In 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia to determine how America should be governed. They’d intended to simply revise the Articles of Confederation, but then decided they needed to redesign the government instead. There wasn’t much agreement about what this new government should look like, and no existing models to fit the American ideals of the time. But in the northeastern region of North America, the Iroquois Confederacy fashioned a participatory democracy forged by six Indigenous nations that had flourished for more than 800 years.
It’s not hard to find evidence that the framers of the United States government were familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy, nor is it difficult to find significant influence in the U.S. Constitution. Both governments codify a system of checks and balances whose executive body is counterbalanced with a bicameral legislature. Both delineate the process for removing an office holder and designate who has the power to declare war. In a speech that Benjamin Franklin later memorialized in print, the Onondaga leader, Canassatego, urged the 13 belligerent colonies to unite as the six nations had centuries before. Canassatego underscored his message by observing that it’s easier to break a single arrow than it is to break a bundle held together—a metaphor enshrined by the 13 arrows clutched in the eagle’s talon in the Great Seal of the United States.
But this story is not included in most history textbooks—one of innumerable omissions of Indigenous history that permit historical inaccuracies to persist. This centuries-long erasure was further institutionalized by federal programs designed to assimilate Native people out of existence. Native American and Alaska Native Peoples were excluded from the U.S. decennial census until 1870, 80 years after the census began. Native people were not recognized as citizens until 1924, a recognition that conferred the right to vote. These erasures have lasting implications, says Stephanie Fryberg, director of the new Research for Indigenous Social Action and Equity Center (RISE), professor of psychology, and University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor. “A lot of Americans believe that Native Americans no longer exist and did not influence the development of the United States of America,” she says.
“Native people have long pushed back against this erasure,” she continues, “but the larger issue is that the erasure is so system-shaped by what we learn in school, the segregated nature of where we reside, and what is visible in media, that many Americans literally do not see or engage with Natives in their everyday life. This allows people to minimize the injustices we face, and to look away when our people are hurting. The goal of RISE is to elevate contemporary Indigenous voices—to tell our own stories about who we are and how we want to be seen, and ultimately to be effective advocates for what our communities need.”
RISE aims to address these complex and nuanced challenges using an approach that has made it the first center of its kind. RISE began in 2021 with a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative. Since its initial funding, RISE has built a collaborative of academics, nonprofit organizations, artists, and activists that conducts multidisciplinary Indigenous-led humanist research. RISE has spent the last year forging partnerships, deepening relationships within tribal communities, and hiring a diverse team of researchers and staff before the center’s full public launch later this year.
One branch of RISE’s research challenges misrepresentations and omissions of Indigenous people by conducting studies that create a contemporary portrait of Native values, aspirations, attitudes, and beliefs that derive from Native people themselves. RISE brings its findings to tribal leaders, Native creatives (artists, film and TV writers, producers, and fashion designers), and activists so they can use the center’s research to produce new representations that accurately depict Indigenous experiences. RISE is also developing a pipeline of young, Indigenous researchers, Fryberg says, to help mentor the next generation of scholars to study social justice and equity, and to give voice to Indigenous issues that are supported by science.
“I think the urgency to address the prejudice and discrimination experienced by Native Peoples is not visible to most Americans because they don’t actually know how to envision the lives of contemporary Native people,” Fryberg says. “This representation of Native people as frozen in the past has deeply impacted how non-Natives engage with us.”
RISE’s research is particularly significant because its findings can have far-reaching effects. At this writing, RISE is running more than two dozen ongoing research projects, a number that reflects RISE’s ambition and the desperate need for data about contemporary Indigenous experience led by Indigenous researchers. “When you have data,” Fryberg says, “people can’t default to ‘Oh well, there’s a dearth of research on Natives’ to justify not talking about or attending to the issues impacting our people and our communities
“Oftentimes, in very consequential domains of society, there are conversations that lead to decisions about where to direct resources and the kinds of social services that need to be created and deployed,” she continues. “This is one reason that data needs to reflect Native people’s real experiences. Another is the imperative to understand how the attitudes, beliefs, and decisions held by these individuals who have the power to change policy or direct resources are influenced by the way in which Natives are represented or in many cases not represented in society.
“Most of our research focuses on how Native representation influences non-Natives’ attitudes and beliefs,” Fryberg explains. “We want to understand how these perceptions influence support for policies and practices that benefit tribal communities and shape the lives of Natives living in community or residing in urban spaces.”
RISE also investigates the way these portrayals influence Indigenous people and what happens within both groups when the portrayals change. “When we see the same representations leading different groups to see different stories, we can highlight these differences and work to change them,” she explains.
