Skip to main content

50 Years Later Native American Studies Still Evolving: 6 New Programs

Native American and American Indian Studies have been part of the higher education for half a century, here are 6 new ones.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Native American and American Indian Studies have been part of the landscape in higher education for half a century. The field has taken academic learning about American Indian communities out of the realm of anthropologists looking from the outside in to describe indigenous cultures into the realm of Native American scholars who themselves interpret the history, cultures and languages of Indian peoples.

Out of this new perspective has grown a vibrant academic community of Native scholars, intellectuals and leaders who help shape the future as the field continues to evolve, often spurred by tribes' financial donations.

New developments in Native American Studies include the following:

The University of Minnesota Duluth has just added a Master of Tribal Administration and Governance degree, says Tadd Johnson, Bois Forte, assistant to the director of graduate studies and head of the American Indian Studies Department. The program grew out of two years of consultations with tribes. It was approved by the university’s board of regents in 2011 and graduated its first class of 25 students in 2013 with Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department giving the graduation address.

The course of study for the masters, aimed at future and current tribal leaders, includes best practices in accounting and budgets, management and strategic planning. “An applied degree is what the tribes wanted,” Johnson said. Beginning next fall the program will be offered entirely online, again at the behest of tribes.

“The further away from Duluth the tribe was, the more they wanted an online program,” Johnson said. The next step, scheduled for the fall of 2015, will be a B.A. in Tribal Administration and Governance, also available online.

Photo courtesy of Brett Groehler

Assistant Director for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn spoke to the first class to graduate from the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program in 2013. To his left is UMD Chancellor Lendley Black; to his near right is Vice Chancellor for Student Life) Lisa Erwin; and to his far right is Kjell Knudsen former dean of the Business School).

The University of Oregon has added a minor in Native American Studies as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Ethnic Studies program. “People have been talking about this since the 1970s,” said Brian Klopotek, Choctaw, program director for the minor. The program is largely the work of Tom Ball, Klamath Tribe, who while he was at the university, pushed for a program that included Native American Studies, retention and recruitment of American Indian students and government-to-government relations. In 2011 the university took its Native American Strategic Mission to the Native American Advisory Board, which includes representatives from all nine federally-recognized tribes in the state.

The university sought and received the endorsement and approval of the university, the board and the tribes, said Klopotek. From the tribal consultations came the requirement that at least one of the required classes had to be about Oregon tribes or Northwest Indians.

“Ninety percent of students at the university stay in Oregon,” according to Klopotek. The minor was established in 2013; one person has completed all the requirements and 12 others are signed up. Klopotek said the minor “augments our service to the community and the tribes and helps build an intellectual community as people work together.”

The University of Oregon has added a minor in Native American Studies as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Ethnic Studies program. These Native students are featured on the admissions page of the university's website.

Alfred Bryant, Lumbee, is founding director of the new Southeast American Indian Studies Program at the University of North Carolina Pembroke. The university intends the program to become a hub for research on Southeast Indian tribes and to grow to include components such as a digital archives, visiting faculty, an elder in residence program and a graduate program in American Indian Studies. Eventually, the program will become a School of Southeast American Indian Studies, putting it on the same footing as other schools within the university, such as the School of Education, of which Bryant is associate dean.

UNC Pembroke was established as a normal school for American Indian students in 1887 and over the years has morphed into a university open to all students, who now number 6,500. Roughly 16 percent to 19 percent of the student body is Native American, predominantly Lumbee. The Lumbee are a state-recognized tribe, with about 55,000 members, 90 percent of whom live in or around Pembroke. Robeson County has largest American Indian population in the state, said Bryant. More than 11,000 kids attend the public schools in the county.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Photo courtesy Dr. Stanley Knick, director of UNCP’s Native American Resource Center

University of North Carolina Pembroke students at a pow wow held in the fall of 2013.

Lawrence Gross, Anishinaabe, fills the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Endowed Chair in Native American Studies at the University of Redlands in California. Gross is an assistant professor in Race-Ethnic Studies. The $3.7-million donation from the tribe created a new endowed chair and will also fund student recruitment and retention, provide scholarships and establish a Native American Studies program. Heather Torres, San Ildefonso Pueblo and Navajo, Creating a Passion for Learning Coordinator in Native American Student Programs, is working on recruitment and increasing the number of American Indian students at Redlands and other institutions of higher education.

Wikimedia Commons

University of Redlands Administration Building.

San Diego State University has established a major in American Indian Studies. The first majors graduated in 2011 and the program has grown rapidly since then, with five majors the first year, 10 the second and 30 this year. The AIS Department has been around since the 1970s, says Margaret Field, a professor and chair of the AIS Department when the major was established, and the university has had a minor in AIS for years, but often the classes would not fill and end up being canceled.

The new major puts the AIS program on the map for counselors who advise transfer students—most American Indian students transfer to San Diego State from community colleges—on picking a major. The department doubled the number of courses offered to include subjects such as California Indian Peoples, Tribal Gaming, American Indian Identity, American Indian Environmentalism and Issues in American Indian Education. The classes now fill and are often oversubscribed.

San Diego State is the third largest university in the California state system and only the second to offer a B.A. in American Indian Studies (as distinct from Ethnic Studies), said Field.

Photo courtesy of Dan Chusid

San Diego State University American Indian Studies graduates and faculty, 2013.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the only federally-recognized tribe in Alabama, has just made a $500,000 donation to start a Native American Studies program at the University of South Alabama. The gift grew out of collaborations between the tribe and the university over the course of many years, according to Phillip Carr, a professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department and director of the archaeology museum.

Deidra Suwanee Dees, the Poarch Band tribal archivist and an alumna of the university, was one of the driving forces behind the program. The donation is structured so that $400,000 will create an endowment to provide funding for the program and $100,000 will provide an initial boost to get the program going, said Carr, who notes the university hopes to eventually build the program into a full minor.

As part of the initial effort, the school plans to develop new courses related to American Indians and to integrate information about Native America into the general education courses, such as English and history. Another goal is to reach out to Native American high school students to interest them in higher education. This is a chance to reach out beyond the campus and create a collaboration between tribe and the university that will utilize the school’s resources for the benefit of the tribe, said Carr, in keeping with the school’s mission of scholarship and service.

Photo courtesy South Alabama University

From left: Deidra Suwanee Dees, Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ archivist; University of South Alabama Board of Trustees Chairman Steven P. Furr; Acting President John W. Smith; Poarch Band of Creek Indians Chairman Buford Rolin; and Robert McGhee, tribal government relations adviser. On March 3, the university presented a resolution thanking the Escambia County, Alabama tribe for its gift of $500,000 to create the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Native American Studies Program.