Thoughts on the acronym trend in academia and Indigenous ways of knowing.
BANG! Blood seeps from the sheep’s eye and nose as she falls to the ground. It is my first time in a USDA slaughterhouse and the first time I had seen a bolt gun used to kill a sheep. I am sick to my stomach but trying not to let it show as I stood with friends, Ph.D. Candidates in the biomedical field who had invited me with them as they extracted sheep brain samples for their cancer research. BANG! “How different is this butchering from your butchering,” my friend asked as he harvested the brains from a decapitated sheep head and then tossed the head into a bucket that will be marked for disposal.
BANG! As blood drains into a sewer for disposal from the first sheep's headless neck, another sheep falls to the ground and is lifted to a meat rack. That feeling in my stomach continues but not for the exposure to death. I have seen plenty of livestock butchered at home on the Navajo Nation and had a fair number of butchers under my belt before stepping into that building. BANG! It is the approach, the trivialization of lives that catches me off guard for some reason: Watching as other sheep watched each other die. I mean, I knew where I was going (to a USDA slaughter facility), I knew why I was going there (to start work with USDA sheep butchers), but still a sickness formed in my stomach that I had to learn to work through or with to complete my dissertation research. BANG! Did I need to butcher like this?, I thought. No, but I was there to learn so I did my best to push through it to see if I could do just that. Learning from them was difficult... but then I met Navajo butchers who worked in the slaughterhouses and who encouraged me to learn with them because maybe I would understand. To my surprise I did, and the sickness went away because of them and my insight to slaughterhouses and Indigenous butchers transformed. BANG!
This sickness in my stomach has once again touched me; this time as I transition my dissertation into a book manuscript. I returned in 2022 to the research realm since my 2016 graduation. It was a timely break from my 5/5 teaching load and grant work. I knew where I was going (back into the world of written academia, a place that belittles Indigenous ways of knowing and where Indigenous scholars are attempting to make major headway in changing that space) and I knew why I was going (to catch up on trends, verbiage, scholarship, emerging Indigenous scholars).
To my surprise, human-animal studies is in a huge boom; everyone is talking about “the more-than-human.” It is now cool to talk about what many Indigenous people still do, people who actually live these ways of knowing and being and who embrace these responsibilities since time immemorial.
While the trendy of what I write about took me off guard in terms of self-doubt about what makes my project distinct and if animals studies is what I actually do; what made my stomach turn - my BANG! is the absolutely astounding use of acronyms being employed by Indigenous and ally scholars to engage Indigenous Research Methods and Methodologies and ways of knowing.
IWOK: Indigenous Ways of Knowing
TKHs: Traditional Knowledge Holders
IRM: Indigenous Research Methods
TEK: Traditional Ecological Knowledge
ISW: Indigenous Storywork
ISW 4RS: Indigenous Storywork Four R's of Storywork
IK: Indigenous Knowledge
SNBH: Sa'ah Naaghai Bik'éh Hozhóón
and here is one that literally induced laughter:
OMC: Old Man Coyote
And the list continues…
BANG! BANG! BANG! Over and over.
Individuals who are publishing to teach others of the power and dangers of Indigenous praxis have created a trend of trivializing concepts, practices, collaborators, beings into a few letters because despite their claims of these ways of knowing as being ever so almighty, their academic labels are just too cumbersome to write out. Isn't it already problematic enough that we have the academic labels as it is? But I won't go there today.
The best case scenarios (please sense the sarcasm) occur when an acronym is employed without indicating what it stands for as if TKHs is so well spread, that all readers - including the alleged most important readers of Indigenous scholars... the community members - know what those letters are. (Here is Perdue Owl's help to properly use acronyms). I... myself... a community member and academic still has to google these letters. Just last week I received an invitation to offer a IWOK keynote, but I had no idea what IWOK is and it was never spelled. I had to google it... (No - I did not accept the invitation) WHO ARE YOU/WE WRITING FOR?
Don’t get me wrong I use acronyms- more than I like - mostly prefixes for classes like NAS for Native American Studies. And in my syllabus you will find SNBH because it is required as part of our academic policy to include the verbatim statement. Then there is the checking of the AI/AN box for demographic selections in surveys and such.
It is not just with Native American and Indigenous studies and those trying their best to engage these approaches; people everywhere are taking acronyms to the extreme. I hear ads on the radio for MBC, a condensed version for metastatic breast cancer. It’s as if we can’t say cancer anymore, we need to trivialize everything to acronyms.
When I read that scholarship with these acronyms, my stomach turned because I asked myself: do I need to use these acronyms now? I saw these Indigenous scholars, Navajo scholars, doing it. So I tried it. BANG - the bolt gun was now in my hand. My stomach turned. It wasn’t like I was learning from lifelong practitioners as I did with the Navajo butchers who work in slaughter facilities.
I returned to those acronym soup readings and even worse, memories of hearing Indigenous and ally scholars using acronyms for these being (FYI: people actually say I-R-M out loud in conversation), and I realized that it is the scholars that use the acronyms that I was questioning. Regardless of how meaningful or impactful their articles, books, lectures are, their uses of acronyms make me question their actual engagement; the use of those acronyms make me question if they actually experience these power and are willing to at all costs teach their children of the dangers.
