Nation Building with Miriam Jorgensen

This year we were delighted to speak with Dr Miriam Jorgensen during her stay here in Sydney. Dr Miriam is a Researcher with Jumbunna when in Australia, but her main work is overseas as a Research Director for the University of Arizona Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Her work—in the US, Canada, and Australia—has addressed welfare policy, justice systems, land and natural resources, enterprise management, financial education, cultural institutions, and philanthropy. Listen to Jumbunna’s podcast to find out a little more about Dr Miriam as she discusses Nation Building here in Australia and back home in South Dakota.

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Dr Miriam Jorgensen


Podcast with Miriam Jorgensen


Transcript of Podcast with Miriam Jorgensen

My name is Miriam Jorgensen. And I am a professor of Indigenous Nation Building within the research unit at Jumbunna. And I’ve held that role for just over a year.

In 2013, we brought a group of Indigenous Australians to University of Arizona to participate in some of our programming. And then began, as much as we could, to bring people across to participate in programming here too, either as teachers, or as sharers of information. And we’re hoping that we’re laying the groundwork for increasing community-level and student interaction too.

There’s nothing I don’t think any more powerful than being able to directly share stories and experience, and to learn about those strategies from one another, on an individual basis and on a nation-to-nation basis. So, we’ve done some things like what we call Inter-Nation Summits that bring together Aboriginal Nations and have had representatives from North America at those, and are hoping that we’ll be able to have increasingly representatives from Indigenous Nations in Australia at some of those same kinds of in the United States.

In the United States, I grew up in the state of South Dakota. And South Dakota’s, population-wise, a very small state, right.  It’s barely got seven hundred thousand people. And when you look around the state, and certainly, when I was growing up, I’m 50 years old now, but when I was growing up, the only people of colour in the state were American Indians. Everybody else was kind of a German, or Norwegian, or Scandinavian, of some sort immigrant, and you know, if you were interested in issues that had to do with social justice, or you were interested in anything that had to do with race relations, they were American Indian issues.

So, I got really interested in American Indian issues, and certainly, in college, when I was then … I went away to college, but I was studying economic development. And I had a professor who was Palestinian, which actually ended up being relevant, because he could relate to these issues around colonization, and displacement, and encouraged me to say, “Okay, you know, most of this class is kind of focused on South American, Africa, and parts of Asian, but if you’re really interested in American Indian issues because of your growing up experience, that’s what you ought to be focusing on.”

So, I got really interested in just that framework of economic development, and I was an economist by training, but it became pretty clear as I continued my studies and got my feet wet in just being on the ground and doing practical work, that the kind of neoclassical economic development lens wasn’t the be-all, end-all for understanding what was going on with American Indians and Indigenous peoples at home.

Fairly soon, I began to work with some professors at Harvard who were doing new work that were saying, “What really matters is these issues around self-determination.” And the self-determination framework that seems to be most impactful is at the defined level of nation. And obviously, the US setting is different because of the recognition setting of tribes in native nations and native peoples. But the research work that they were undertaking that I became involved with pretty quickly demonstrated that when Indigenous nations were taking control of their own futures, were developing government structures that made sense to them, and that had legitimacy with their people, that they were able to take on a variety of issues that went far beyond economic development.

So, it became very clear quickly to me when I got an interest in American Indian issues, I got interested in development, that the way that those things progressed in Indigenous terms was through nation-building.

So, for those peoples, who have kind of self-identified into this, nation-building is framework that makes sense to them. I think that it’s difficult to argue that it is a framework that makes sense for everyone everywhere in Australia, because there are different ways that people have constituted themselves. And there have been overlays of federal and state policy that have caused peoples to be uprooted from the way they might have ancestrally or traditionally looked at things, as well.

I think the biggest thing for me is that you start to understand how nation-building is always growing. And here my vision of what nation-building is had expanded even more, of understanding how people are reminding themselves of traditional ways of doing and being that get built into their institutional structures. And it’s the importance of that foundational work. And it’s not that that’s not going on in the United States, it’s just that there has been much less of a connection between that work and governing work, and now we’re really seeing in the last decade a melding of that together to really bring that into the nation-building context has been so important. And to me, that’s what I’ve learned the most from Australia.

When you’re doing language and culture work, you’re doing governing work.  It just                                                      is that shaping preferences behind the scenes sort of work that’s sort of saying, “Here’s who we want to be as a people.” It’s about drawing that social boundary about who is us. You know, and welcoming people in or back in.

And those are things that tribes in the US have sometimes not been as good at. And there’s so much learning from Australia about that. And to me, just learning those things, expanding my understanding of nation-building around those topics, that’s what has been so beneficial about the experiences in Australia. And that I’m hoping to continue to learn even more about.

That’s the excitement about working with grassroots community here, is there’s not as much of that kind of baggage that’s been imposed, and there can be that free conversation of, “How did we used to do things? And that’s a dynamic and exciting environment to work in.