Amid a pandemic that is hitting communities of color and tribal communities hardest, and following a summer of calls for racial justice in the United States, leaders in UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center have rallied around a singular focus: centering Native voices, Native experiences and Native perspectives within the larger cultural moment the nation is struggling through.

That’s always been the center’s priority, but there is a new urgency and a welcome nuance to the current conversation and action, said Shannon Speed (Chickasaw), director of the center.

“It's really interesting to me that for the first time in my life, the widespread and mainstream calls for change are about addressing structural and systemic inequality,” said Speed, who along with other UCLA staff, faculty and students were instrumental in Los Angeles officially adopting Indigenous Peoples Day in 2018 and also in UCLA adopting the Tongva land acknowledgment that groups and events have been using more broadly over the past year. 

As the new school year gets underway, Speed said she’s eager to see how campus departments and programs start to think creatively about what a land acknowledgement means, and how to come up with ways to integrate it into materials and moments in ways that are meaningful to their audiences.

A university is a good place to foster ideas about upending structures of racism, Speed said. A university is microcosm of society at large, and those systems that anyone who dreams of a just society must confront and reimagine exist soundly within it.

Speed, who teaches in the departments of anthropology and gender studies as well as in the American Indian studies program, has centered her scholarship on groups that are most harmed by racism. In particular, she said, the effects of structural and systemic racism are clear in both the history and modern policies of immigration to the United States, policies that affect indigenous people outside our borders.

In her book, “Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State” (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), Speed tells the personal stories of several indigenous women from Central America and Mexico, women she terms “vulneradas.”

Speed met and interviewed most of them in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. They all traveled to the U.S. border to escape both individual threats and structural violence embedded in their home countries’ governments. She tells their stories as a powerful framework to illustrate the flaws of decades of neoliberal policies, U.S. intervention and capitalist practices that make already vulnerable people even more endangered. Her book was researched and written well before the 2016 presidential election and the border policies adopted by the Trump administration.

As she listens keenly to 2020 election rhetoric, she doesn’t quite hold out hope for wide-ranging anti-racist immigration policies. Those didn’t exist in the Obama administration either, she pointed out.

“At this point, what I think we can best hope for is more humane treatment of migrants at the border,” she said.

For Speed and so many others on the front lines of social justice, things aren’t going to improve unless we address the structural inequality of all our systems.

“For years, changing policy and budget wrangling has been the rhetoric,” she said. “And I think the Civil Rights movement is evidence of that. Some change was enacted, but clearly not enough to move us beyond racism and the effects of racism in this country.”

This story is part of a series highlighting UCLA women whose teaching, research and scholarship centers on racial and social justice.