Published August 31, 2020
More than 50 years after she helped create the Native American Studies Program at UB, Marilyn Schindler, a UB lecturer in the 1970s, has earned her doctorate in American studies from the university.
A member of the Seneca Nation, Schindler worked tirelessly to stress the importance of Indigenous history to local high school students and interest them in the university’s nascent program in the 1970s. The latest accomplishment for the 74-year-old comes within months of UB receiving a $3.174 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of a new Department of Indigenous Studies.
Schindler’s immediate plan is to continue teaching language on the Seneca Nation, which she has done since her retirement in 2013. Although future opportunities might arise in academia, for the moment she’s focused on the preservation of Native languages, an effort that in turn perpetuates the ideas, beliefs, knowledge and understanding of the natural world, which are unique to those speakers.
Native languages have been in decline for decades, with dozens of them passing into extinction over the past century. Schindler feels an obligation to stop the neglect of what amounts to lost cultural treasures by using her knowledge and education to preserve what otherwise might be added to the extinction list.
It’s an interest and passion that address both her drive to engage in lifelong learning and her established role as a respected teacher of Indigenous culture and history.
“I’m initially a self-taught speaker,” she says. “But my knowledge of the language really expanded when I started teaching the language, and I believe to this day that if you want to really learn something, teach it — you will learn it.”
Schindler’s academic achievements, which include an associate’s degree in IT technology from Erie Community College, a BS in computer science from SUNY Fredonia and a master’s degree in Six Nations Languages from SUNY Empire State College, in addition to her recently conferred doctorate, are cause for celebration, but she says they also can bring pause to the Wisdom Keepers of the Seneca Nation.
There is a historical pattern suggesting how the goals of members who pursue a formal education often put them on a career path away from the Nation itself, but that’s not a concern in Schindler’s case.
“I have an obligation to the Newtown Long House on the Seneca Nation to continue my work there — and that’s what I’m going to do,” she says. “But through the years, I also saw many Six Nations people like Barry White (Schindler’s spouse), John Mohawk and Oren Lyons, all of whom were involved in the work that created the Native American Studies Program, were attending universities.
“So I continued both my education and my work with the Seneca Nation.”
The Wisdom Keepers’ concerns and the responsibilities of raising a family contributed to Schindler finishing her education in stages throughout her life. With retirement came the desire for a terminal degree. But there was always the autodidactic aspect to her personality, which surfaces with Schindler’s love of history, as it does with her love of language: self-instruction followed by formal education.
When she began lecturing at UB in the 1970s, she taught a course officially listed as “Contemporary Problems of Native Women.” Students, however, knew the class by Schindler’s informal title, “Savage Women,” which speaks to her self-described fearlessness.
The title came out of the many hours Schindler spent in the UB Law Library reading the laws pertaining to Indigenous people. One afternoon, she read that in 1910 the U.S. Congress had approved a $10,000 allocation to “civilize the savage.”
“That’s where I got the idea, and I’m proud of that course title,” she says. “I wasn’t afraid of it or what people would make of it, or how it was listed in the course catalog. My students knew they were taking a course that I called ‘Savage Women.’”
The mention of savagery in that legislation and how it speaks to notions of racial superiority is a pivot point for Schindler. She used it in a course title decades ago to illustrate the consequences of bigoted perception that have been a constant for Indigenous people since Europeans arrived in North America.
Her dissertation was on the philosophy of traditional life and the Haudenosaunee worldview, exploring how Europeans destroyed a Native way of life. The wreckage and ruin resulted not just through violence and conquest, but also by the smallpox virus. The deadly rate of infection, says Schindler — touching on the realities of the current pandemic — was much more destructive than the collective force of the imperialistic vanguard.
“We were almost wiped out by smallpox,” she says. “That was the real killer. It was the biggest part of what became a total infiltration of racism, imperialism and land theft that has not stopped. It has been said throughout our history by chiefs like Red Jacket, Farmer’s Brother, Cornplanter and Black Snake.
“Our fight never stops.”
Education, says Schindler, is critical to changing what has been repeated through history.
“Knowledge of history can initiate change,” says Schindler. “For Native people and non-Native people.”
Incrementally, she sees reason for hope.
“UB is taking the lead with the new Department of Indigenous Studies, but there should be similar departments in colleges and universities across the state and across the country,” says Schindler. “The interest was there in the 1970s when our classes were full, and I’m starting to hear some political leaders speak about Indigenous rights and say that no history of North America is complete that focuses only on European influence.”
Still, vestiges of a narrow-minded past surface in unlikely quarters, including the work of respected researchers.
“Times change and people are beginning to pay attention, but I often encounter good scholarly work that still contains racist language,” notes Schindler. “The practice of writing illuminating history that puts down an entire nation at the same time is something that has to stop.”