Growing up near three Mohawk Indian reservations in her native Quebec sparked Mary Ann Levine's interest in Native Americans, but it was an incident in the Canadian town of Oka that moved the Franklin & Marshall College associate professor of anthropology to turn that interest into the focus of her academic career.
"This was a transformational moment for the Native American people in Canada," Levine told the audience attending the Dec. 4 Common Hour, an hour-long College community discussion held every Thursday during the academic year. "It also was a defining moment for me."
The 1990 crisis in Oka was a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town. It lasted 78 days, involved armed barricades, and resulted in one fatality. Levine said the incident helped her better understand colonialism's continuing legacy, contemporary power relations -- how different groups are able to interact with and control other groups -- and the vast number of issues that remain unresolved.
"All of this helped define the approach I have taken in the courses that I teach," she said.
As an anthropology professor, Levine, the 2014 recipient of the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, seeks to enlighten students on the history of Native Americans in eastern North America and dispel stereotypes from longstanding assumptions about conquest and colonialism.
On the first day of her "North American Indians of the Eastern Woodlands" course, she asks students to write on a card words that come to mind when they think about Native Americans. She keeps the cards, which typically list such words as "teepee," "tomahawk," "Last of the Mohicans" and "Pocahontas."
On the last day of class she asks students to do the exercise a second time. Common refrains include "sovereignty," "land claims," "justice" and "racism."
"The students in my course come to recognize their misconceptions and misperceptions," Levine said. "They realize that they hadn't visited Native Americans, academically, since the fourth grade."
Sam Alter, a senior geosciences major from New York, agreed with Levine that most people don't understand the nuances of the Native American experience.
"Thinking about my fourth-grade class, I didn't learn about the Native Americans' challenging history," Alter said.
Levine's work in the field includes exploring the Native American hunter-gather populations and an 18th-century Canadian woman of French and Algonquin heritage known as Madame Montour, who married an Oneida Indian Chief and served as a translator for the governors of New York and Pennsylvania as well as a go-between in relations between Native Americans and new Americans.
Levine located the site of Madame Montour's village near Montoursville, Pa., about three hours north of Lancaster. The site was on undeveloped land. Between 2007 and 2011, when the site closed, Levine had excavated at Otstonwakin with assistance from more than 50 students, finding various pieces of jewelry, cooking artifacts, musket balls, and arrowheads.
Between courses and fieldwork, Levine said her students get a new, accurate picture of Native Americans.
"I hope what they learn will be carried with them for a lifetime," she said.