Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner, one of Georgetown University’s only two Indigenous professors, grew up believing that her tribe’s language, ‘atáaxum pomtéela, had died out.
“When I was a kid, in college, I had always thought that nobody spoke our language,” Meissner said in an interview with The Hoya.
Meissner, who is Luiseño (Payómkawichum) and Cupeño (Kuupangaaxwichem), spent her undergraduate years at New Mexico State University, where she earned her degrees in philosophy, English and linguistics. In one linguistics class, a particular assignment caught her attention.
“The linguistics professor gave us a worksheet of a random language to work with,” Meissner said. “And the language was my language — my ancestral language.”
Meissner went on to take language classes in ‘atáaxum pomtéela while in graduate school at Michigan State University, where she received a Ph.D. in philosophy with a graduate affiliation in American Indian and Indigenous studies.
After studying the language for several years, Meissner went back to the Luiseño reservation in California where her family was from and designed language classes for youth in the area.
For Meissner, whose academic work involves studying and recovering Indigenous languages, the process of reconnecting with her ancestral language was especially meaningful.
“It was a really beautiful experience to get to go from being that linguistic student, seeing this weird language on a paper and not having a relationship with it, to then suddenly now, this language is so important to me,” Meissner said. “Now being able to pass it on to another generation of kids who want to learn it is a really special experience.”
Meissner is now an assistant professor in Georgetown’s philosophy department teaching courses like “Intro to Indigenous Philosophy.” She also researches the role language plays in Indigenous knowledge systems, as well as trauma and wellness in Indigenous populations. For each of her syllabi, Meissner tries to involve Indigenous voices and case studies.
On top of her teaching duties and research, Meissner is working to promote the inclusion of Indigenous voices in academic spaces and advocates for increased resources for Indigenous students on the Hilltop.
Bringing Home into Academia
Since coming to Georgetown as an assistant professor in fall 2019, Meissner has specialized in Native American and Indigenous philosophy, feminist epistemology and the philosophy of language.
She researches the intersection of language, philosophy, social issues and Indigenous experiences, ranging from Indigenous issues in healthcare policy to the revitalization of Indigenous languages, she told The Hoya.
“We see Native communities all over the world saying things like, ‘We need to save our languages,’” Meissner said. “The kind of work that communities do around language is really interesting to me.”
Meissner also focuses her teachings on Indigneous gender and sexuality, land and environmental philosophy, and on recent Indigenous movements advocating for cultural reclamation and landback — the process of returning Indigenous land to Indigenous communities.
During her time at Georgetown, Meissner has taught classes like “Philosophy of Language,” “Indigenous Epistemologies and Higher Education” and “Topics in Anti-Colonialism.”
Meissner said her studies in Indigenous languages and knowledge systems led her to become a cultural consultant for federal and tribal child welfare programs. Her work involves training social workers on Indigenous cultures and values, as well as the historical connections of Child Protective Services to violence against Indigneous communities.
“There’s lots of studies that show that people who have connections to their languages have a healthier sense of self or have a stronger connection with their communities,” Meissner said.
Growing up in the American Southwest, Meissner was always surrounded by Indigenous peoples and communities. Before she went to college, she spent her time between Albuquerque, N.M., Phoenix, Ariz., and Southern California — all areas that have large Indigenous populations.
Even when she went off to college at New Mexico State University, which reported that only 1% of students identified as Indigenous when Meissner graduated in 2014, Meissner said she still felt the large presence of Indigenous communities and culture in the surrounding area, providing her with a larger sense of home.
“If you get out of a plane in New Mexico, you could not go 10 feet without seeing representation of Native art or representations of Native people,” Meissner said.
But when Meissner went on to pursue her Ph.D. at Michigan State, she said that representation disappeared.
“It wasn’t until I moved to a place where there were not a lot of Native people that I became really aware of it. It’s just something I didn’t realize was unique until I didn’t live there anymore,” Meissner said. “It made me homesick.”
Michigan State is a predominately white school with just over 0.2% of undergraduate and graduate students identifying as Indigenous when Meissner graduated in 2019.
Despite the lack of Indigenous students and faculty at Michigan State, Meissner said she still felt at home among Indigenous academic communities.
Facing a Lack of Representation
When looking for a job in academia after her doctoral studies, Meissner said she believed Georgetown would provide an opportunity for her to expand support for and research on Indigenous peoples, since Georgetown had already made space for other marginalized and non-Western communities.
“It seemed like an opportunity for me, like a place where the soil was fertile for building more resources for more marginalized communities,” Meissner said.
After moving to the East Coast, however, Meissner encountered a shocking lack of understanding of Indigenous communities and history.
“There’s so much erasure of Indigenous communities here on the East Coast that I think your average person who grows up on this side of the country doesn’t know that Native people even exist,” Meissner said. “Which is just such an intense form of gaslighting to navigate a part of the country that doesn’t even know that I exist or that my communities exist or that the people whose land this is exist.”
Despite having a significant presence of Indigenous tribes, the East Coast has fewer tribal communities that are federally recognized, and federally recognized tribal lands are smaller than those on the West Coast.
