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Write history right

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I want you to create an image in your mind. Think for a minute about a Native American. You know, the feathers, the beads, the leather, the colors. “Fast as an Indian,” “Strong as an Indian,” “Brave as an Indian,” Indian warrior, Indian princess.

Are your classmates the images that come to mind?

The ever-present expectation of the Wild West type of Native American that fills our movie screens and television shows is not the person, nor the culture, nor the history of reality, yet that is the image that informs our popular understanding of the native and indigenous people of the Americas.

But you know this.

What you may not know is that of all the Ivy League universities and the top 20 non-Ivy universities (excluding military academies) listed by Forbes, 23 have named, institutionalized, and respected Native American and/or Indigenous programs of study. The five which do not: Columbia, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Washington and Lee, and Duke.

Even Johns Hopkins (not in that list of 20) has a Center for American Indian Health, and UNC is known to have one of the largest concentrations of native and indigenous language programs in the United States.

UNC also has an impressive concentration of native and indigenous professors; currently, I know of two at Duke: a Lumbee professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy (though if one googles “Duke Lumbee professor,” nothing is found except UNC’s Lumbee professors) and Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj, a K’iche Maya anthropologist who unfortunately had to leave Duke because she was only hired as a Mellon Visiting Professor for Spring 2017.

It may seem frivolous to want a named department or program on campus for the study of Native and Indigenous people and cultures, but the name carries weight. The institution carries weight. And the weight of educating the community at Duke about us and our people is too great for us students on campus to carry ourselves.

Too often, my native friends and I have been told “You’re the first native/indigenous/tribal/etc. person I’ve ever met.” Too often, people have never heard the names of our tribes, pueblos, or clans. Too often, people have had to thank usfor educating them about our histories because they had never been taught it by those who write and profess history as a career.

In academia, it is our job to write history correctly, and to amend it when we find out it is incorrect. It is our job to do justice to the people who have not known justice for centuries. How is Duke to participate in that endeavor fully without so much as the respect of a name? It is for this reason thatI propose a new Certificate program at Duke: Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS).

There are already more than enough courses at Duke that can be a part of the program (over 15 at my last count), plenty of professors who are willing to support the program and create courses for it (at least 10 at my last count), and more than enough students who are actively interested in the topic, either intellectually or personally.

If the Native and Indigenous Studies program existed at Duke, you might have learned the following facts that the programs at our peer institutions teach every semester:

  • At least 370 million people worldwide are considered to be native or indigenous.
  • There are currently 562 federally recognized Native American Nations in the United States.
  • Over 100 native languages are spoken in the contiguous 48 states. Alaska and Hawaii add at least another 20 (depending on how you count them).
  • 60-70 percent of Bolivians are indigenous
  • 40-60 percent of Guatemalans are indigenous
  • 40-50 percent of Brazil identifies as multiracial: black, white, and indigenous
  • Over 65 percent of Oaxaca and Yucatan (Mexican states) and over 20 percent of Mexico’s population as a whole is indigenous.
  • Roughly 70 indigenous languages are spoken in Mexico (depending on how you count them).

A bit more positively, you might have learned the following facts, which are begging for academic research:

  • About 25 percent of active ingredients in American prescription drugs derive from indigenous knowledge of plants, yet countless plants and substances known to be effective in healing diseases and chronic conditions by native populations are not known to western medicine.
  • Navajo is one of the few native languages in the Americas which is actually increasing in number of speakers, rather than decreasing.
  • Half the population of Aboriginal Canadian populations (First Nations, Inuit, etc.) are under the age of 25, making it the fastest-growing demographic in Canada.
  • In Mexico, linguistically-flexible schools that typically serve indigenous populations (Otomí, Nahuas, etc.) are now functioning trilingually, or even quadrilingually, including Spanish, English, and one, two, or even three indigenous languages.

Students at Duke who want to study topics related to Native and Indigenous Studies often have to create their own programs and projects with professors who do not always specialize in the topic, commute to UNC to study with their professors, or resign themselves to studying another topic altogether. Additionally, every year I’ve been at Duke, I’ve personally spoken to students who told me they may have committed to Duke had they seen reflections of themselves in our curricula, but instead chose a peer institution with more Native American and Indigenous resources and programs of study. Duke is losing students—brilliant students—by not having more resources in this field.

Duke must recognize the importance of this course of study. We can hire professors who specialize in these topics, and even identify with these communities, such as Professor Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj. For many of her students this semester, Professor Velasquez Nimatuj was the first person to teach them about the indigenous history of Mesoamerica, the human rights violations committed against indigenous communities by governments, and even their own history, as many of them had indigenous ancestry themselves. She is the first Maya-K’iche woman to receive a PhD in Social Anthropology, has served on advisory boards for the UN and UNICEF, run resource centers for the indigenous people of Guatemala, and taught at both the University of Texas, Austin, and Scripps College, as well as at universities in Guatemala and Spain. She is more than qualified to be a full-time Duke professor, and there are so many more academics out there, native and non-native, qualified and willing to teach the history that has been systematically erased from our textbooks for centuries.

It is time for Duke University to create a Native and Indigenous Studies Certificate. Native people and cultures are not history; we are here. American history is not Native American history. Latin American studies is not Indigenous studies. Indigenous Latin Americans are not the only Indigenous peoples who deserve to be studied. These topics are not being discussed or recognized on our campus today, and the conversation needs to start. 

We intend to start it.

To join in the creation of this program, email

Adaír Necalli is a rising junior at Duke studying Linguistics and Child Policy. Their research focuses on indigenous language revitalization. They would like to thank Norma de Jesus, David Preston, Attyat Mayans, Gabriela Asturias, Ashley Claw, Taylor Miller, and the Native American Student Alliance students pictured in the photo collage in this article for helping make this endeavor a reality. 


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