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Following accusations of insensitivity and vulgarity in class, Native American studies professor is no longer teaching course

ADESUWA AGBONILE / The Stanford Daily

English professor Kenneth Fields Ph.D. ’67 will no longer teach NATIVEAM 143A: American Indian Mythology, Legend and Lore after students wrote a petition describing his teaching as culturally disrespectful, off-topic and riddled with sexual comments and insensitive jokes. It is unconfirmed whether Fields made the decision or was asked to step down by the University. Fields has not responded to inquiries about the nature of the decision.

According to former students of the course — cross-listed in the English and American Studies departments — instead of engaging with course content, Fields would often discuss details of his personal life or topics of no relevance to the course.

Describing a typical lecture, Emily Elliott ’22, who is Chinook, said, “[Fields] would start on topic with the story, and then he would go on about another story and he’d talk about his friends and he would get into really inappropriate sex jokes or something like that, and then he would [tell a story about] a suicide.”

“Though Prof. Fields does not seem to have any ill intentions in teaching the class, lecture topics and discussions are often insensitive and inappropriate with regards to the discoursed native tribes,” states the petition, which has garnered more than 30 signatures from students spanning all undergraduate class years, as well as coterm students.

Fields fervently refuted what the petition claimed about his teaching style.  

“I was horrified and wounded to read what was being said about the course and about me,” Fields wrote in a statement to The Daily. “I recognize very little of myself or of what happened in the course this fall in these charges.”

Fields most recently taught the course, which is intended to explore the cultures of different Native tribes, in the fall of 2018. Sha’teiohserí:io Patton ’22, who is Mohawk, authored the petition while enrolled in the course in Nov. 2018.

“I have taught the course in Native American Literature for nearly 50 years because I love it and respect it, and if I had not taught it, no one else would have,” Fields wrote in his email. “Some of the remarks were taken deeply out of context … some are total misunderstandings, whether deliberate or accidental, some I did not say at all.”

“It goes without saying that I will not be teaching this material again,” he added.

Patton said that on Tuesday, Fields was read the petition out loud in a meeting with the heads of the Native Studies program and English departments. Patton was not at the meeting and said she was informed of it by Associate Dean and Director of the Native American Cultural Center Karen Biestman.

Biestman did not respond to The Daily’s repeated requests for comment.

It remains unclear whether the course will be renewed in future quarters. According to the students behind the petition, Fields has declined to meet with them. Fields has not spoken to this specific claim.

University spokespeople and Chair of Native American Studies Teresa LaFromboise did not respond to questions about Fields’ conduct or the status of the course.

On Friday, School of Humanities and Sciences spokesperson Joy Leighton wrote in an email to The Daily, “The chair of the English department said she will reach out to the students and offer to meet with them to hear their concerns.”

As of Sunday evening, English Department Chair Blakey Vermeule has not yet responded to questions about the matter.

‘Disrespecting the culture’

By the second week of fall quarter, Fields began to use “really derogatory language,” Patton said. “He started almost laughing at the stories in the novels we’re reading, which are sacred stories to a lot of the tribes.”

“The whole purpose of the class is to bring awareness to Native issues [and] Native culture, and [Fields’ teaching] is totally demoting that,” Patton said. “It’s upsetting.”

Because the course relies on lectures in which Fields speaks alone, without the input of Natives, the petition reads, Fields’ misrepresentations of Native culture go unchallenged. Further, the petition states that Fields’ teaching creates erroneous perceptions of Native culture among non-Natives, and normalizes inappropriate and disrespectful discourse. Fields himself does not descend from Native American ancestry.

Gabriella Guerra ’19, a student of Mexican descent who took Fields’ course last quarter, said that while she tried to approach the material with sensitivity as a non-Native, Fields did not seem to do the same. Guerra, who agreed that his teaching was at times insensitive, profane and off-topic, said Fields “talked about [course material] in a way that had a sense of ownership.”

“I don’t know how many people in this class are actually Native, and so I don’t know if what they’re learning or their impression of Native culture is all stemming from what Fields is saying,” Elliott said. “Because if it is, then they have a completely wrong view of Native culture and stories.”

Sometimes, students said, Fields related Native stories in ways that felt exploitative. In lectures about the Night Chant, a sacred Navajo or Diné ritual, Patton said Fields’ teaching lacked the necessary sensitivity.

“You’re not supposed to discuss it at all if you’re not Diné, and you’re especially not supposed to discuss it before it snows in New Mexico,” Patton explained. Fields, she said, discussed the ritual without mentioning the limitations on how it can be discussed.

According to former NATIVEAM 143A students, Diné students at Stanford who did not take the course also raised concerns about it. Some were concerned that the Night Chant ritual was being discussed inappropriately and could bring misfortune.

“I didn’t want to bring that type of bad spirituality to my family or to my people, and I thought that it was not really okay to almost force us to sit there,” Elliott said. “We didn’t feel comfortable and we believed that it was going to harm us or that it was wrong; in [Diné] culture, it is wrong.”

When a Diné student approached Fields about his teaching of the ritual, Patton said, Fields dismissed her.

