Name: Adrienne Keene
Claim to fame: She's actually Dr. Adrienne Keene, after recently completing her PhD at Harvard. In her "spare time", Adrienne runs the popular blog NativeAppropriations.com
Words of wisdom: "I’ve never been afraid of admitting when I’m wrong, of putting up things that I have just learned and saying that I just learned them, or acknowledging my own growth and learning, which in academia and the world of the internet is not something that is often done or encouraged."
You might not know Dr. Adrienne Keene if I mention her by name, but you probably know her work.
For the last several years, Adrienne has been not-so-quietly tackling racist representations of Indigenous people and the thorny issue of cultural appropriation on her aptly-named blog, Native Appropriations. Since starting the blog in 2010, Adrienne’s work has reached hundreds of thousands of -- maybe even millions -- of people around the globe.
Her posts on “hipster headdresses”, the Washington Redsk*ns and Halloween “Pocahottie” costumes continue to be shared widely and have successfully changed the hearts and minds of many, many people. She has even taken on Hollywood behemoths like Johnny Depp, for his part in the abhorrent Lone Ranger film and Netflix, for its description of the Disney movie Pocahontas.
Through her work with Native Appropriations, Adrienne has travelled North America for speaking engagements, has appeared on PBS and Al Jazeera, was invited to submit an op-ed to the New York Times, and has been quoted far and wide on the issue of the representation of Native peoples in pop culture.
But none of that was ever the plan. In fact, Adrienne told me, she didn’t think anyone would ever read the blog.
On Identity & a Blogger’s Humble Beginnings
“The blog was born out of my discomfort in graduate school,” she explained when we spoke on the phone in October, “that’s really where it came from.”
Native Appropriations was born while Adrienne was in the first year of her doctoral program in education at Harvard. She was the youngest person in the program by several years and was the only one who didn’t already have a masters degree. In the weekly seminars discussing educational theory, Adrienne always felt like she just didn’t know as much as everyone else.
But there was another problem: no one ever really mentioned Native peoples. “We weren’t included on the day dedicated to discussing race!” she laughed.
“The one anecdote I often give is that in that class we were supposed to have a day that talked about the history of American education, and the faculty member had a series of words that started with the letter ‘a’ as her capstone points throughout history. The first one was assimilation, so I 100% assumed that she was going to talk about the assimilation of American Indian children in the boarding school system. Instead, she started with the assimilation of immigrants in the 1800s. There was no acknowledgement of any of that as being part of American educational history.”
In addition to being frustrated by the fact that Native peoples and their histories, cultures, and contemporary realities were never being discussed, Adrienne also began to feel concerned about the fact that the only images that her classmates had ever seen of Native peoples were stereotypes and misrepresentations.
“That’s why I started the blog, in that space and in that mindset,” she told me, “it’s never been separated from my journey through academia, definitely borne out of my discomfort with it, but I never anticipated that it would become my academic career.”
While Native Appropriations has certainly done a lot for Adrienne professionally, it has also taken her on a very personal journey with her own identity as a young Indigenous woman and professional.
“My journey with my own identity as a Native person has been really painful and fraught with a lot of distrust from other Native people, shame of my own background, and wishing that I looked different, or that I had stronger connections [to community],” Adrienne explained.
“Through the blog, it gave me this place to start to talk about all of that, and start to let go of some of the shame of not looking like a cigar store Indian, and all of these other things that I had internalized without realizing that I had internalized them,” she shared. “A lot of that was through the support of readers and the community. When I would write these pieces that were very personal about dating, or some of the hard things that I went through, yes I would get hate mail and the ridiculous comments, but then there would also be so many Native folks who were thanking me and saying that they had very similar experiences, or that they had never heard anyone openly talk about their identities in that way.”
Adrienne explained to me that receiving this affirmation from her community allowed her to let go of a lot of the pain that she had been carrying about her own identity and to move forward -- but it was also motivation to continue working to better understands the roots of where all this pain had been coming from.
Although Adrienne is now a widely sought-after expert on the topic of pop culture representations and cultural appropriation, she is quick to point out that writing the blog has been a learning journey for her as much as anyone else.
“I started out not really knowing what I was writing about,” she admitted, “I mean, I knew the term ‘cultural appropriations’ and I knew that these images were bad, but I didn’t know why or how to talk about it or arguments to push back on things.” And that beginner’s mentality, coupled with Adrienne’s willingness to make a mistake and correct herself, is part of what makes Native Appropriations the powerful and influential source of information that it is today -- people find it honest and accessible.
“I’ve never been afraid of admitting when I’m wrong, of putting up things that I have just learned and saying that I just learned them, or acknowledging my own growth and learning, which in academia and the world of the internet is not something that is often done or encouraged,” she shared. “So having that philosophy about the blog from the start has given me strength in the academic world, to be able to say ‘this is what I think about my research right now, and it doesn't have to always be this way.’ In two months I could write a piece that completely disregards what I think right now, because I’ve seen the positive ways that people respond to that online, and the relationship that can come out of that.”
On Carving a Path for the Next Generation
While most people know Adrienne for her work addressing racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation, her academic work actually has a different focus. A graduate of the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Adrienne’s academic career has centered on the experiences of Native students in postsecondary education.