Meissner attributes this to the fact that Indigenous tribes on the East Coast are often more subject to colonial narratives, and are often seen as relics from the past rather than present communities.
“There’s a lot of differences in the ways that colonialism is experienced, time- and space-wise,” Meissner said. “Nobody experienced more genocide than the other. They’re just different forms of the same type of colonialism.”
Not only do federal and state institutions on the East Coast deny recognition and support to Indigenous tribes, but also Georgetown specifically has failed to make Indigenous studies and Indigenous students a priority, according to Meissner.
“Georgetown has room to grow and work to do with respect to connecting with Indigenous students, connecting with Indigenous communities, and building resources for those relationships,” Meissner said.
As of 2019, only 0.1% of Georgetown students identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, and only 0.1% identified as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders. Indigenous people comprise less than 1% of the U.S. undergraduate and graduate student population, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
Georgetown does not have data on the number of Indigenous students currently enrolled, but the university is working to collect and store more data on the Indigenous identity and tribal affiliation of Georgetown students, according to a university spokesperson.
The university works to recruit Indigenous students by engaging with current students, graduates and staff of marginalized identities, according to a university spokesperson.
Meissner is one of only two Native American faculty members at Georgetown, and the only one currently teaching classes on the main campus. Bette Jacobs, one of the first tenured American Indian/Alaskan Native professors at a private university in the United States, was also the first American Indian/Alaskan Native professor hired by Georgetown in 2000.
Meissner was the second.
“It’s very embarrassing for Georgetown,” Meissner said.
After spending almost two decades as the sole Native American faculty member at Georgetown, Jacobs said that she welcomed Meissner’s arrival at Georgetown and admires her dedication to Indigenous studies and her students.
“I was very excited to have not only the broader reach, but a young spirited, energetic philosophy professor,” Jacobs said. “Her ability to relate to all students and generate some interest and enthusiasm and to support Native students is a real asset.”
Fellow D.C. universities, such as American University, have official land acknowledgements, which recognize that the schools are on land that was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples.
Georgetown does not have a land acknowledgement to the Piscataway and Nacotchtank tribes, whose land the university occupies.
“Georgetown so far has not even been interested in pursuing one of those, and so when I got here, that was something I noticed that was a major missing piece,” Meissner said.
Meissner proposed a land acknowledgement process in the form of a student seminar, which would involve students in determining what a meaningful land acknowledgement looks like for Georgetown. Land acknowledgement is a topic Meissner discusses in all of her classes, she said.
Georgetown is continuing to work on how best to recognize, respect and support Indigenous communities, according to a university spokesperson.
“We deeply respect and are open to engaging with the Piscataway Tribe, whose ancestral lands include the District of Columbia,” the spokesperson said.
Georgetown’s lack of Indigenous academic programming denies Indigenous students and faculty the chance to pursue activism and education in the nation’s capital, according to Meissner.
Despite this lack of representation, Meissner loves working with and sharing her knowledge with Georgetown students.
“Every single day I get up excited to come work with Georgetown students, to build with Georgetown students, and to give them my all because they’re just such phenomenally dedicated and compassionate people,” Meissner said.
Meissner said that student activism is essential for promoting indigenous issues on campus from student groups such as the Native American Student Council, a student group that advocates for Indigenous community members on campus.
The Native American Student Council did not respond to The Hoya’s request for comment.
As one of the only Indigenous faculty members at Georgetown, Meissner said she takes on a lot of organizational and advocacy responsibilities.
“Georgetown needs to hire more people who are trained in Indigenous studies,” Meissner said. “Student pressure might be one of the only ways to go about getting that because there’s only so much I can do.”
A Future of Indigenous Leadership
Meissner expressed frustration that Indigenous voices aren’t heard enough, not just at Georgetown, but in the country as a whole when making critical policy decisions.
“People don’t include Native voices in a lot of the spaces where Native voices seem like they would be a natural fit,” Meissner said. “For example, when people talk about environmental justice, but don’t include Indigenous people in that conversation.”
Meissner hopes to amplify Indigenous voices on campus through an initiative she is proposing to the university: the Georgetown Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Thought and Sustainability (GIIFTS). The program would connect Indigenous thought leaders to policymaking and work to produce more research on Indigneous history and language, as well as help Georgetown create a land acknowledgement process.
“I proposed this initiative, kind of hoping that this initiative could play a role in establishing Georgetown as a place where we have some cutting edge research,” she said. “What Georgetown can do to support Native students and faculty is support an initiative that’s dedicated to bringing Indigenous voices to campus.”
Meissner said another aim of the initiative is to recruit more Indigenous students and faculty by providing more support for the current Indigenous community at Georgetown.
“We have a hard time recruiting and retaining Native students because we don’t have any Native students, and we have a hard time recruiting Indigenous faculty because we don’t have Indigenous faculty. It’s a vicious cycle of a lack of representation,” Meissner said.
Georgetown must prioritize Indigenous studies by providing more institutional funds and working to bring in Indigenous postdoctoral students and specialists to empower the work of different departments, she said.
“I think that Georgetown needs to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to providing the resources around Indigenous studies,” Meissner said.