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Native American scholar Forbes dies

Jack Forbes, one of the founding leaders of UC Davis' Native American studies program, died Wednesday at Sutter Davis Hospital. Beatrice Weyrich/Courtesy photo

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February 25, 2011 |

Jack Forbes, acclaimed author, activist and professor emeritus of Native American studies at UC Davis, died Wednesday at Sutter Davis Hospital. He was 77.

Services will be private, with a public memorial to be scheduled at a later date.

“Jack Forbes’ passing is not only a loss for UC Davis but for the Native American studies academic community across the country,” UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi said. “He was an inspirational and determined leader whose voice influenced the creation of Native American studies programs at UC Davis and around the country.

“He bravely took positions that others might have deemed unpopular and risky, and he fought for what he believed in,” Katehi said. “He will be missed.”

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter also noted the major impact that Forbes had on the campus: “UC Davis attained its position as a leader in the establishment of Native American studies thanks to Professor Forbes’ vision, hard work and inspiration.”

Forbes was born Jan. 7, 1934, in Long Beach of Powhatan-Renape and Delaware-Lenape heritage. He grew up on a half-acre farm in El Monte and in Eagle Rock, where he wrote for the high school newspaper and later became its sports editor.

He received an associate degree in political science in 1953 from Glendale College and went on to the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1955, a master’s degree in history in 1956 and a doctorate in history and anthropology in 1959.

His doctoral dissertation, “The Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard” (1960), was published in a matter of months after he earned his doctorate.

Forbes joined the UCD faculty in 1969, emerging as one of the founding leaders of the campus’ Native American studies program, which began that year.

“He had already been advocating for the establishment of Native American subject matter but faced deaf ears and opposition from mainstream higher education,” noted a family obituary written by UCD professor Steven Crum, a past chairman of the department of Native American studies.

“Due to the political times — affirmative action, the takeover of Alcatraz Island, the larger student protest movement of the 1960s — Jack and several others were able to establish Native American studies programs at different universities,” Crum wrote. “Thus, Native American studies came into existence at UC Davis when Jack was hired in 1969. At the time, he also influenced the creation of Native American studies at other universities, including UCLA, UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota.”

In 1966, Forbes wrote an article titled “An American Indian University: A Proposal for Survival,” published in the Journal of American Indian Education. Colleagues recall that the article, which set forth a proposal for an indigenous peoples university, helped ignite the tribal college movement.

From Forbes’ vision, D-Q University was founded in 1971, seven miles west of Davis. The school was the first all-Native American college in California and the second tribal college in the United States. Today there are 35 tribal colleges that enroll approximately 33 percent of the nation’s Native American postsecondary population, according to Crum.

D-Q University offered a two-year program until it closed in 2005. Forbes served on the board of D-QU and taught there on a volunteer basis for more than 25 years.

In addition to his teaching, research and advocacy work, Forbes was a prolific writer. His numerous books, monographs and articles represented his path-finding scholarship and reflected the events and issues of the times in which they were written.

His book, “Columbus and Other Cannibals” (1992), was one of several books that focused on the Christopher Columbus quincentenary. Crum noted that the book marked the 500-year anniversary of “the supposed discovery of America or 500 years of survival, post-invasion.”

Forbes also wrote “The American Discovery of Europe” (2007), “Red Blood: A Novel” (1997), “Only Approved Indians” (1995), “Apache, Navaho and Spaniard” (1960 and 1994) and “Africans and Native Americans” (1993).

His numerous honors and awards included the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 2009, the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1997 and the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year award in prose and nonfiction in 1999.

Forbes extended his academic career beyond the United States. In 1980-81 he served as a visiting Fulbright professor at the University of Warwick, England. He received the Tinbergen Chair at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam in 1984; was a visiting scholar at Oxford University, England, in 1985-86; and was a senior Fulbright scholar at the University of Essex, England in 1985-86. He also served as a guest lecturer in Russia, Japan, Britain, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico and elsewhere.

At UCD, Forbes developed a graduate seminar in the 1980s titled “Native American Ethnohistory,” which still exists today, and advocated for another seminar, “Basic Concepts in Native American Studies,” first taught in 1994. He also began the creation of a graduate program in Native American studies, which became a reality in 1999.

Thanks in large part to Forbes’ leadership and collaboration with other faculty members, Native American studies became an academic department in 1993, just one year before Forbes retired. It was then one of only a few such departments at major universities nationwide, with faculty members focusing on Mayan civilization, ethno-history of indigenous peoples in Middle and South America, and native higher education, art and literature.

At the time the Native America studies program became a department, Forbes wrote that the faculty had “pioneered the hemispheric approach to studying indigenous people, believing much of the culture has a common thread and that existing nation-state boundaries cut across native nationalities.”

Following his retirement, Forbes served on committees of Native American graduate students at UCD, UC Berkeley and other universities. Colleagues recall that students held Forbes in high regard for his rich ideas and guidance. He taught as recently as winter quarter 2009, when he was the instructor for a Native American studies graduate seminar on “termination policies” and their impact upon Native American populations.

“Jack Forbes nominally retired in 1994, but he continued to be a very productive scholar and teacher, teaching a freshman seminar and a graduate seminar last winter,” said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of UCD’s Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies.

“He was generous in advising me about the importance of Native American studies and about its history at UC Davis,” Owens said. “A time I will always remember was the chance to walk with him — just the two of us — in the newly completed Native American Contemplative Garden in the UC Davis Arboretum.”

Ines Hernandez-Avila, current chair of the UCD department of Native American studies, noted: “Jack was a man of magnificent vision, with a poet’s heart. He devoted his life’s work, passionately, brilliantly, as a true great spirit, with all the power of his words and actions, to finding indigenous peoples, recognizing them, and celebrating their faces and hearts in all their colors.”

Forbes is survived by his wife Carolyn, son Kenneth Forbes, daughter Nancy O’Hearn, son-in-law Bill O’Hearn and grandson Jack O’Hearn.

“We will miss Jack,” Crum wrote. “We respect him for his courage, humor, intelligence and humanity. He will always remain in our hearts.”

Flowers and cards may be sent to Wiscombe Funeral Home, 116 D St., Davis, CA 95616. Donations to the Jack D. Forbes Memorial Fund in Native American Studies may be sent to Native American Studies, UC Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, made payable to the UC Regents. More information about the fund may be obtained by calling (530) 754-9497.

— UC Davis News Service

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