Class Profile: Anthropology course brings Native American social injustices to light

Geneseo’s anthropology department has many intensive courses. ANTH 209: Ethnography of the Iroquois is one such class—it provides a scholarly examination of a culture that inhabited the United States’ soil long before the arrival of any European influences.

Associate professor of anthropology Russell Judkins teaches the course. In the class, his students explore historical ethnographies of various Iroquois people—studying their communities through an objective lens. One of Judkins’ main goals for the class is to recognize and explore the fundamental values of the Iroquois people and their “adaptability and persistence” in the Northeastern Woodlands, as stated in the course syllabus.

Judkins also stressed the locality of Iroquois history. “Geneseo was the western door of the Iroquois confederacy,” he said. “These populations are all around us—on reservations and in cities and elsewhere—and we have almost no awareness that they’re even here.”

Students appeared to appreciate the close proximity of some of the history in the course’s readings, especially the story surrounding Mary Jemison, the namesake of Geneseo’s Mary Jemison Dining Hall.

“I think it’s pretty interesting to learn about Geneseo history while at Geneseo, especially because the campus is situated on the same grounds we’re reading about in the story about Mary Jemison,” junior Keaton Laub said. “It’s interesting that all these students go to Mary Jemison Dining Hall but don’t really know anything about her. It’s a unique history that’s not often heard about or covered.”

Judkins attended Cornell University for his doctorate, with research interests in Asian studies as well as the Iroquois Nation. With his course Ethnography of the Iroquois, he hopes to help students develop an expanded appreciation of the world they live in.

“What [students] get in the larger world is sensationalist and oriented to political and conflict issues and very little about who people are, who the Iroquois people are and very little about their culture and what their contributions have been and still are,” Judkins said.

Modern-day America habitually ignores the U.S.’s extensive history of its native people’s cultures. Many students only ever experience lessons about Native Americans during elementary school units focused on “colonial times” in which the innumerable native groups and practices are generalized into one combination of stereotypes. Whether such curriculums are or aren’t intentionally ignorant is irrelevant to the fact that there is a desire in today’s society for accurate comprehension of the land’s first inhabitants.

Students in Judkins class seem to value the insight they’re gaining into the Iroquois culture and history. “Education through high school left a lot to be desired for Native American culture. Here, we go as in depth as we can,” sophomore Noah Elias said. “We’ve been talking about creation myths for a while and we’ve been learning things like how they describe magic and how they interact with nature, and it’s all very interesting.”

Junior Morgan Staub acknowledged and built on the notion. “I think it’s important to know where we came from as a society, because the Native American people were obviously here before us and then Europeans came and took over the land and [Native Americans] ended up on reservations,” he said. “We need to know about what the land we’re standing on used to be and what it was used for, and how that society ended up becoming so marginalized today.”

ANTH 209: Ethnography of the Iroquois explores America’s past in a way that aims to appreciate the native people of the land as well as recognize their modern-day presence. Under Judkins’ instruction, students show commitment to absorbing the distinctive and societally significant material.