Faculty Profile: Michelle Raheja

Michelle Raheja

Michelle Raheja

Associate Professor

College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

E-mail: michelle.raheja@ucr.edu

Students who enroll in Assistant Professor of English Michelle Raheja’s Early American Literature course, English 130, should be prepared to have some of their conventions and beliefs challenged. For starters, they should not expect the course to start when the Pilgrims first set foot in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Rather, it begins with the indigenous people who already lived in the region: Native Americans.

“I attempt to unsettle the definition and focal point of conventional understandings of what constitutes early American literature,” Raheja said, noting that the course ends with work written before 1630. “I don’t approach it from an Anglophone-centric perspective. The course begins and ends with Native American narratives and covers a wide swath of transnational colonial literature written by Norse, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French and English writers.”

Raheja, who is of Seneca heritage, specializes in Native American literature, with a special interest in autobiography and film. She earned her Ph.D. in English in 2002 from the University of Chicago, augmenting it with a two-year stint in UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies as an exchange scholar. This background has given her a unique pedagogical insight and the research and intellectual training to fairly address difficult subjects such as mass racialized violence, even genocide.

“I approach literature courses and presentations with a broad cultural studies perspective,” she said. “It's very important to me that my presentations address the wide array of indigenous narrative production, from print culture — novels, autobiographies, etc., to oral narrative, to new media production such as blogs, YouTube, etc. I really want audiences to become interested in the vibrant and active ways of the native people, particularly those in the 20th and 21st centuries, interact with a host of literary genres and visual media.”

At the same time, Raheja tries to eliminate some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding Native Americans and their culture to an audience whose only exposure to the culture is likely limited to the local tribal casino or sound bites on the local news.

“Since at least the late 18th century, there has been a myth of the disappearing Native American,” she said. “Anthropologists, social reformers, and politicians continue to lament the imminent demise of Native American communities and cultures.… Yet Native Americans continue to survive and thrive, well into the 21st century.”

Not only have Native Americans survived against great odds into the 21st century, they have also influenced the world around them, dating back to the earliest days of interface between the indigenous peoples and European settlers. These include adoption of cultural traditions, forms of government, even cuisine.

“If anything, one would be more apt to say that despite the denial by mainstream society, it is Euro-American cultures that have assimilated Native American epistemologies and traditions,” she said.

“I think there's been a willful ignorance on the part of Americans for the past 500-plus years not to recognize Native American artistic production as the root of many of the key American traditions of philosophy, literature, culture, politics, and linguistics,” she added. “That said, it does seem that the tide is slowly changing. Native American literature, in particular, is becoming more visible through the success of works by Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, and the late Paula Gunn Allen.”

In addition, she reminds her students that all cultures and communities change and evolve over time, and that Native Americans are no different. They should not be expected to be anachronistic.

“Native Americans, if they are to be recognized as ‘authentic,’ are expected to live, dress, and speak exactly as their ancestors did in the 16th century,” she said. “Native Americans, like all human communities, have some specific cultural traditions that have been remained static and some that changed over time. They have also borrowed traditions from other Indigenous peoples, Africans and African Americans, Asians and Asian Americans, and Europeans and European Americans, just as other communities have done.”

“We wouldn't expect an individual of English derivation living in the U.S. to dress in the clothing of someone from the court of Queen Elizabeth, speak Elizabethan English, and manage without electricity, modern sewage systems, and medicine,” she added.

UC Riverside’s location made Raheja’s research for her book “Reservation Reelism” a little bit easier. The book focuses on the hundreds of Native American actors who have flocked to southern California since the turn of the 20th century to become involved in the film industry. She found herself near to several key resources, including the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, the Autry Museum in Griffith Park, the National Archives and Record Administration in Laguna Nigel, the Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington, and the Sherman Indian Museum in Riverside.

She said she also loves working at Riverside because of the students and the faculty at the University.

“UCR students are really stellar. Every class I've taught here has been filled with engaged, rigorous, intellectually curious students. I look forward to each quarter because I know I'll have the opportunity to get to know students I've had in previous classes better and meet new students who bring a wealth of information and experience to the classroom,” she said. “My brilliant, wonderful, impressive, and creative colleagues, though, are really what sustains me at UCR. It's been such a pleasure getting to know the incredibly faculty across CHASS through research fellowships, writing groups, lecture series, and the various committees on which we serve.”

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