A teacher under the skin
ASU grad Truman Peyote has goals of teaching American Indian literature at the college level
Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.
“Chokma, chinchoma, saholhchifoat Truman Peyote, Chikashsha saya, aamintili Tishomingo, Oklahoma (Hello, how are you, my name is Truman Peyote, I am a member of the Chikashsha Nation from Tishomingo, Oklahoma).”
Peyote, who holds a bachelor's from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, graduates from ASU this spring with a Master of Arts in English literature. He recently defended his applied project titled “Queer Skinned: How I Came to Be Defined by a Gene,” which explored, using literature, what it means to be an Indigenous person in white society.
Peyote has goals of teaching American Indian literature at the college level, a departure from where he saw himself as an undergraduate.
“I attended school to discover myself, and not to procure some employment, as if university was some glorified trade school. Inevitably, everyone would say, ‘Well, so you must want to teach?’ And while I may not have known exactly what I wanted to do, I knew that I did NOT want to teach.”
But then life happened. Our interview picks up 20 years after he earned his bachelor’s degree and just prior to Peyote's change of heart.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?
Answer: I had spent one half of my life working a myriad of jobs, all of which seemed interesting for a couple of months. However, at the age of 40, I became a police officer and discovered that I had a true passion for helping people. After I settled into the job, I specialized in the detection and prevention of impaired driving by alcohol and drugs. My passion for the subject led me to speaking with others about the subject, and I eventually began to teach DUI/DWI classes at my department and at the local police academy. Others noticed how passionate I was about teaching, and they continually related this to me, but I routinely dismissed them.
In April of 2012, I was involved in an altercation with a suspect, and I became injured. Despite surgery and rehabilitation, that injury forced me to retire in May of 2013. And just like that, I had lost the career from which I had expected to retire at the age of 62. Instead, I was out of work at the age of 47, with no idea of where to turn. My partner Sophia, one of the greatest women I have ever met, continually pushed me to consider returning to school with the goal of becoming a college professor. I knew that I would have to jump through some serious hoops to return to school after 26 years, and I quickly discovered that I was correct; however, I was lucky enough to meet with Dr. Lee Bebout (an associate professor in the Department of English). He was encouraging, and together, we mapped out a plan for me to achieve this goal, which I refer to as my “new life.” While I believe that ASU could do a lot more to accommodate the non-traditional student, I am a firm believer in individual passion, determination and endurance.
If I had an “aha” moment, it would be embedded in the simple guidance of a mentor like Dr. Bebout. It could be found in times of quiet reassurance and positivity from a fellow student. It may be the simplest of times, appearing almost unremarkable, when a loved one exhibits their unwavering faith in your ability.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: During my time at ASU, I have focused my research on American Indian literature, especially as it pertains to the ideas of race, ethnicity and the establishment of a personal, American Indian space within the public sphere of white America. While this inquiry is superficially established within a political realm, it is also firmly embedded in our relationship with the land. As N. Scott Momaday writes, “I am interested in the way that a man looks at a given landscape and takes possession of it in his blood and brain.” In my research and writing, I attempt to discover the manner in which storytelling serves as a process where a person searches for her/his relationship to the land.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Education is a lifelong pursuit, it requires total commitment, and it does not end with a degree, or a certification. It demands a high level of dedication that requires a belief in one’s self and a passion for the fashioning of a positive impact on the world. I have also come to deeply appreciate the idea of “Survivance,” a term that Gerald Vizenor originally coined as a representation of modern American Indian life, a life that is filled with survival, endurance and a rejection of dominance.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: My goal for the future is to tell beautiful stories, elucidate myths that are filled with survivance, and relate ceremonies where a person may come to discover her/his own relationship with the land and with another; for I believe that it is only within art and literature that a person is able to truly find her/his humanity.
The Department of English is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.