Portrait of Bettie Kay McGowan

Bettie Kay McGowan: U.N. delegate, EMU adjunct professor

After graduating with a Ph.D. in anthropology from Wayne State in 1994, Bettie Kay McGowan attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, as a delegate representing indigenous women of the U.S.

For the past 22 years, McGowan has continued to promote and protect human rights and social justice at U.N. conferences in Geneva, Switzerland and around the world.

“We have not made the gains I would have liked to seen be made and that’s unfortunate,” McGowan said, “and it says something about our inequities that still exist in our world today.”

She says she’ll keep trying to make the world better for not only all women and indigenous people in the world but also for everyone. She’s already preparing a testimony she’ll deliver at the first World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Toronto this July.

McGowan, a Native American of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage and an adjunct professor of anthropology and sociology at Eastern Michigan University, says her passion for cultural anthropology was established in the Ph.D. program at Wayne State.

She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Wayne State, respectively. She says the opportunity to study her own culture, which is extremely important to her, pushed her into anthropology.

“That was a long time ago and I still feel exactly the same way today,” she said. “When school starts back in September or in the winter term I always feel I’m exactly where I belong.”

McGowan has taught classes on indigenous people of North America and Mesoamerica, cultural anthropology, U.S. racial and ethnic minorities, anthropology of religion and applied anthropology at EMU since 1997 and previously at Wayne State, the University of Toledo and Marygrove College.

She says one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching anthropology is seeing her students seek the truth within a culture of which they had inaccurate or no previous knowledge. 

“I find that Native American culture, in particular—there are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of misconceptions—and to bring them real truth about what happened to native people in the Americas is probably one of the most valuable things,” McGowan said.

And she loves hearing from her former students and about their post-graduate careers.

“I have one student who is now working at the United Nations,” she said. “He came back to EMU about four years ago to see me and to tell me that he was working at the UN in New York and that I had inspired him because he said it was something he never considered and it opened a door of possibility.”

McGowan, who has five children, started her Ph.D. at Wayne State when her youngest child was three months old and finished when he was 9 years old. She says those years weren’t easy, but they were well worth it.

She credits her success at Wayne State to Barbara Award, her Ph.D. dissertation advisor; Gordon L. Grosscup, the archaeologist who “was so knowledgeable in his soft, quiet, unassuming way;” and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, with whom she studied the Mayans of Mesoamerica and the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, Mexico.

“[Wayne State] gave me what was necessary to shape my ideas and my values as an anthropologist and as a person,” McGowan said. “They gave me the tools to do the work that I’ve done since that time.”

McGowan has delivered several testimonies before the United Nations at the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People. In 2013, she spoke on the issue of water as a human right, which was four years prior to water shut-offs in the city of Detroit. She says she feels that her testimony pushed the UN human rights officials to come to Detroit and call on the city to restore water services. She has also taken the issue of Native American boarding schools to the U.N. and, this past July, she brought a list to the annual conference in Geneva of how the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People can be implemented and used throughout the world.

McGowan says she’s seeing more organizing around political, social, racial and equality issues than she’s seen since the Vietnam War. And it makes her very happy. Her advice to students, faculty and citizens is to remain active: “Organize. Push Back.”