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Advancing the Dialogue on Native Nations: Q&A with James Fenelon

James Fenelon

Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change James Fenelon

This is an urgent time for social change, says James Fenelon, and that means there’s no better place to be than Swarthmore.
“I’m deeply impressed at the motivation and level of awareness of Swarthmore students, who I believe will make fine future leaders that the world so desperately needs in these times of climate crisis and deep inequality,” says Fenelon, professor of sociology at California State University, San Bernardino, and founder/director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies.
“I’m also impressed by the College’s efforts at sustainability and with engaged scholarship,” he says. “It’s a remarkable time, at a remarkable place, and I look forward to making some kind of contribution.”
Fenelon, who identifies as Lakota/Dakota, Gaelic Irish, and Norsk, researches urban inequality, Native Nations, and international/intercultural environmental issues. He has worked with the Urban Conservation Corps, the California Indian Nations College, and the Water Resources Policy Initiatives for Cal State.

An advocate for social justice around the world, Fenelon now turns his attention to Swarthmore as Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change and professor of sociology. He recently took time to discuss the courses he’s teaching this year, his plans for the visiting professorship, what it means to him to teach on Lenape land, and more.

What course are you teaching this year at Swarthmore?

The course is on Indigenous peoples and globalization, intersecting with environmental studies. We’ll be looking at an article [Envisioning Indigenous Models for Social and Ecological Change in the Anthropocene] I recently published with a colleague, which demonstrates the way Indigenous societies can be used as models to try to counter both the Anthropocene and the incredible issues of climate change in our society. It feels very opportune to me. It seems crazy that we spent the past 400 years in the modern-world system wiping out Indigenous societies only to find out they may very well have the best model for how to deal with these issues in front of us. Then in the spring, I'll be teaching a course on Indian Nations and Native America.

What are your early impressions of Swarthmore?

The students are so bright and committed. They are highly motivated and involved. To be able to just simply work through some pretty advanced modeling after laying a foundation with students who look like they’re just all going to deliver, that’s really great. And the class size is workable as well. As I moved into positions in academia, sometimes it’s a small graduate group or a special seminar, but you also spend a lot of time just in these very large, didactic classes, where you feel separated from making a difference. And so I really appreciate coming out here and returning to my roots, as I should say, as an educator, which is working with smaller, meaningful groups, trying and making a difference in both the student lives and in our lives, too, as educators.

What else are you planning for your visiting professorship?

I’m really excited about a lecture, “Indigenous Nation-(Re) Building Renaissance: Issues of Sovereignty, Culture, and Leadership,” with Manley A. Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and professor at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. [Register here for the virtual event to be held this Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m. ET]. He’ll discuss what lies at the heart of issues pertaining to Indigenous nation-building and traditional ways of knowing, while touching on environmental issues of the Navajo Nation and Indigenous peoples around the world.

Beyond that, I plan to give at least one lecture on campus, and will look to develop a conference that can explore the areas of sociology & anthropology, the social sciences, and environmental studies from the perspectives of some traditional Native leaders.

T​he College has taken preliminary steps ​towards a formal land acknowledgment​ with the ​Unami tribe of the Lenni-Lenape people​. Understanding there is a lot of work to do, what are your early observations on the College​'s commitment to Native issues?

I know that Swarthmore has been in discussions with various groups, especially students, with its Mission Statement Committee about not just developing land acknowledgments but making real progress in that area. So along with substantial action with the acknowledgement, there was the tenure-track hire of [Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Adrienne Benally], who is Diné and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, following the addition of [Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Postdoctoral Fellow Davina Two Bears], who is also Navajo.

The College is in a pretty good place to look at developing some programming, which could align with some of the work of [the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies] and its emphasis on both local and global. The main thing is recognizing that these issues don’t stop at the borders of the United States. And that would play well with a lot of the things I see going on at Swarthmore. So we can think about these issues with an eye toward program development.

What does it mean to you to be teaching and residing on Lenape land?

You have to get used to the particular locale and social-political situation. I was a little surprised to learn that there was no formal state recognition in Pennsylvania. Most states have that. And, of course, big Indian country states have pretty significant offices. But they have nothing there. They’re an undefined group. It’s known that the Lenape and other peoples in Pennsylvania had undergone removal, but you do have remnant peoples here.

And then there are a couple of really strong people who are well-connected who have already set up a discussion with the Lenape people. So we’ll be able to advance that discourse. And one way of doing that is to not view these land acknowledgements as just some kind of an honorific or perfunctory thing, but the start of a commitment to understand the historical relations and what can we do to improve these relations and maybe even restore some of these traditions and revitalize people. That’s already begun because of some good-hearted people here at Swarthmore.

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