Indigenous Studies and Consciousness Generationally Delayed

I’ve long-wondered why an Indigenous consciousness exists among some Mexicans/Chicanos/Central Americans and other peoples from this continent, while not in others, considering that all are generally products of colonization? This phenomenon is often most stark when many reject the notion of celebrating a “Hispanic heritage” at the expense of subjugating their primarily Indigenous-African and mixed heritage. And a related question: Why did Indigenous Studies, counterintuitively, never develop as an academic discipline within Raza Studies, considering that Indigeneity is at its philosophical core?

A possible answer came to me while reading two recent Indigenous-centered books by Ysidro Macias (The Compassion of the Feathered Serpent, 2013, and Walking the Red Road on Chicanismo, 2017), coming to the realization that Indigenous Studies in the 1970s may perhaps have inadvertently been delayed a generation. Truthfully, the attempt to suppress such a consciousness has been taking place for centuries, though my focus here is recent history.

As background, what is noteworthy about Macias is that similar to Enriqueta Vasquez (The Women of La Raza), he is one of the original activists from the Chicano movement, and instrumental in the creation of Ethnic Studies nationwide. He was also an instructor in Indigenous philosophy at several California colleges in the 1970s while he was pursuing his PhD precisely on Indigenous philosophy. His books are about his relationship to Nahua elder Andres Segura and Yucatec Maya scholar Domingo Martinez Paredez.

This delay is akin to a parallel phenomenon that took place a generation before that, revealed in the 1995 book Decade of Betrayal by Raymond Rodriguez and Francisco Balderrama. They posited that the mass deportations by the “migra” in the 1930s-1950s specifically targeted community and labor organizers, thus delaying the Chicano Movement by an entire generation, not commencing until the 1960s, as opposed to the 1940s, as in the same manner of the Black civil rights movement shortly after WW II.

Even though I was very much aware of this opposition to Indigenous consciousness within academia in the 1970s, it was not until returning to UCLA in 2003 that I was informed that Indigenous Studies did not exist as a subdiscipline within Raza Studies. Labor, gender and immigration yes, but not Indigenous Studies. When co-columnist Patrisia Gonzales and I were set to teach a class on Indigeneity there, we were informed that we were creating a fourth sub-discipline.

This was jarring. I was particularly taken aback because while I did not major in this emerging discipline as an undergraduate at UCLA in the early ’70s, I had always assumed the opposite: that the Chicano Movement and the discipline were one and the same and that its philosophical center was Indigenous consciousness. Wasn’t that the message of the 1967 epic poem: Yo Soy Joaquin and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan from 1969? Had not Indigenous pride replaced shame and false pride in all things Spanish/European? Apparently not.

I left academia in 1976, though as a writer, I maintained a connection with this discipline, coming to eventually believe that Raza Studies was a subdiscipline of Indigenous Studies, not the other way around. Regardless of how it was perceived, Indigenous Studies was being viewed as something new in the early 2000s.

What happened to that lost generation between the Indigenous-inspired Floricanto poetic Flower and Song Movement of the mid-1970s and the early 2000s? That’s the movement that produced hundreds of poets, writers artists, muralists, teatristas and filmmakers across the country — including Juan Felipe Herrera, who went on to become the nation’s first Raza US Poet Laureate (2015-2017).

In 1976, Macias went up for his doctorate and was given a thumbs down on his work on Indigenous philosophy. One could make the symbolic argument that because he was the only scholar pursuing this academic field, that Indigenous Studies within these communities ended up being delayed for a generation. Despite the Floricanto movement, Indigenous philosophy or Indigenous consciousness did not become part of a formal academic component of Raza Studies at that time.

A simple explanation for opposition to things Indigenous may be that the initial pride was viewed as romanticization of things ancient, as opposed to the study of these communities as part of living Indigenous peoples in struggle. And it was generally male-centered also at the time. And if that is the explanation, that would partially explain the 1960s-1970s as opposed to today as Indigenous consciousness — that is inclusive — is now ascendant nationwide within Raza Studies. But what Macias says is that opposition to his work was very hostile, from both the right and the left, viewing things Indigenous, at best, as backwards. What is different now? It is possible that just as the Zapatista movement affected Mexico, perhaps so too were these communities also affected, as well as perhaps the recent attacks against Tucson’s Raza Studies program (the historic 2010 lawsuit trial against the state recently concluded in victory, with the judge finding that the state acted withracial animus in eliminating the program) that has given rise to this new consciousness.

Today, those within Raza Studies should begin a dialogue on this topic and in the process, they should also try and figure out their relationship to Indigenous Studies. Ideally, this should also be done in dialogue with American Indian Studies.