In Tim Anderson’s Sociology of Native American Peoples course, there is no final exam. No cramming, no summary of facts, no recitation of acquired knowledge. Instead, students write a final paper answering one question.
What did you learn?
“If I’ve done my job right, students learn more about asking the right questions than getting the right answers,” says the 30-plus-year Bentley veteran. “And while they learn a lot about Native American life, they learn more about themselves.”
PhD from Boston University notwithstanding, Anderson bears little resemblance to the buttoned-down business professor stereotype. A salt-and-pepper ponytail trails down his back. His dress is Western ranch-hand casual. Native American art and artifacts fill his office, along with sociology tomes, hundreds of works on Native American life, and a generation of students’ final papers, carefully preserved.
“I’ve always tried to teach the Native American way, by telling stories,” Anderson says of the discussions that replace lectures in his classroom. “Then I ask the students to speak. Everyone must do it: discuss the books we read and tell their own stories.”
His aim is nothing less than changing lives. “On the first day of class, I tell them that this course will change their understanding of what it is to be white, if you are white; it will change your understanding of what it is to be American, if you are an American.”
Anderson’s journey into Native American culture began in summer 1992, when he arrived on the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana to volunteer as a sociology
professor at Little Big Horn College. Unlike other white academics, he says, he did not go to study the Crow but to learn from them.
The 2.2 million-acre reservation is home to descendants of the 19th-century American Indian wars, with ills common to reservation life: poverty, alcoholism, violence, obscurity. As he returned year after year, Anderson learned about another side of Crow life: hard work, masterful horsemanship, humility and spirituality deeply tied to the land and respect for other beings on Earth. The sweat lodge, a spiritual practice of hours spent in a steaming enclosure, as well as mountaintop meditations and prayer, connect the Crow to their heritage and the world.
Over time, the professor became friends with four Crow brothers: Richard, Henry, Kennard and Jim Real Bird. During years of quiet listening, he learned about Crow customs and beliefs. Through hours in the sweat lodge, taking tobacco together and wilderness rides, the brothers taught Anderson their Crow ways. He listened with respect and with growing indignation and sorrow at the way native peoples have been erased from American history.
“It’s one of the great silences of the world,” he says, “how little most people know about Native Americans.”
As trust grew, the Real Bird siblings let Anderson behind the “buckskin curtain,” where barriers between white and Indian thin (but never disappear). They bestowed the ultimate honor in asking Anderson to be their brother.
Teaching with Impact
Bentley, too, has honored Anderson’s trenchant understanding of Native American life. The Adamian Award for Excellence in Teaching, presented in May 2012, lauded his use of a “talking stick.” The traditional artifact is passed among students to encourage careful listening and a lively exchange of ideas.
It is not awards but accounts from students that speak most eloquently to Anderson’s teaching. Here is one from former Management and Liberal Studies major Evan Cook ’12:
“It’s hard to explain how much that course has contributed to my personal growth, but I can promise you I am a far better person for taking the course and having you as a professor ... you were one of the most influential figures I have had the honor of learning under over the last four years. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to keep in touch ... I know there is still so much that I can learn from you and I’m hoping a listening ear, an open mind, and a welcoming heart will be a worthy offer in return.”