside the scope of material published in the journal.” Content analyses of sociological scholarship on Native peoples reveal a marked tendency towards pathologizing Native experiences through emphasis on drug and alcohol use and domestic violence (Bacon 2017, Huyser 2017). A number of feedback loops work against Indigenous sociology: ongoing institutional pressures and forced assimilation make for fewer numbers of Native sociologists; building the field is difficult with little published work on settler-colonialism (e.g., papers submitted to journals are rarely reviewed by Native scholars or those familiar with Native history and contemporary experience); and low numbers indigenous sociologists and other scholars focused on these issues make it difficult to form an ASA section. Without a critical mass of either people or scholarship, it is hard to attract new scholars, who turn instead to disciplines where indigenous perspectives are more theoretically developed like Native studies, geography, anthropology, and critical ethnic studies. 

Nevertheless, we are in an exciting time with sociological theorizing from Indigenous perspectives on the rise. This year’s ASA Annual Meeting held several hopeful developments in addition to Bonilla-Silva’s powerful address. James Fenelon organized the invited session “Indigenous America: Aliens on our own Lands- Emotions of Citizenship and Genocide” with papers presented by Manley Begay, Dwanna Robertson, Margo Tamez, and Joseph Giovanetti.  

Michelle Jacob and I each organized sessions on Indigenous peoples within ASA sections. Michelle Jacob’s session, “Feeling Settler-Colonialism: Indigenous and non-Indigenous Perspectives” (Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities), featured papers on collaborations between indigenous communities and climate science organizations, analyses of #NoDAPL, (anti-Dakota Access Pipeline) nationalism, masculinity, and reconciliation. Papers were presented by Gail Waterhouse, Carla May Dhillon, Heidi Christine Nicholls, Jeffrey Steven Denis, Mollie McGuire, Arianne Eason, Laurel Davis-Delano, and Stephanie Fryberg with Dwanna Robertson as discussant. 

I organized the session, “Indigenous Peoples, Colonialism and Environmental Sociology” (Environmental Sociology Section), with papers from Kirsten Vinyeta, Julia Miller Cantzler, J.M. Bacon, Yvonne Sherwood and Erich Steinman. Panelists discussed colonial ecological violence, Indigenous critiques of the Rights of Nature movement, and the complexity of coalition mobilization in the NoDAPL movement, among other topics.

Together our panels illustrate how settler-colonial frameworks inform not only the experience of Indigenous peoples, but basic sociological tenets. Just as gender scholars articulate the importance of sexism for a wide range of social dynamics and race scholars emphasize how race and racism structure institutions, culture, and sociological understanding at large, colonialism is best understood as “the inherited background field within which market, racial, patriarchal, and state relations converge” (Coulthard 2014). We encourage each of you to heed Bonilla-Silva’s call that “We should all take collective responsibility for historical injustice and seriously develop a restorative decolonizing response.” We encourage other ASA sections to consider how settler-colonialism affects your subfield. Another exciting development from this year is growing momentum around forming an Indigenous Peoples section. Please contact me if you are interested. 

Kari Marie Norgaard is associate professor of Sociology at University of Oregon and the author of Salmon Feeds Our People forthcoming with Rutgers University Press in 2019. She can be reached at norgaard@uoregon.edu.