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Native American, world citizen

Kay McGowan applies anthropology at United Nations and in the classroom

WHEN CLASSES ENDED this past spring, Bettie Kay McGowan (known as Kay) wrapped things up with her anthropology students at Eastern Michigan University and turned her attention to her duties at the
United Nations. One of the authors of the landmark Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, McGowan, a woman of Mississippi Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, still represents indigenous peoples at U.N. meetings, regularly addressing the U.N. Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While a classroom outside Detroit and the halls of the United Nations may seem worlds apart, for McGowan they are closely linked—because the most important lesson she has to offer is the inspiration that comes from making a difference in the world.

“They want to do something that has intrinsic worth and value,” says McGowan of her students. “That’s what I hope to instill in them. You’re much happier in your life if you’re doing something you’re committed to, not just committed to that dollar that’s so corrupted our society.”

McGowan sets an example by walking the walk. In addition to her work with the U.N., Native American, world citizen Kay McGowan applies anthropology at United Nations and in the classroom she was a delegate to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, has co-authored five books and dozens of articles, and works closely with her twin sister, Fay, who is the executive director of American Indian
Services. The sisters collaborated on a documentary movie, “The Indian Schools: The Survivors’ Story,” which has been translated into 23 languages. The film is used by social workers, criminal justice experts and counselors who want to understand and help heal the wounds suffered by so many Native Americans ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools that forbid any vestige of their Indian culture. The film also describes the intergenerational legacy of the Indian schools, which spawned much of the dysfunction present in Native American communities today. This summer, McGowan worked on the Oneida reservation with the Department of Justice, investigating the numbers of children who had died in the schools and the people who worked with them. She hopes to one day hear an apology from the government, which forced parents to give their children up to such a misguided and punishing system.

McGowan calls her summers “applied anthropology”—and they are certainly far from academic. Her U.N. presentations have decried domestic violence and the Indian boarding schools, and have framed access to
water as the next big human rights issue. This year, she will take on the 2.2 million miles of oil pipelines that crisscross the United States, which she says threaten the environment. “If we allow the contamination of our water [with these] pipelines, we put people at risk around the world,” she says. “We need to start thinking about the earth. Climate change is real, folks. We need to wake up!” But while McGowan is passionate about her international work, she is “very, very proud” of her students, and is especially delighted that one in particular is now working in the human rights division of the United Nations—because of her. “How rewarding is that?”

“One of the things that has kept me in academia is that I feel like I can make a difference there, I can educate young people and give them hope and give them the sense of power that they have to make a difference and to change things.”


AFT On Campus, Fall 2015 Download PDF (2.24 MB)
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