“She approached him in class about the Night Chant, and he kind of mocked her and said, ‘Oh, what, are you afraid that the snow monsters are going to get you if we talk about it in class?’” Patton said.

Even when Fields’ teaching was not explicitly insensitive, some students took issue with his attitude toward Native cultures.

“In the way that he talks about [Natives], it’s … almost the old thought that they were illiterate and not as smart,” Elliott said. “He just talked about them in general in a really undermining way.”

In the course, Native students often feel that their perspectives were undervalued, according to former students. Patton noted that, during one lecture about “Black Elk Speaks,” a novel about an Oglala Lakota medicine man, a Lakota student tried to broach a concern over the direction in which class discussion was headed, “and Professor Fields just kind of brushed it off.”

Elliott relayed a similar incident about “Coyote Was Going There,” a collection of stories from Native tribes including her own. Fields presented the character Coyote as “almost a joke,” and the work as “almost a fairy tale,” Elliott said.

“That was really hard for me because some of them were origin stories from my culture,” she added.

Fields has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations of cultural insensitivity.

‘Inappropriate’ sexual remarks

Professor Fields frequently used inappropriate language while teaching, referring to “dicks” and “whipping out” one’s penis, students said.

“It definitely made me feel uncomfortable,” Elliott said.

She noted that sexual topics did need to be covered in the course due to the sexual nature of some stories, but she said Fields’ handling of the material was inappropriate and uncomfortable.

“He’ll make up this whole other analogy about people having sex, and giving blowjobs, and porn, and prostitutes,” Patton said. “He takes a story, and just kind of twists it into a whole new level of sexuality.”

Fields’ alleged comments on sexuality were sometimes degrading toward women. In one lecture, Elliott said, Fields “went on almost a sex-joke-type rant, and he was talking about how women were thirsting for men. He was joking about how they would do anything just to get it.”

His use of sexual language in the course reportedly became a common “joke” among students.

“When we do talk about the class, it does come up a lot, like, ‘Oh, you’re not missing anything if you don’t go to class, because all he’s going to talk about is his penis, or other people’s penises,’” Patton said. “That’s kind of our joke about the class. Every single class, it’ll come up.”

Fields did not speak to specific inquiries regarding these allegations of inappropriate sexual language.

‘No room for indigenous students’

Even when Fields’ lectures were not explicitly sexual, they were “often off-topic and undermine the culturally rich material that he has assigned for reading,” the petition reads.

“He spent all of class discussing his own personal life and his problems,” Patton said. In one class, “he talked about cookies — just baking cookies; another class, he talked about making pickles — the whole class.”

“Maybe for five minutes, he’ll read out of the text, and once he finishes reading the text, he’ll go on to tell this personal anecdote,” she added.

Fields also dealt with topics like alcohol abuse and suicide in a derogatory way, students said. In a lecture meant to focus on “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” a text about Kiowa Native Americans, Fields diverted to an anecdote about an acquaintance who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Fields allegedly referred to the suicide survivor with the nickname “Golden Gate Hank.”

According to Patton, the survivor approached Fields and asked him to stop using the moniker, but Fields did not, telling his class, “The motherfucker should have thought about it before he tried jumping off the Golden Gate.” Fields’ insistence on the term appears to have been captured in a 2012 poem posted online.

“In my high school there was a lot of struggle with suicide,” Elliott said. “I connected to that on a personal level and the way that he was talking about it in such an insensitive way and joking about it really, really made me feel horrible.”

Some students reportedly began avoiding Fields’ classes in response to his teaching. After about a month of NATIVEAM 143A, Elliott said, she and other students “gave up” on the course and  “stopped showing up to class.”

“We had all this context on his life experience, but there was no room for indigenous students to voice their particular background with the actual course content,” said Caelin Marum ’21, who has Woodland Cree and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation heritage.

Guerra said Fields’ teaching of the course was reflective of a larger issue with white anthropologists “parachuting into communities and documenting things they don’t understand without the input of the community itself.”

“Unfortunately this isn’t an unusual thing,” Guerra said. “This is almost to be expected. You would hope classes like this wouldn’t be this way, but all too often they are.”

Fields did not comment on specific inquiries regarding these aspects of his teaching style.

Patton’s petition

Patton said she took issue with the course by week two of last fall quarter. When Fields’ conduct continued, she drafted a petition, with the support of other students and one of her Resident Fellows at Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, Shoney Blake.

“[Upperclassmen] said that it was something they wanted for years,” Patton said.

Marum said she and other students struggled with the course when they took it in the fall of 2017.

“Last year we were too scared or didn’t know what resources were available to us to actually do something like [a petition],” Marum said. “We felt tension with this class for a long time.”

While the petition was titled “Requests to Improve” the course, Patton said some of the signatories wanted to call for Fields to be fired. Patton said this decision should be left to the University administration.

Patton also said that past students of Fields had raised informal verbal objections to the professor’s teaching to Fields and to at least one administrator on campus. Patton was unsure of how these past objections were received, but said they were not “taken as seriously” as she believes they should have been, prompting her to create the petition.

“It’s important to make a stance that [Natives] are still here; we’re still a part of society,” Patton said. “We are still here. We can still stand up for things.”

 

Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu and Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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