The Historian Who's No Longer Angry
Ms. Stephenson is an HNN intern.In the 1980s, when Jacki Rand worked at the Smithsonian, her boss decided to put Rand, who is half Choctaw, on a committee of white men to plan an Indian museum. She was glad to serve but not particularly pleased about being the only Indian. Besides, she figured, those Washington suits probably didn’t know a thing about Native Americans.
“I’m not like, the representative of the whole native American thing in the United States. You guys have to go out and meet some Indians,” she told them.
And they did. Soon afterwards, they traveled down to Georgia, across the Mississippi to Oklahoma, out to Montana and Washington state and up into Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. By 1991 they had met a lot of Indians, and soon afterwards, the National Museum of the American Indian was born.
In those days, Rand was not one to mince words. With an independent streak stemming from a childhood cut short and surrounded by racism, she was admittedly angrier about things in general than she is now as a history professor at the University of Iowa. Rand, age fifty-three, says she has mellowed a bit, but her fascination with her Choctaw heritage and Native American history is as strong as ever.
Rand’s current project looks back into early Choctaw history; a part of a personal struggle with defining herself. Previously, Rand had said she didn’t want to study Choctaw history because she was one. However, now it’s a “deep longing to go into Choctaw history,” she said, because the closest of her heritage, her mother and her aunt, died last year. Her mother’s death caused a “shutdown” for Rand, after taking care of her the last years of her life, but was able to make peace after decades of estrangement.
Rand grew up on Air Force bases around the country, to a white father and a Choctaw mother. Choctaw is one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States, and one of the tribes forced to live on reservations in Oklahoma.
“We wouldn’t think about that too much today, but back in the 50s and 60s, especially because my father was from Alabama, they were seen as an interracial marriage,” Rand said in her office, attired in a pixie haircut and cowboy boots.
Rand was very close to both her parents, but said early in her childhood she learned that race played a huge role in her family.
“My mother was very dark. My father was a bigot, but he loved my mother very much,” she said, pointing out the photograph of her mother on the windowsill. Rand said her mother was often mistaken as an African-American, and shared a disdain for that race with her husband. Rand wrote an essay for the Journal of Women’s Studies about an incident when she was 11. During an evening news report about the struggle for racial desegregation, she asked her father, “Daddy, why do you hate colored people so much and love Mama?” Her father and mother did not answer her.
After her father’s death from a heart attack shortly after the incident, Rand’s relationship with her mother deteriorated as her mother began to drink more heavily. She decided to leave home and school at 15 and at 17 married “a boy in a band,” after which they moved to Maine. The marriage only lasted a year, but Rand stayed in Maine, waitressing.
“I thought I was going to be stuck waitressing, because I had really screwed up” by not finishing high school, she said. But at 19, after a discussion with a diner customer, she made an appointment with the admissions director at the University of Maine. Although she had not completed high school, the director agreed to “try this for a year.”
Rand attended Eastern Maine Community College for a year, and with near perfect grades, she signed up for classes at the ‘big campus,’ the University of Maine.
“I was terrified that if I went back to talk to him I wouldn’t get to stay, so I just kept enrolling in classes. But every semester I was afraid someone would catch me and say, ‘you’re not supposed to be here.’”
Rand majored in political science, and after graduating in 1982, said she wanted to be a Foreign Service officer in the state department. She got an internship and during her year there she heard about an entry-level job-opening at the Smithsonian. She stayed there for 11 years, and near the end decided she wanted a more advanced degree.
In 1990, she was accepted to the graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, where she continued her committee work for the Smithsonian for another four years. Rand considered Oklahoma home; her mother and her siblings had grown up in Oklahoma, attending Chilocco, an Indian boarding school.
Boarding schools were set up during President Grant’s ‘Peace Policy’ in the 1880s. They were assimilation policies, intended to strip the children of their Indian identity and adopt Christian, European-American lifestyles. Rand’s mother, like others, was not allowed to speak her native language.
“She came from a family of speakers. They were the generation that lost the language,” Rand said.
She spent eight years at Oklahoma, working on her master’s and doctorate, and after a year at the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire, she came to the University of Iowa. Rand was given a joint appointment with the American Indian studies program and the history department. She has since left the Indian studies program, citing inadequate support for the program.
“I have never sensed any university, and I mean at the highest levels, support for American Indian studies,” Rand said. She added her dealings with university bureaucracy have left her bitter. Affirmative action plans did not include Native Americans, something Rand loudly complained about.
“Obviously the bureaucracy can do something when it wants to. So when it doesn’t do anything about Native American scholars, to me that’s an indication of a choice.”
The issues with race Rand has dealt with since her youngest days are still very apparent in her life. Her mother, being raised in the boarding school, embraced the middle-class life she had with her white husband, and emphasized her daughter’s whiteness.
But Rand saw herself in a different light. Since working at the Smithsonian, she has seen herself as ‘the Native.’
“What I know from my own experience as a professor and at the National Museum of the American Indian, when I was the only native on x-committee, from what I’ve seen when there are no natives, I make a difference.”
Rand has written reviews, essays, articles, and one book about native studies. Her newest project on the Choctaws focuses on the tribe before the United States, before the British, when French traders in Louisiana dealt with the Five Civilized Tribes. After learning French as an undergrad, she realized this would be the perfect way to put it to use.
“Not many U.S. scholars of American Indian Studies use foreign language sources. More scholars are trying to use tribal languages in their writing, but the only foreign language work being done is with the southwest,” she said.
Many documents are still untranslated in France, about the Choctaw’s high diplomatic skills, and she is planning on a trip to France next year for this research. Rand described it as “getting as close to the ground as you can get.”
In her years between the Smithsonian, Oklahoma and Iowa, Rand got married again, and divorced, had two children. She recognizes some residual anger from her past fights, most having to do with the non-recognition of native people, but has come to the second half of her life with a gentler temperament.
“I don’t have to be the one to fight everywhere I go.”
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Nigel Anthony Sellars - 4/6/2009
I had the good fortune of having Jacki as a classmate and friend when we were both in grad school at OU. She is one of the most authentic human beings I've met; she is hard-working, dedicated, and a host of other good things. I never thought of her as angry, however, just simply honest and truthful. It's the Jacki Rands of the world we need to remind us of the exploitation of human beings by the rest of humanity, not phonies like Ward Churchill.