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How the Humanities Will Help Us Recover

screenshot of Reclaiming Native Truth homepage
Reclaiming Native Truth is one example of humanistic work that deepens our understanding of our world

The humanities enrich our understanding of our own and others’ experience of the world, and help us imagine and build a better future as we recover from a year of unprecedented loss.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the humanities have suffered significant financial loss, but with $135 million in new funding from the American Rescue Plan dedicated to humanities organizations and cultural institutions in the United States, recovery can begin. The emergency funding will be administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a federal agency that supports humanities research, education, preservation, and public programs through grant funding. In 2020, NEH received $75 million in CARES Act funding that it distributed to humanities organizations nationwide. This funding was essential to help local organizations preserve jobs and create new ones, and to help educational institutions teach online.

The emergency funding is critical for cultural institutions that have had to make hard decisions to lay off staff, close facilities, pause research projects, and move teaching and programming online in the past year. But humanities funding has been decreasing for more than a decade—adjusted for inflation, NEH funding has decreased by more than 15 percent since 2010. Now is the time to reverse that trend and invest in the humanities.

Last week, I participated in the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day. With a team of students, professors, and leaders of local heritage organizations, we made the case for increased funding for the humanities to our congressional delegation. NHA brings together schools, libraries, museums, state humanities councils, and professional organizations to advocate for and help people understand the value of the humanities.

Below are my three takeaways from NHA Advocacy Day. The humanities will help us recover and heal from the past year by investing in local communities, preserving and renewing our civic and democratic culture, and training students who will become leaders in studying and fighting the next global threat.

Investing in Communities

A 2020 NEH CARES grant allowed the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska, to retain five jobs, deliver programs and tours virtually, and exhibit their collections online. In non-emergency times, the NEH funds the Willa Cather archive at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), an institution recognized as a leader in digital humanities. UNL has leveraged two major NEH Challenge Grants to raise an additional $2.7 million for initiatives like the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH), which offers internships and fellowships to train and mentor humanities scholars. CDRH hosts the Nebraska Forum on Digital Humanities each year, focusing on topics like digital ethnic studies.

Preserving and Renewing Cultural Heritage

In addition to catalyzing investments at the community level, NEH supports a national research ecosystem in the US that funds preservation and accessibility of archival collections and digital humanities research. To understand why this is critical, consider that in 2016 a research project conducted by Native scholars, Reclaiming Native Truth, revealed that a significant percentage of Americans are not sure that Native Americans exist. One author of the report writes that the invisibility of Native peoples is due to master narrative perpetuated by popular culture, media, and our education system that rarely if ever teaches the history of genocide and enslavement by whites.

An NEH-funded project on documenting Chesapeake history called into question the Eurocentric history of precolonial Virginia, and had a real-world impact on the Native American tribes who live in the region today. Excavating and digitizing objects from Indigenous sites in the Chesapeake Bay region, and using GIS to analyze the sites, helped the Rappahannock Tribe verify their oral traditions, which supported their efforts to seek recognition. In 2018, the Rappahannock Tribe, Chickahominy Indian Tribe, Eastern Division of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Monacan Indian Nation, and the Nansemond Indian Tribe were federally recognized, making them eligible for federal benefits. According to archeologist Julia King, “10 or 15 years ago, many people wouldn’t believe there were Native Americans here. They thought they were long gone, when in fact they are still here.” Without investments to preserve and make accessible artifacts and documents from our past, key evidence of our history and cultural heritage will be lost.

Training Global Citizens

Humanities research has historically been influenced by issues of global concern. Fulbright-Hays and Title VI grant and fellowship programs are critical to training global citizens with the knowledge and skills to understand and confront global problems like pandemics, food insecurity, climate change, and the challenges experienced by immigrants and refugees On their paths to becoming military and civilian leaders, Fulbright-Hays and Title VI scholars may learn less commonly taught languages and conduct area studies about countries and regions of strategic interest; scholars also learn how the history and culture of other nations are best understood and shared with the rest of the world.

These programs and others like them—many of which are supported or led by research libraries—demonstrate that the humanities and the sciences can work together to deepen our understanding of our world, and of each other.

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