On the subject of Native Americans in popular culture, Jessica Bissett Perea mentioned a quote from Paul Chaat Smith’s Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong: “The only reason Nick and Sitting Bull weren’t playing Nintendo on the ship to Europe with Buffalo Bill is because it wasn’t invented yet.”
Both Chaat Smith and Bissett Perea work to distinguish the popular “romanticized” version of the noble savage from the more complex realities of a history written alongside media representations: Sitting Bull did drive a Cadillac, and Black Elk did have a first name (Nick). In her article, “A Tribalography of Alaska Native Presence in Academia,” Bissett Perea argues that “we must grapple with and acknowledge historic traumas in order to move beyond the sense of inevitability espoused by the expectation of conventional American history narratives that Americans assimilated and disappeared.”
Bissett Perea, who joined the UC Davis Native American Studies Department this fall as an assistant professor, hopes to assist students in “engaging critically with the portrayal of indigenous cultures in popular media.” Her upcoming undergraduate courses, “Writing about Native North American Music, Musicians, and Social Consciousness” and “Last Frontier Reelism: Thinking Critically About Reality Television in Alaska,” prompt students to consider “the role of media representation in the struggle for political and economic sustainability.”
“As an agricultural college, Davis reminds me quite a bit of home,” said Bissett Perea about growing up in Wasilla, Alaska, before receiving her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of California, Los Angeles. “We think of Alaska as a resource colony, but it is still a dependent economy. These reality television shows set in Alaska provide a great window into the myth of grand narrative. Alaska’s geographical isolation allows a popular conception that is always savage.”
A variety of perspectives and approaches and a push outside of academia are fundamental components of Bissett Perea’s research and teaching that are facilitated by the interdisciplinary nature of UC Davis research. Her work on music studies, race and gender studies, and intertribal studies are all united by the goal of “increasing presence and decreasing erasure through research as activism.” She asks her students to do the same, constructing assignments that require students to apply their original research project toward an application or proposal for funding and/or academic advancement in lieu of a traditional final term paper.
Bissett Perea will also be working with the UC Davis Mellon Research Initiative “Social Justice, Culture, and (In)Security” focusing on “cross cultural perspectives on indigineities related to African and Native alliances and cultural production in the Americas.” She is specifically interested in projects like the Smithsonian Institute’s traveling exhibition IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.