Thoughts on creating curriculum that supplements inherent Indigenous approaches to reengaging animal relationships.
Coffee is the Start to All Great Days: We grab some coffee from the 1st floor of Diné College's Ned Hatalthi Center Building and make our way to my office - a room that has been vacant for the last year because of my sabbatical. These days it is more of a storage area than a place of critical thought or student advising. Embarrassed by the dust and clutter, I make room for Dr. Kelsey Dayle John to sit down and we start chatting about horses, sheep, dissertations, and life as Diné women, ranchers, and academics.
I met Kelsey after googling resources on Indigenous animal studies. I had found abstracts of articles that spoke to me as if we were writing from the same space: Diné relationships with nonhuman animals. She focuses on horses 🐴 and I sheep 🐑, both animals that have been written off as acculturated nonhuman animals acquired during colonial contacts 🇪🇸🙄. I tried to access her dissertation, book chapters, and articles but our library unfortunately did not have subscriptions. So, like any good academic - I stalked Kelsey on Facebook 👀 and asked for copies via messenger 🤣.
We got to chattin' online and, boy, did we have a lot in common! I shared this blog about my manuscript writing adventures. She sent videos and articles and let me know that she would be organizing the Horses Connecting Communities gather. This would be the 3rd annual community learning space that will take place June 17-18 at Diné College Rodeo Grounds to honor and perpetuate the legacy between Diné people and horses (PSSST - there is still time to register and attend so get on it!). We planned to meet up during one of her visits to Tsaile ... coffee - it was decided as a good meeting place :)
More than Animal Studies: Meeting Kelsey was a breath of fresh air because she made me feel normal about my thoughts about Animal Studies as a Navajo woman who works and lives with livestock. She had completed her dissertation a few years after I did. As we talked I wished we had met earlier, when I was in the trenches of writing. My biggest hang up during that time period was deciding if Animal Studies was what I was doing. I mean, I was justifying Diné relationships with nonhuman animals with the non Indigenous trending studies, using the lingo, had committee members dedicated to the field ... but what I was writing about was/is taught to me by animals (domesticated, wild, dreamt). It is much older than the academic field of Animal studies; it is much more prestigious than academia itself. Kelsey got that.
Purpose of Human Animal Studies Classes at Diné College: So I shared with her our new courses on animal studies from Indigenous standpoints that I had been working on as part of my larger NEH award. This part of my award was also an updating of my Animal Studies repertoire. I read A LOT of topics within the realms of Human Animal Studies, Animal Narratology, Critical Animal Studies, and Animal Science. I looked at curriculum in place and suggestions of how to create Traditional Ecological Knowledge lessons from places like Dr. Seafha Ramos' website Stem Trading Card: TEK Lessons. I checked out books like Dr. Margo DeMello's edited volume Teaching the Animal: Human–Animal Studies across the Disciplines (2010) to justify course descriptions and draft letters to adiministration. And I read as many of the Indigenous scholars I could find who worked with nonhuman animal relationships (enter my fb stalking of Kelsey lol). I found blogs to be a wonderful space to talk outloud. Dr. Zoe Todd's website Specultative fish-ctions helped me to organize my own website and blog (even how to find space to promote our family's art business - check it out).
The courses are spread across the Anthropology and Native American Studies disciplines and are meant to transition out ANT111: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and usher in approaches that understand culture beyond anthropocentrism, beyond primitive studies of Indigenous peoples and cultures. More specifically, they are closely aligned to four of Diné College Strategic Goals in 2022:
Human Animal Studies Series
ANT116: Introduction to Human-Animal Studies: This course explores relationships between humans and other animals, as well as ideas that humans have about animals. Topics will include introduction and application of fundamental concepts of Human-Animal Studies (HAS) as they apply to human-animal economies, attitudes toward animals, and animals in art, belief systems and literature.
ANT216: Animals as Commodities: Through Human-Animal Studies (HAS) frameworks, the class analyzes three areas in which non-human animals “serve” humans: as food, as pets, and as research tools. Students will explore notions of power and difference, ethics and responsibility, and creativity in re-imagining the status quo of human-nonhuman animal relationships.
NAS316: Indigenous Relationships with Nonhuman Animals: This course deconstructs anthropocentrism (human-centered perspective) to understand how Indigenous relationships between human and nonhuman animals are created, maintained, and destroyed. The class considers critiques of the Social Sciences, STEM, and Humanities’ approaches to human-nonhuman relations offered by Indigenous peoples, scholars, and knowledge holders and culminates with specific praxis to reestablish those relationships between human and more than human.
NAS416: Indigenous Relationships beyond Death of Nonhuman Animals: This class intersects Animal Science, Animal Studies, and Native American and Indigenous Studies to explore how, where, and why non-human animals die. Through case studies grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing, the class will analyze how relationships between human and non-human animals continue before, during, and after the death of the non-human animal. Example topics may include Makah whale hunts, Andean guinea pig butchering, and Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk salmon fishing among others. The class will culminate in technical workshops guided by cultural teachings of traditional Diné sheep butchering.
What do the Discpline Prefixes and Course Levels Indicate?
None of these classes have prerequisites, because in reality relationships between human and nonhuman animals can start anywhere, at any level, or at anytime. But the NAS classes allow for a sensory component to learning that the ANT classes don't engage as much. While students learn how to conduct multi-species ethnographies in the 116 and 216 classes, it is not until the 316 and 416 classes where we work with Dinécentric sensorial arenas. Students are required to work with their own livestock or assist with Diné College's Land Grant Office and their animals to reengage communication with both human and nonhuman animals.
So why bother with the ANT classes at all?
For starters they meet the general education degree checklist 😆. I am currently working on NAS meeting that criteria on its own. In the meantime, this has helped to facility other programs, such as the Animal Science degrees here at Diné College to add these classes to their degree checklists. But beyond checklists - the ANT classes bring me back advice by my doctoral advisors, Dr. Mendoza and Dr. Vareses, who told me as a Navajo Native American Studies scholar I will need to know both Western and Indigenous approaches, theories and trends just as well as, if not better than, scholars from the so-called main stream disciplines. It will only add to my tools in my tool kit and give me an upper hand in any debate or dialogue. I have taken that into my own pedogogical practices. Often you will hear me tell students "do not throw the baby out with the bath water." Just because they are written by non-Indigenous scholars, doesn't mean they aren't helpful in articulation or thought processes - even if it is to deconstruct their own discipline.
Therefore, the ANT classes introduce unique perspectives from both Western and Indigenous ways of knowing on how we relate with animals. This information helps us to grow how we look at ourselves. The NAS class will allow for us to focus on how we as Indigenous people dialogue and depart from other Indigenous communities throughout the globe.
✅ Update current trends in Animal Studies literatures, practices, and curriculum
✅ Create Indigenous Animal Studies courses to accompany my book manuscript
Classes are open to all Diné College students and will be taught in rotation. Thank you to all those great minds, scholars, teachers, and community members, who have helped bring these courses to life!
Don't forget to register!!!!
Just a Tách'inii thinking out loud about butchering, researching, manuscript writing, and life on the Navajo reservation.