The Columns

Land in Lakota Culture, Economics and History W&L professors collaborate on a Spring Term course about American Indians and land.

— by on June 13th, 2016

There’s no better way to kick off a class about American Indians than with traditional morning greetings in the Lakota language — “Hihanni wasté, t‘unshká. Hihanni wasté, t‘unjan.” And so that’s how Harvey Markowitz and Joseph Guse, professors at Washington and Lee University, began every session of their new Spring Term course, Land in Lakota Culture, Economics and History.

Lakota Students at the summit of Bear ButteThe hardy students of the Spring Term course – Land in Lakota Culture, Economics and History – after reaching the summit of Bear Butte, South Dakota. L. to r.: Bowen Spottswood ’18, Maggie Hambleton ’16, Pepito Estrada Hamm ’19, Alex Dolwick ’19, J.T. Williams ’18, Kevin Good ’17, Erin Ferber ’18, Alison Masson ’18, Sara Jones ’18.

The students and professors used the greetings not only in the classroom but also during a week-long field trip in South Dakota, where they visited such important Lakota sites as Harney Peak, Wind Cave and Wounded Knee. The centerpiece was their stay at Wingsprings, home of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS), near Martin, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Over the past couple of years, as the professors cooked up the class, they drew on Markowitz’s previous experience taking a Spring Term class to South Dakota, and on Guse’s recent scholarly venture into American Indian economics. During the four weeks of W&L’s Spring Term, students immerse themselves in one class only.

“It developed slowly,” Guse said of the course’s creation. “We started talking about how great it would be.” He needed to visit a reservation to pursue his research, and he thought taking students along would be the best of both worlds. “Somewhere along the line, I learned that Harvey did classes like this.”

“These travel courses create a kind of experience that’s hard to forget, in the John Dewey sense of experiential learning. You have a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Those are the things you hold onto.”

Markowitz, associate professor of anthropology, is a regular visitor to South Dakota and has many friends on the reservation. Before arriving at W&L in 2003, he taught in that state at Sinte Gleska University, a tribal college on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and spent nine years as associate and acting director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library, in Chicago.

Guse, associate professor of economics, joined the W&L faculty in 2005. His introduction to American Indian studies emerged from his scholarly collaboration with Peter Grajzl (associate professor of economics at W&L) and Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl (associate professor of economics and business at Virginia Military Institute).

Markowitz read what he terms “an excellent paper” of Guse’s from his new area of study and promptly dispatched it to his old friend Craig Howe, who heads Wingsprings. Howe is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, holds a Ph.D in anthropology and is an architect.

“If there was ever a guy that deserved a MacArthur genius award, it is him,” said Markowitz of Howe. “Craig and his organization are an incredibly great resource for disseminating information about traditional Lakota history, culture, society, as well as contemporary issues. And Wingsprings is located in an area where you can just appreciate what Lakotas and other Indian people appreciate best — the land.”

“Last year we got serious about it,” said Guse, and he and Markowitz spent five days with Howe at Wingsprings, “just to get a sense of how things would happen, what Wingsprings was like.”

Back on campus, “we came up with a curriculum that would highlight as much as possible an economic perspective on Lakota land,” said Markowitz. “Land is the centerpiece. And what has happened, how Lakotas traditionally understood their relationship to the land, how they were alienated from their land, and how now they are trying to regain some of the land that was lost.”

The first two weeks of the course covered Markowitz’s area of expertise, with readings and videos about Lakota culture, cosmology, landscape and history. In the second half, they delved into Guse’s field, examining agriculture, land, economic development and poverty.

The field trip came in the second week. “It’s a match made in heaven, really, because Harvey is Harvey,” said Guse of the man he calls his mentor. “When we were traveling out there, Harvey had this immediate credibility. He speaks Lakota.”

