Under the left-brain, right-brain theory, Steven Sexton could be described as “both-brained.” Before the assistant professor of English decided to teach Native American literature, he considered becoming a physician or mechanical engineer because he enjoyed biology, chemistry, and physics courses so much in college. He changed his major numerous times, accordingly
While pondering yet another field — elementary education —at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, he discovered Native American literature and quickly knew it was his calling. He went on to complete a bachelor’s degree at the University of New Mexico, and a master’s degree and Ph. D. at the University of Oklahoma, before joining UNLV last fall.
Today Sexton brings Native American literature to life for his students and incorporates his two passions — Oklahoma football and Star Wars — into his research on how indigenous peoples imagine themselves through their stories.
A time you were daring
Going off to school was kind of daring, moving out to Albuquerque from Oklahoma in 2003. I was going to start my graduate program. I didn’t know what to expect. I had the support of the university, but I didn’t know anybody. It was the first time that I was going to live on my own. I didn’t have a car. It was daring, scary, and exciting, but I knew this was what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to teach and study Native American literature, and I wanted room to be able to do my own creative stuff. I write poetry, and I’m working on a memoir on being indigenous and an Army brat.
Inspiration to get into your field
I realized I was good at it. It was during my last year (at Haskell) that I decided I wanted to pursue a degree in English. I told my professor I was going to transfer to New Mexico, and she said, “It’s only natural.” I knew I wanted to continue studying and teaching Native American literature. It’s a dream.
They were hiring! The job market sort of dictates where you go for tenure-track jobs.
Something about UNLV that surprised you
I hate to say this — the students; the students are really good here. They’re very devoted. I was told that it’s mostly a commuter school, and many of the students have outside obligations that most traditional students don’t. After my first week of teaching here, I got this feeling that my students were not here to waste their time. As a teacher, you eat that up. I said, “Let’s do some work then.”
A film makes you cringe over how your field or the people you study are represented
The most recent Lone Ranger film with Johnny Depp playing Tonto. It makes me cringe, and it doesn’t. Tonto is an Indian, but there’s no historical figure who was a Tonto. The character Tonto was not created by an indigenous person; he was created by Euro-Americans. He doesn’t really point to anything tribal. Johnny Depp tried to play him as Comanche, but the tribe isn’t given in the movie. What Tonto represents is not what Native Americans want to represent; it’s what Euro-Americans want Native Americans to be. This feeds into my research. How do Native Americans imagine themselves as individuals, as a community, as a sovereign nation through the stories they tell? It’s not offensive to me, but there was an uproar on indigenous Twitter and Facebook.
Advice you would give to your younger self
I would definitely try to build up my confidence. I am very confident today in my abilities. Getting a Ph.D. does a lot to validate you, but I wasn’t always confident. It wasn’t until I was pursuing my bachelor’s (degree) that I began gaining confidence. I would tell my younger self that you do have the chops to do this; you have the intelligence, fortitude, and intellectual curiosity to do this work. You just have to work hard.
Biggest pet peeve
People who are dishonest. Honesty is something that I really value. It’s probably the thing I value the most. I tell my students, I don’t care what you write as long as you are thoughtful and honest.
Is the start of fall semester more or less exciting than the end of spring semester?
Start of the fall. I love the fall season and the start of a new semester. I love August, September, and October. In November, there’s my birthday, and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
Your ideal summer vacation
There are two places my wife and I really want to go: one is Chicago and the other is London. I’ve been to London, but she hasn’t. She really wants to go, and I want to go back.
I’ve been to New York a few times, but Chicago always captured my attention, I think because it’s not New York. Chicago is its own thing — it’s the river turning green for St. Patrick’s Day, deep dish pizza, the food. I want to go to the top of the Chase Tower, get a Chicago dog, go to Wrigley Field, and tour Soldier Field.
A career highlight
Getting my Ph.D., I guess, because it took me so long — 11 years. By the time I graduated, I was the oldest grad student in the department. Getting this job is definitely next on the list.
Something besides your research that you are passionate about
OU (University of Oklahoma) football. I was born and raised a Sooner fan; my wife, Denesha (’98 BA English, ’00 MA English), was born and raised an OU fan. I say one of the reasons we are together is OU football. It was 2003, and OU had just lost the Big 12 championship. She said, “Those were not my Sooners out there.” I knew right then she was special because you don’t say, “my Sooners” unless you have that connection. The fandom is different there than anywhere else. In my research, I talk about how football helped to elevate the morale of the state. I try to limit my OU memorabilia.
The other thing I’m really passionate about is Star Wars. I’ve incorporated it into my research as well. A lot of Native Americans like Star Wars. There is a Navajo-language version of Star Wars. I like the work of Steven Paul Judd, who takes a lot of American popular cultural icons and meshes them with Native American icons. He takes classic comic book characters like the Incredible Hulk and changes them a little bit. I actually presented on this work at a couple of conferences this year. Star Wars is something that is near and dear to my heart.