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Native American Studies Making Strides

Many administrators are reticent to inaugurate Native American studies where no program currently exists because of concerns about programs and departments having a “universal” appeal. The problem with this line of thinking is that many of these same administrators still see the field of Native American studies (NAS) generating a curriculum aimed at narrow constituencies, and therefore narrow arguments, that they then compare to the so-called “general” curriculum that is seen as benefiting everyone without acknowledging its own epistemological, racial and social confines. One colleague recently told me that when she urged her college’s administrators to consider establishing a program in NAS, one of them replied, “But, we have to be careful not to have programs that over-indulge our students’ identities,” as though that were the primary concern of Native American studies. She retorted, “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem since we have no Native American students!” Now, while Native American student recruitment is a serious issue, and this school only has approximately three American Indian students out of nearly 3,000, this is not the same issue as recognizing the intellectual contributions of the interdisciplinary field of NAS and its historical transformation as an area of critical inquiry.

NAS centers the political and cultural agency of indigenous peoples and is foundational to the critical study of American history, culture, society and politics vis-à-vis the original inhabitants of this continent, especially with regard to settler colonialism, slavery and imperialism. Developments in NAS have moved it from a subfield of ethnic studies, to a field in its own right. NAS was institutionalized in the 1970s alongside African-American, Asian American and Chicano studies, by historians and sociologists who aimed to wrestle the study of American Indians away from the sole province of anthropologists and folklorists. Ethnic studies, however, emphasized models of inclusion, civil rights and the intellectual paradigm of the nation-state, while NAS has increasingly distinguished itself as a field that privileges the categories of indigeneity and sovereignty over those of race and democracy. The field has also expanded to examine the history and politics of Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians, while also looking further beyond the machinations of the U.S.-nation state to Indigenous studies in Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, as well as in Latin America and beyond. There is now a growing awareness of the critical importance of taking Native American studies more seriously on epistemological grounds.

Just this year, a group of Native scholars I am part of co-founded the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). At a meeting, “Native American and Indigenous Studies: Who Are We? Where Are We Going?,” on April,10-12, 2008, registered attendees voted to ratify a constitution and bylaws for the new association. This was the second meeting called by a six member steering committee and was hosted by the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia. The event drew more than 450 scholars and graduate students and included 95 sessions from scholars from more than 165 institutions from 18 countries. Members of the founding steering committee (now the acting council of NAISA) are: Inés Hernández-Ávila, professor of Native American studies, University of California at Davis; K. Tsianina Lomawaima, professor of American Indian studies, University of Arizona, Tucson; Jace Weaver, director of the Institute for Native American Studies, professor of religion, University of Georgia; Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jean O’Brien, associate professor, Department of History and Chair, Department of American Indian Studies; and J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University. The aims of the steering committee have been to gather a critical mass of scholars to help shape a new association that is scholarly, is interdisciplinary, is governed by individual members, has annual meetings that rotate among institutional hosts or other locations, is open to anyone who does work in Native American and Indigenous studies, and has a program committee that takes primary responsibility for sending out an open call for papers and setting the agenda for annual meetings.

In May 2009, the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota will host the first annual meeting of the new association. A nominations committee made up six scholars elected at the meeting in Georgia will conduct an election of a council that will take office next May in Minnesota. The nominating committee members are: Aileen Moreton-Robinson, chair (Queensland University of Technology, Australia); Victoria Bomberry (University of California, Riverside); Daniel Heath Justice (University of Toronto); Brenda Child (University of Minnesota); Gabrielle Tayac (National Museum of the American Indian); Paul Meredith (Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand). The composition of the nominating committee reflects the international research scope of those in attendance and includes those working in First Nations studies, Aboriginal studies, and Maori studies.

It is apropos that the first annual meeting of NAISA will be held at the University of Minnesota and hosted by American Indian Studies, given that 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the department’s founding, which is the oldest such program in the United States with departmental status — one that has been central to the emergence of the field as a whole. Indeed, there they have managed to be at the forefront in several areas as the department has worked to establish links with the tribal nations of that territory — the Dakota and Ojibwe — teach the native languages of the region, recruit Native American and other students, recruit top Native scholars as faculty members, and develop a rich curriculum that covers a range of studies from oral traditions and indigenous philosophy, history and education, to American Indians in Minnesota, American Indian peoples in the United States, and Indigenous peoples in a global perspective. The program is a model for its ongoing commitment to community as it honors its political origins as a program back in the day.

New developments across the country include undergraduate minors in Native American studies being institutionalized at Vassar College and Indiana University. Other exciting initiatives include: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its recently established American Indian Center, which is still expanding; Columbia University’s consideration of a new program of study and/or center, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst expanding its certificate program Native American studies into a possible major; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the Native American House and American Indian studies program has just founded an undergraduate minor that begins Fall 2008, and submitted a proposal for a graduate minor now under consideration. Certainly these developments indicate that administrators across the United States are not confused about the field as an intellectual project deserving of institutionalization and its distinction from identity indulgence. It’s high time for all scholars and administrators to recognize these critical projects and their respective and related intellectual legacies.

For more information on the first annual meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association on May 21-23, 2009 to be hosted by the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota see:

— Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses on Native American sovereignty issues, U.S. colonialism in the Pacific Islands, and U.S. racial formations, and critical race methodologies. Her first book, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Indigeneity and Sovereignty, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in October 2008. She is also the host and producer of a weekly public affairs radio program, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” at WESU, Middletown, Conn., which is syndicated through the Pacifica radio-network.

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