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Columbia University Announces Creation

Columbia University Announces Creation
Of American Indian Studies Program

By Jamal Watson

Spurred on by fierce student activism a decade ago, Columbia University is now pushing forward with plans to create an American Indian studies program, making it one of only three Ivy League colleges to offer such a curriculum.

University officials say they are in the preliminary stages of planning for the academic program, which they hope will eventually allow students to major in the interdisciplinary subject.

“We are trying to catch up with something big and important that has already been going on at colleges and universities across the nation,” says Dr. Evan Haefeli, who teaches American Indian history at the university.

Columbia’s American Indian studies program comes decades after Arizona State University, Oklahoma State University and others formed similar programs. The State University of New York at Buffalo grants a doctorate in the discipline, and a half-dozen other colleges and universities offer master’s degrees. Dartmouth College and Cornell University are the other two Ivy League institutions that offer American Indian studies.

“We are trying to bring this to the Ivy League,” says Haefeli, a member of the steering committee charged with developing the academic component of the program. Once finalized, the program will likely be coordinated through Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Haefeli says other top-tier universities, including Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, are discussing the possibility of creating similar programs.

Some Columbia students have questioned why the institution is creating a new American Indian program just months after announcing the temporary suspension of its popular African studies program, which was put on hold largely because of a lack of funding. University officials have repeatedly said that they are reorganizing the African studies program and it will be back in place with a new director for the 2007-2008 academic school year (see Diverse, Aug 10).

Columbia recently launched a five-part speaker series that will bring American Indian scholars from around the nation to speak about their work. Dr. Tiya A. Miles, a professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in American Indian and African-American relations, delivered the first talk.

But the real challenge is raising the funds necessary to hire full-time faculty for the new program. Various departments throughout the campus will likely recruit and hire the professors, who would also be affiliated with the American Indian program.

Professors at colleges that already have American Indian programs say that Columbia’s interest is encouraging, albeit late.

“Native American studies is in a unique position,” says Dr. Colleen E. Boyd, who directs the American Indian program at Oklahoma State. “This population is one of the fastest-growing in the country. More tribes are becoming recognized by the U.S. government and [American Indians] are opening casinos and showing that they are real money makers.”

Boyd says the academy has gone too long without acknowledging American Indian history or examining the current political status of tribes within the U.S. federal government.

“Universities have been woefully ignorant of the third tier of the government,” says Boyd, noting that tribal governments are autonomous. She says it’s a fact that is too often forgotten. 

Once Columbia’s interdisciplinary program gets off the ground, the focus will likely range from an examination of American Indian social studies to history, art and literature.

At Oklahoma State, the American Indian program is housed within the American studies department. Though the college does not yet offer a bachelor’s degree in the field, 12 courses can be counted towards a minor or certificate.

“Historically, it’s been kind of piece meal together with the help of other departments,” says Dr. John Cross, the coordinator of the 25-year-old program.

He says there has been a broader push on campus in recent years to ensure the longevity of the American Indian program.

“I am glad to see that the kind of work that we’ve been doing here is spreading to other colleges and universities,” says Cross, who has taught American Indian tribal law at the university since 1985. “This is a very good sign for a field that many people did not even know existed until recently.”

Carrese P. Gullo has been pushing for American Indian studies programs at colleges and universities across New York state for years. Currently the director of communications and information at the American Indian Community House, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the health, social and cultural needs of New York City’s American Indian community, she says she was pleased to hear about Columbia plans, but she remains cautiously optimistic.

“I hope that they find someone who is Native to teach in their program,” she says. “Often, colleges and universities start these programs and never have any Native persons on their faculty.”

For now, Gullo, who is Eastern Cherokee, says she’s supportive of anything that helps “people become culturally sensitive in wanting to learn more about our lifestyle and culture.”

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