Alison Masson ’18 said she signed up for the course “because I had taken American Indian ethnohistory with Dr. Markowitz in the fall and thoroughly enjoyed both the class and the professor, and because I was a Shepherd [Poverty Program] intern in the Navajo nation last summer and was interested in comparing the experiences and cultures. The interdisciplinary nature of the course was attractive as well, particularly as a double major between the Williams School and the humanities.” She’s majoring in politics and history, and minoring in poverty studies.

Masson also noted, “Having never taken a non-intro-level econ class, this has been a great opportunity to expand my ability to read critically about and discuss economic concepts, given my fascination with the particular context.”

Her observations align with the professors’ hopes for the course. “This group of people that these kids didn’t know anything about suddenly becomes important to them, historically, culturally,” said Markowitz. “We want the kids to understand that the Lakota and Indian people are still alive and still affected by the consequences of what has happened to the course of Indian-white relationships. And what has happened especially to their communities and their landscapes bears witnesses to the injustices.”

“And of course, you don’t have to lecture,” he continued. “It just comes out in the material.”

“It really is just an introduction,” concurred Guse. “My hope is that this would spark an interest in some of them to look at these things further. We’re not going into depth on anything. All we can do is scratch the surface on this. It’s my hope — I’m a little bit biased toward the economic — that some of these students will be affected by this. For a lot of students, they just have no idea what life is like out in some of these places. They got to see a little bit of that.”

Guse also sees opportunities for future scholarship. “There’s a lot of research opportunities for a lot of different angles; that’s true in economics. The field of American Indian economic development is not big, but it’s growing, and I’m always hoping to recruit more people.”

Furthermore, said Guse, American Indian tribes are “not going to have a healthy, sustainable economy or society until they can start to run their own affairs. So I think getting students to see that — whether they pursue this in the context of American Indian development or they take some of these ideas and apply them to urban areas or development in other countries — there’s a lot to learn from learning about these issues on reservations.”

A spiritual component joined the scholarly factor. “Two friends of Dr. Markowitz kindly welcomed us to their home and led us through a Lakota purification ceremony in their sweat lodge,” said Masson. “It was absolutely fascinating from an academic perspective, and the element of praying together was a particularly moving experience for our class.”

“I think they learned about Lakota prayer life as it exists today,” said Markowitz of the sweat lodge, which was voluntary. “Praying to one another, praying to the land.”

Masson treasures another benefit. “I didn’t expect our class to grow as close as we did,” she said. “I can honestly say that I am friends with all of my classmates after this week we spent together.”

“They were all great,” declared Markowitz.

During their week of intensive study in South Dakota, the students also shared a late-night meal at a truck stop convenience store; washed clothes in Martin’s only Laundromat and dried them back at the truck stop; and slept five to a garage at Wingsprings.

“They bonded a lot,” said Guse. “That was an unexpected bonus. They didn’t complain at all,” even when faced with a couple of nights in a dodgy motel. “Harvey complained,” he joked, “but the students didn’t.”

On and off campus, Markowitz and Guse started every day by shaking hands with each of the nine students, exchanging the Lakota morning greeting and calling them by the word for a man’s nephew (“t‘unshká”) or a man’s niece (“t‘unjan”). In return, the students called their professors uncle (“lekshí”), and called each other cousin (“cepansi,” “sicesi,” “hankasi” or “tahansi,” depending on the gender of the speaker and his or her subject).

“I think it was difficult for the kids to learn,” said Markowitz of the kinship terminology. “Now they of course know it very well. I think it really took root. Those kinds of things are really important, not only symbolically but also psychologically. They get to you. They teach an important part of Lakota culture, which is ethics and morality.”

Markowitz would like to conduct one repeat performance of this course before his retirement. “I hope it continues on and on and builds up more interest, especially with the Shepherd [Poverty Program] kids,” he said.

“They’ll definitely remember being out there,” Guse said of the students and their week in South Dakota. “These travel courses create a kind of experience that’s hard to forget, in the John Dewey sense of experiential learning. You have a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Those are the things you hold onto.”