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Indigenous history course uses debate format to create broad engagement

Students in Malinda Maynor Lowery’s “Legal History of Native Peoples” course took a new direction fall semester by incorporating debate to study the historical context and complexity of Native communities and their legal systems.

When renowned documentary film producer and historian Malinda Maynor Lowery was named the Cahoon Family Professor in History this summer, she decided to revamp her survey course “Legal History of Native Peoples” as soon as she heard that students in Emory College of Arts and Sciences arrive ready to dig into research and connect dots across disciplines.

The result was a new course this fall that first provided the historical context and complexity of Native communities and their legal systems. With help from Emory’s Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue, Lowery then had students conduct the research needed to weigh contemporary matters. By semester’s end, students applied their research and coursework to debate a specific modern law over Zoom.

When Lowery made debate a central component of the course, she realized she had created a course that also honors Susan Cahoon 68C, an emeritus trustee and nationally recognized debater who helped Emory win its first national debate championship in 1967. Lowery holds the second professorship endowed by Cahoon, who enrolled at Emory at age 15 and graduated with highest honors in economics.

“Some of the questions of Native American history are genuinely debatable,” Lowery says. “My goal is to give the students a sense of the bigger picture, of how Native people have approached colonization and European invasion from their cultural and legal frameworks.”

The starting point for the course was the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal legislation designed to protect the cultural and biological remains of Native Americans and their ancestors.

Lowery gave the historical overview. Then she broke students into four groups representing different interests — tribal communities, Congress, museum patrons and museum researchers/archeologists — to research how to apply NAGPRA based on the thorny question of Native sovereignty.

“I am so pleased it’s not a traditional lecture course,” says sophomore Nicolette Ilic, an English and history double major who rearranged her class schedule to ensure she could enroll in the course.

“Indigenous history is so often barely mentioned or presented as just one thing from the past, but engaging this way really tears away that idea,” Ilic adds. “Indigenous history and the central questions of identity and jurisdiction are big issues that still have resonance today.”

Each student conducted independent research for a paper. Then they met with others from their group to figure out the best arguments to make their case.

Armed with the best supporting information for their interests, students debated over Zoom in early December, arguing for what each group decided were the most important facts to account for in the final decision.

As a member of Barkley Forum and part-time teacher of competitive debate to high school students, first-year student Margaret Hecht was drawn to the course because of its structure.

Her research as a member the archeology group led her to evidence that communication between researchers and tribal communities helped broaden knowledge of Indigenous history and make it more accessible. Hecht is now considering a history major instead of her original plan of psychology.

“I really enjoy getting this linear understanding of events and the broader understanding of how history has operated for different people by looking at the arguments from all sides,” she says. “It lets you be more nuanced, because you have to truly, deeply understand all perspectives.”

That’s because unlike competitive debate, the goal was not to win. Instead, students worked to find consensus on how to move forward, says Ed Lee III, the Barkley Forum’s senior director and Emory College’s senior director of inclusivity.

Following the debate, the final phase is a debrief for students to discuss what they learned both about NAGPRA and how privileged interests play in group decision-making. Lowery and Lee also plan to send Cahoon a report on the class, perhaps with a recording of one of the livelier debates.

“My enduring attraction to debate is, at its core, it is just asking people to show up, not forego their vested interests and really listen to others,” Lee says. “That is what we mean when we say Emory encourages critical thinking and critical engagement, and I am so grateful Dr. Lowery allowed her course to be an example of that unique experience.”

The challenge, Lowery says, was that students needed to know current matters of law immediately so they could understand the historical questions. She assigned “The Round House,” the National Book Award-winning novel from Louise Erdrich, to help explain modern legal issues, but ultimately had to rely on students engaging as she’d heard they would.

“I was excited for the framework of debate to allow us to uncover the interests at play when Native histories are narrated,” Lowery says. “There are a lot of facts to unearth to interpret what happened. I’m happy to say the students embraced the challenge.”