For example Jo-ann Archibald (2019), who employs an alphabet soup of acronyms, elucidates seven "ISW" principles: "that facilitate meaning making through and with Indigenous stories, which may be of a traditional nature or about lived experiences" as if Indigenous ways of knowing is segregated traditional stories from lived experiences. She may have gems in this piece but her used of acronyms take away from what she and her collaborators have to say. Not to mention that this alleged segregation she suggest offers an impression that she doesn't understand how the "lived" and the "traditional nature" are all enveloped into one.
In fact, her use of acronyms is the only thing creating a segregation between the two. It actually makes me giggle think: Do scholars who use these acronyms go into the hogan and say outloud: "Wow, this IK hit me so hard," sit in the teepee and tell the roadman: "you are one bad ass TKH," or head out to gather herbs and shout to the tree tops: "hey, this TEK is powerful"? I doubt it. Will the Holy People know what you are saying if you sing "SNBH" instead of the full verses? I'm not willing to risk it.
And I am not just isolating Archibald for the fun of it. I am sure that those of you reading this blog are selecting your own example... WE are using acronyms everywhere. And I say we, because I, you, them, are we. We are the scholars and academics that continue to perpetuate this denigration. It just so happens that a chapter of Archibald was just the fortunate one to be assigned as a reading to my husband in his Indigenous Research Methods class this past week. So it is fresh in my memory.
There is no separation from between traditional and lived experience. Scholars are doing it to ourselves with engagements such as these (do I need to go into internal colonization discussions here?) Works like Archibald's work is a perfect example of Indigenous scholars isolating themselves further because these alphabet soup readings make their way back to our communities; sometimes because there is a topic provoked and other times we are just trying to figure out who these scholars are, where they come from, what clan they are, and when are they home. I learned that many (not all) are individuals who are vacationers to their homelands at best. They don’t want to relearn their language, only write of language loss. They don't want to engage with Indigenous research within their homelands, only in the city. They don’t want to become cultural artists, only do a couple of workshops and celebrate their temporal reconnections with raw materials. They don’t want to engage these ways of knowing at home as daily, seasonal obligations, only teach about Indian magic as a nostalgic or exotic propaganda tool used to enchant colleagues, students, and funders. In short - they never plant but still teach the Corn Pollen Road of Life.
"Chill, Christine. Why are you so angry," I asked myself out loud. "Because these beings, what have been reduced to a few letters, can literary cure cancer. They keep the world in balance and bring life and death," I responded to myself. When Indigenous and ally researchers use acronyms for these powers, they trivialize methods, collaborators, and extra-intellectual ways of knowing for the sake of ease and trend.
I remember speaking with an elder at our college about the use an the acronym for Sa'ah Naaghai Bik'éh Hozhóón and the complications of it use within a Western academic setting. He told me he understand why I was upset about the acronym and the institutionalization this being. But we talked it out. He explained to me that he used it because he didn't want students and non-Navajo faculty to feel intimidated with pronunciation at the time of the College's origins. It brought us back the age old language discussion and the major question of being able to pray in our language for ourselves and our loved ones; how we have made it "okay" to take short cuts by using English. It brings me back to: Will the Holy People know what you are saying if you use only English in your prayers and substitute the acronym of SNBH instead of the full verses. In the case of acronyms, we, Indigenous scholars, are pulling ourselves away - no one else to blame here.
Memories of that discussion help me to move through the anger into a new place -- how to approach this trend. I think of the institutionalization of young Indigenous scholars now - maybe, like myself, they felt/feel pressured to use the acronym because they were/are trying to prove that they can do the academic thing just as well as anyone else. Maybe they picked up the bolt gun because they thought there was no other option.
So I returned to personal accountability: Do I need to use these acronyms? My response is: “I will not.” I have sat up too many nights praying and singing for cures, I have been visited by one too many “nonhuman” animals, I have been informed by one too many dreams, I have teared over one too many failed crops because of drought and over one too many snowstorms that blessed our fields. I have fell asleep at one too many sings, been yelled at by one too many medicine persons, have been home long enough to know that reducing these ways of knowing to 3 or 4 letters is mockery.
If you use these acronyms in your scholarship or speak with them in classes, at lecture, or with friends, pause and think about this: If you can't spell out Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Traditional Knowledge Holders, if these words, concepts, beings are taking up too much of your word count; if you cannot even try to pronounce Navajo philosophies, maybe these things don't mean as much to you as you claim they do in your publishings or in your life for that matter. Am I judging us? Only as much as we judge the non-Native scholars who denigrate, dismiss, and belittle our ways of knowing.
Perhaps you will read this as too conservative, perhaps you will see me as a lateral oppressor, that’s okay. I don’t need an acronym to accept that although YDL would work well here.
Those Navajo butchers who work in meat processing facilities taught me so much about the power of life and death of these ways of knowing in a "sterile" Western environment and how that extends into their work and our lives. They taught me how to maneuver: when and how to pick up the bolt gun and when the knife. I thank them for helping me through those BANGs. Their work and applications of Diné ways of knowing within a slaughterhouse make more sense to me than acronym usage within Indigenous thought, philosophy, and pedagogy pieces.
For the scholar who use these acronyms and, consciously or not, trivialize our ways of living, I hope this is your BANG! Writing this blog was certainly one for me - no more acronyms in writings and no more in my syllabus. It's small but its a step.
Life’s not easy nor is it trendy - so stop making these approaches as if they were.
Just a Tách'inii thinking out loud about butchering, researching, manuscript writing, and life on the Navajo reservation.