The passion for this work, she explained to me, was initially sparked by a program called College Horizons, which brings together Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian high schools students for a retreat designed to prepare them for college life -- a program that Adrienne herself did when she was 16.
“I had grown up in San Diego where, as far as I know, my sister and I were the only Native students at my high school,” she told me, “so all of the sudden my dad drops me off in New Hampshire, and there are a hundred other young Native students. We always talk about College Horizons being a gathering of Native nerds, so it was like ‘wow, other people like me exist!’ and everyone had such different experiences. For me it was the first time I was around so many Native folks my age, so it was really revelatory in a lot of ways.”
Adrienne credits that early experience with College Horizons for getting her started thinking in ways that she might not have otherwise about wanting to go to a college that had a strong Native community and Native courses that would allow her to engage with her Cherokee background in a way that she hadn’t before.
It is only fitting then that as she reaches the highest echelons of ivy league academia, Adrienne returned to the place where it all began.
Her thesis, “College Pride, Native Pride, and Education for Native Nation Building: Portraits of Native Students Navigating Freshman Year,” followed students from College Horizons through their first year of college. For a full year, Adrienne interviewed them, went to visit them on their college campuses, and even spent time in their homes with their families.
The process was a deeply personal one for Adrienne, which is reflected in the choices that she made about the ways that she conducted her research.
“The reason that I chose my advisor at Harvard and the methodology that she pioneered (which is called portraiture) is because it allows for the close relationship of the researcher to the actors, the participants in the project,” she explained to me. “Because I knew that I wanted to do research with College Horizons and College Horizons students and not on College Horizons and College Horizons students. And because of the long and painful history of research in Indigenous communities, in some ways I was overly cautious about wanting it to be a mutually beneficial relationship through the research, not just me coming in to steal the data and go get my doctorate.”
The methodology that Adrienne chose uses first person narratives, allowing her voice to come through in the work -- something that was particularly important when she went to visit one of the students who is Eastern Cherokee.
Going to visit the student in North Carolina was the first time Adrienne had been to her nation’s original homelands, because her family is in Oklahoma where many Cherokee people ended up after the Trail of Tears. The student had gone back to the reservation for high school and her story of reintegrating into that community and figuring out where her home and connections were intersected with Adrienne’s own story in many place.
“For me it was very important that that happened [writing in the first person], because there was no way I could write about it as some disconnected third party researcher and I didn’t feel like I should try to write about it that way, because it was so much of my own journey and story as well as the student’s.”
The whole experience, she said, was unexpectedly powerful and reverberated throughout her program. “I think that it also started a lot of interesting conversations with my classmates about the ways that we were approaching our very different research projects, and why I felt so compelled to do mine this way. We also talked about the sort of arguments and fights I had to get in with the committee on degrees who approves your dissertation proposal, just to make sure that the research could be done in a way that I felt it needed to be.”
On Being the Only Native Voice In the Room
Although Adrienne is glad for the many opportunities she has had to educate others about Native cultures and cultural appropriations, it hasn’t come without personal sacrifice.
In her final year of graduate school, Adrienne made the choice to move to Arizona while she finished writing her thesis, knowing that if she stayed at her own university in Boston, she would continuously be pulled away from her academic work to participate in other campus initiatives. “I was on seven different diversity committees through my time, and I was a secondary advisor to the Native undergraduate group,” she told, me, “I did work for the Native program on campus and I got constant requests to come visit classrooms and do guest lectures, so I knew that I would not finish my dissertation if I was there.”
Although Adrienne certainly knows how to say “no”, she often found it very difficult to say no to this additional emotional and intellectual labor.
“I always feel this very big responsibility as one of the only Native people in a space, where I know that if I’m not on that committee, no one is going to take us into account, it’s not even going to cross their minds that that’s something that they should consider,” she explained. “So I often put a lot of responsibility onto myself that I need to be there, or it’s not going to happen. That’s why that last year I knew that I had to get out of there and I went to a place that has lots of Native people!” she added with a laugh.
The issue of the burden of additional (unpaid) labor being placed upon students from minority groups is something that Adrienne is currently exploring with two of her colleagues right now.
“What I’m exploring is the ways in which the school made me invisible in the classroom and in not supporting my research, and in addition Native people were just not visible at all on campus. But then they also made me hyper-visible, in terms of using me and my research for promoting the diversity of the university.”
That work, of calling out and going up against major institutions like NFL teams and ivy league schools, can be mentally and spiritually taxing. What keeps Adrienne motivated through the hard times and grounded during the big spikes of success and attention is her ultimate goal: to create a better world for other Native youth.
“Whether they’re my little cousins, or kids that I work with, or kids that I don’t even know, I just want them to be able to grow up in a world where their identities aren’t tied to these images that are on the side of a football helmet or in Urban Outfitters,” she said. “I want them to be able to have a world where their identities are affirmed and valued, and that they can be contemporary Native people in the way that they want to be--not feel constrained by these stereotypes and long histories of misrepresentation.”
And that goes for academia, too.
“I want to make it better for the next wave of Native students so that they can go to college and be in these spaces and not have experiences that crush them, and not have to be that lone Native voice that I always feel that I have to be,” she added. “It’s really about making it better for them, and for all the ones who aren’t even born yet. I hope that they can come into a world that really sees them and affirms them for who they are.”