English Matters. College of Arts and Sciences, Washington State University.

Graduate Student Spotlight

Julian Ankney: “Waking up the Land”

Julian Ankney
Julian Ankney

Nimíipuu scholar, writer, and activist Julian Ankney came to the WSU English department as a graduate student in 2020 and has been a whirlwind of activity since. In perhaps her most publicly visible WSU role, she introduced and facilitated the February 9, 2022, Visiting Writers Series by Mojave poet and MacArthur Fellow Natalie Diaz (Postcolonial Love Poem), but her infectious energy has since contributed in many other substantial ways to the department. She slowed down long enough for us to interview her during spring break and to learn about what drives her—which, perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t originally English.

As an undergraduate, Ankney thought she was going into radiography but changed her mind after taking a writing class and entering a contest with the Talking River Review. As she put it, “I won the contest, and I was, like, ‘Well, maybe this is a sign that I’m on the right path.’ And I started writing. And I graduated as the Lewis and Clark State College outstanding graduate in English.” After completing her undergraduate education, Ankney found herself working for Americorps, living on the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) reservation, and working with three different law enforcement agencies to try to track down her missing brother, who had disappeared from the reservation. “It was a shit show,” she said. “They kept passing us off: like, the police department would pass this off to the sheriff’s department, who would then pass us off to Idaho State Patrol.” Soon after his disappearance, she began the process of adopting her brother’s two children and their younger sibling. As Ankney put it, “This actually might be, you know, the universe telling me that now that I’m going to have four kids, I need to make a little bit more money, so I should probably go to graduate school. But I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t really go anywhere with my kids when there’s been so much trauma. I didn’t want to take them away from our community on the reservation. So I was going to apply to just two schools: the University of Idaho and Washington State University. WSU actually waived my application fee, so I was like, ‘OK, I guess that’s the only school I’m going to apply to.’ And I told myself if I’m gonna rely on fate here: if I get in, then it was meant to be.”

It took about six months for the various police agencies to even believe that Ankney’s brother was missing. During those six months, Ankney began graduate study in the WSU English Department and partnered with WSU Vancouver faculty member Desiree Hellegers to apply for a grant for research on missing and murdered indigenous peoples. Their grant proposal was successful, and the grant-funded scholarly opportunities for work with indigenous activist Roxanne White and a panel presentation at WSU’s 2021 Social Justice Conference. Ankney used those opportunities as a foundation for further work as a faculty mentor serving on the WSU English Department’s Anti-Racist Composition subcommittee. As she put it, “There’s a lot of work to be done in the University at large, but so much in our own department, too.” Working with fellow English graduate students Mitzi Ceballos and Jesse Padilla, Ankney started reaching out to alumni who had graduated or left the program: some of them had stories of [racist] micro- and macro-aggressions that actually happened to them. Ankney decided, “this can’t go on, because WSU is a land-grant college, and I really believe in radical inclusion and really building community. So we started reaching out to different people, like, ‘Would you write an exit letter for us?’ The exit letters were so heartfelt and compelling, and I was like, ‘Wow, we have a lot of work to do.’ And what better place to start than in a department that is so full of great scholars and great professors to try to build a base of that radical inclusion—where all students feel safe to learn.”

What does that sort of radical inclusion look like in Ankney’s teaching? One place to start, she says, is the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which led to the creation of land-grant colleges by selling indigenous land seized by the United States government. “The universities,” she said, “are definitely not living up to their end when it comes to indigenous students and indigenous faculty. We’re dispossessed. My Native Literature class [English 341] is called ‘Representation as Radical Resistance,’ because of the ongoing battle for indigenous autonomy, the right to present ourselves as human beings. We have a word called Nimíipuu’na’wet, which means ‘becoming Nimíipuu,’ or ‘becoming a human being,’ and the way to becoming a human being is through knowledge. And what a gift it is to have a platform to be able to share that with students.” That sharing, Ankney suggests, relies upon connections between cultural autonomy and Native sovereignty but also with matters of representation: “The U.S. government and academia,” she pointed out, “have portrayed Native Americans as these ancient people who don’t have any running water, who still live in teepees, who don’t know how to govern themselves right. And that’s the farthest thing from the truth. And again, that goes hand in hand with being able to tell our own histories; being able to tell our own stories.”

What are some of those stories that have most affected Ankney’s writing and teaching? Immediately, she responded: “The Beadworkers, by Beth Piatote. She really talks about how epistemologies and ontologies really inform our writing. And how, like some sciences, they are just catching up with indigenous knowledge.” Ankney’s characterization echoed some of the scholarly insights that former WSU English professor and Anishinaabe scholar Kristin Arola has developed into a critique of the speculative realism movement in philosophy, although Ankney clarified that her own practices ground those insights in the place-specific particulars of indigenous storytelling. Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife is another  favorite: “I’ve given his book out as a gift, like, ‘You have to read this book.’ These stories aren’t just stories; they’re ways of life.” Other favorites include work by recent U.S Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and Tommy Orange’s There There. A lot of indigenous authors, Ankney said, “don’t actually look at themselves as activists. They look at themselves as humanitarians. Because you know so many indigenous people still today are still fighting against genocide. We’re still fighting against the dispossession of our lands. We’re still literally trying to live. We’re not at the end of dispossession and language loss. So there’s really been an insurgence or resurgence in the Indian country of reclaiming language. And when we reclaim language, when we speak our language—since our language was the first language of this land—when we speak it, we are actually waking up the land.”