RISE’s research shows that changing Indigenous portrayals can create different perceptions that can, in turn, lead to different attitudes and beliefs. Fryberg says that understanding how this happens can illuminate a path for changing the future. For example, RISE’s research shows that romanticized depictions of Native women contribute to the epidemic of violence against Native women, and to the apathy with which news of such terrible violence is received. Indigenous women are more than 10 times more likely to be murdered than other American women. Homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for women between the ages of 25-34 and the third leading cause for girls and women between 10 and 24.
“Ninety percent of the violence Indigenous women and girls experience in Indian Country does not get prosecuted,” she continues. “With limited exception, tribes do not have the right to prosecute non-Natives, which is where the majority of this violence comes from. Responsibility to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes falls to the federal government and, due to limited resources and a variety of negative and romantic stereotypes about Native women, most do not get prosecuted. Moreover, when they do prosecute, the perpetrators are given very minimal sentencing. This means that Natives living on reservations do not have the same legal protections as other Americans.”
Having your identity scraped from mainstream culture is consequential, Fryberg says. “I grew up on the reservation, and when I first left I was startled by what people thought of us. In college, other students asked, ‘Did you have to buy new clothes to come here? How did you find out that you got into college? Where do you live?’ They thought we didn’t wear regular clothing, that we didn’t get mail, and we didn’t live in regular houses. They envisioned us as really primitive people living somewhere out in the Wild West.”
One reason for this false impression might be that in the United States, 87 percent of state-level U.S. history standards locate Indigenous Peoples in pre-1900 contexts. In other words, once the timeline moves past 1900, Indigenous people pretty much disappear. “The things people learn about us in school predate most of modern society. At RISE, we’ve been researching non-Natives’ perceptions of Indigenous people, and it turns out that between 80 and 85 percent of Americans who participated in our studies perceived Native people as historical figures despite the fact that 10 million of us are living in the United States today,” says Fryberg. “When people ask the kinds of questions my college peers asked, which happens more often than you might think, I ask myself as a researcher and a parent, what message does this send to Indigenous youth? What impact does it have on belonging, identity development, motivation, and future success?
“Throughout history, Natives in this country have been pushed aside and our experiences have been erased. We were put on reservations that were often extremely remote and we were characterized in entertainment as either noble savages or as people broken by centuries of colonization. In many respects, these actions and stories erased, misrepresented, and dehumanized us,” Fryberg says. “Changing our story is about humanizing us and making our lives and experiences visible.” But changing this story requires seeing the ways in which the erasure of Indigenous stories is also deeply rooted in what it means to be American. “The erasure of Native Peoples is less about us and more about protecting American identities. The history textbooks are quick to tell stories of Native wrongdoings, but rarely, if ever, tell the stories of transgressions against Natives. The one-sided stories are about justifying past and present injustices against Native people. A just future for Native Peoples requires that we make the experiences of contemporary Natives visible.”
Fryberg believes this work can be accelerated by Native creatives. In the LSA Building, she says, RISE will have a gallery where an Indigenous artist-in-residence will show their work. People will have the opportunity to talk with them about how they’re representing contemporary Indigenous people’s lives and the issues within their communities.
There has been a long rebuilding of relationships between Native communities and academia, in large part due to the tireless work of Indigenous researchers. After hundreds of years of eugenics, dehumanizing medical experiments, and data weaponized against Native people, Indigenous researchers like Fryberg and her team at RISE are actively engaging in culturally grounded research that can be translated to benefit Indigenous Peoples.
“As an Indigenous scientist, I carry a responsibility,” she says. “I can’t just do the work, publish it, and then leave it for others to disseminate. I have to translate the science for tribal communities and educators. My hope is that the research will enhance the lives of contemporary Native Peoples, but also have lasting positive effects for future generations. To do this, the science must clearly demonstrate, ‘This is what we know about what drives stereotypes about Native people. Here’s what’s driving apathy about our murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.’”
Fryberg believes that knowing the actual Indigenous story in America is essential for all communities in this country and abroad to move forward, and that this is a critical element of RISE’s work too. “Pretty much anything you’ve learned about Native people in school is not true,” she says, “so you have to learn to question it. Why do you celebrate Thanksgiving the way that you do? Why do we celebrate Columbus and Indigenous people on the same day? Learning about these things means really giving yourself the opportunity to recognize it’s not your fault you don’t know. There are many opportunities today to learn and engage with Native people and really good and appropriate ways to represent who we are. We haven’t always had good choices, especially in the public consciousness, but I think those days are coming to an end.”
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In LSA, we’re preparing students to create bold and purposeful change, wherever their individual paths lead. After graduation, Emmanuel plans to put his multicultural perspective and international studies degree to work in refugee and immigration advocacy. An LSA internship scholarship enabled him to gain precious experience with a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers — so he can start making a positive difference now.