Native students continue push for new minor in Native American and Indigenous studies

<p>A placard at Duke's first-ever Indigenous Arts Showcase and Gala on Nov. 7, 2022.&nbsp;</p>

A placard at Duke's first-ever Indigenous Arts Showcase and Gala on Nov. 7, 2022. 

Duke has sought to expand the diversity of its curriculum offerings in recent years, adding minors in inequality studies and Asian American and diaspora studies

As the University makes faculty hires to help facilitate Native American and Indigenous studies classes, some students are also calling for more curricular programs at the undergraduate level. 

The Native American/Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) and advising faculty sent out a survey on social media platforms to gauge student opinion on a potential new Native American studies minor at Duke on Sept. 8. 

The potential minor would be housed in the cultural anthropology department, where there are currently only a few Native studies classes offered. 

Associate Professor of Anthropology Courtney Lewis, who is also Trinity College of Arts & Science’s first American Indian professor, is spearheading efforts to introduce the minor. Lewis, a Cherokee Nation citizen, emphasized the need for greater academic and faculty resources for students.

Relying on other programs

Historically, students at Duke with an interest in Native American studies have had to rely on classes at other universities or undergo personalized Program II or interdepartmental majors.

Junior Amanda Henderson, vice president of NAISA, is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and struggled to find courses in Native studies when she first came to Duke. 

“Even in my freshman year, it was definitely hard to come by Native studies-related classes that were explicitly talking about Native Americans and our histories and current issues,” she said. “I think it's definitely building up to the point that I think it would be hard to ignore the need for a minor or even a certificate.”

“Some students would propose going to other colleges and universities like Dartmouth, where they could take these classes,” Lewis said. "So the students have had a lot of initiative in building this program themselves."

To be able to take classes in Native studies, many Duke students have had to commute to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a more developed program and offers their undergraduate students more extensive class options in the area.

Lewis, however, emphasized the difficulty of students having to travel back and forth between universities to take their desired courses.

“UNC had a robust curriculum, but that also was a burden on many of our students who had to shuttle between Duke and UNC,” she said.

A look at UNC’s program

Daniel Cobb is a professor of American studies and coordinator of American Indian and Indigenous studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. American Indian and Indigenous studies began as an interdisciplinary academic program within the American studies department in 1998. Now, it is also a formal concentration under the American studies major and offered as a minor within the American studies department. 

In 2013, Cobb oversaw the redesign of the major and minor concentration by reconfiguring categories of course offerings and creating a more diverse curriculum. He wrote that the study of Native American and Indigenous people plays an important role in demonstrating UNC’s commitment to serve all of the people in North Carolina. 

“[The concentrations] bring visibility to Indigenous histories and contemporary experiences that cultivate a sense of belonging to Native students and that educate non-Indigenous students, who often have only a superficial understanding of American Indian and Indigenous peoples in and beyond North Carolina,” Cobb wrote to The Chronicle.   

According to Cobb, learning the history and realities of Indigenous people in North Carolina is an essential aspect of a proper liberal arts education in the state. Not only is it an important aspect of academics, he added, but it is also a crucial undertaking to being more informed citizens.

“[It] calls upon students to think through the implications of 'knowing' — that is to think about what it means to be accountable for having gained knowledge about the histories and contemporary experiences of Indigenous people in North Carolina and globally,” he wrote. 

Putting Duke on the map

Lewis states that a minor offers students the ability to take all of their required classes at Duke, something she believes will now be possible as the University is set to expand its Native studies faculty and course offerings in the coming year. 

“We've gotten to the point at Duke where we can offer a solid foundation of courses here at home,” she said. “As these new Native American [faculty] hires continue, that will only grow and, of course, the hope is to grow it so much that before too long, we'll also have a major.” 

Lewis said that the minor could potentially be in place as soon as the 2024-2025 school year, but noted that administrative approval is still pending. To be officially on the books, the minor will need to be approved by the Arts & Sciences Council.

But Lewis expresses that the Native studies minor isn’t just about expanding academic options at Duke — it’s also a matter of making the University an international center for Native and Indigenous studies.

“I think it's a stepping stone for making Duke a global leader in Native American and Indigenous studies,” she said. “I consider the minor the first step of really putting it on the map for this work. I'm hoping to see a lot of growth and expansion over the next several years.”


Aseel Ibrahim

Aseel Ibrahim is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.       

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