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History Professor Wins Prestigious Summer Fellowship

Colleen O’Neill Receives National Endowment for the Humanities Grant

Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012

Updated: Thursday, May 3, 2012 15:05


Colleen O’Neill was awarded a prestigious summer fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for her research on American Indian workers.

 Colleen O’Neill, associate professor of history at Utah State University, was awarded a summer grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to further a book project she has underway about the history of American Indian workers in the United States.  Her project “Labor and Sovereignty: The Transformation of Wage Work in Indian Country, 1890-1990,” weaves their work history into the larger conversation of the history of work and working class people in America.  
Selection for one of the prestigious grants involves a competitive peer review process, starting with a panel of scholars and experts in the humanities chosen by the NEH, followed by a second review by the National Council on the Humanities. Colleges and universities are allowed to nominate one candidate and only about 60 are funded nationwide. O’Neill was notified earlier this month of her award.

“I think research on American Indian workers is beginning to blossom,” said O’Neill. “My book project builds on that scholarship, and moves beyond the individual tribal narrative to offer a broader interpretive framework for thinking about the changing meaning of work in American Indian communities. Given the movement of tribal governments to assert their sovereignty rights, there is more interest in understanding their histories, particularly the connections between economic development, labor and social change.”
O’Neill investigates the American West with particular interests in American Indian, labor and women and gender studies. She is the author of “Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century,” which won the 2006 Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá Award for best historical publication from the Historical Society of New Mexico. O’Neill’s new book will examine the transformation of wage work as an “agent of assimilation” to a central part of the struggle for decolonization, she said.

O’Neill will use the NEH fellowship to finance research trips to California and Arizona to conduct oral histories with tribal officials, union members and others American Indian workers who migrated away from reservations to urban areas to work in the 1950s. She will also interview individuals who returned or remained at home due to the casino boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I am arguing that jobs have become something akin to land rights, or rights to govern,” O’Neill said. “Rights to jobs — and to regulate work — have become an important part of tribal agendas to establish sovereignty. And the struggles for workers’ rights within that context, have significantly complicated the sovereignty question overall.”

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