Students, faculty support proposed Native American and Indigenous Studies minor

Darren Lone Fight, an American studies lecturer with focuses on indigenous studies and immigration, poses for a portrait on Oct. 31. Alejandra Macaya / The Tufts Daily

A student-led petition aims to create a new Native American and Indigenous Studies minor program in the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD). The program’s viability is likely greater due to the RCD’s recent obtainment of departmental status and has support among former and current RCD faculty.

A group of students addressed their petition to create the program at an RCD-hosted seminar on Nov. 15, titled “Envisioning Interdisciplinary for Today’s University: Critical Indigenous Studies and Comparative Empire.” The students, who did not identify themselves, noted the petition gained more than 350 signatures from students, faculty, alumni and community members in less than a week.

“We renew our call for Tufts University to support Indigenous students, scholars, and movements at Tufts and beyond through the creation of a Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) minor within the Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora department,” the petition states.

The proposal comes after the Board of Trustees recently granted RCD departmental status, a change that will be implemented in the 2019–20 academic year. Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Deborah Kochevar spoke about the news at the Nov. 15 seminar.

“I think becoming a department is a very important piece,” Kochevar said. “It stabilizes scholarship, it stabilizes the faculty. It gives them some self determination in terms of future hires, and it really just encourages Tufts to expand studies … [and the department will] fill some critical gaps.”

RCD currently houses programs for Africana, American, Asian American, Colonialism and Latino Studies. Programs “link innovative, progressive, and outstanding scholarship and learning on race, colonialism, and diaspora” through interdisciplinary work, according to the RCD website.

Amahl Bishara, director of minors in the RCD, offered insight as to what RCD’s gaining departmental status means for the colonialism studies program.

“[Departmental status] means that we’re going to be able to have more ability to plan classes and programs long term because we’ll be able to hire people directly into the RCD,” Bishara said.

There have been several different adjunct professors specializing in indigenous studies within RCD in recent years, according to Darren Lone Fight, an American studies lecturer.

“I am one of a cycling group of four … professors, faculty and lecturers that have come in over the last four to five years. Every year it’s a different person,” Lone Fight said.

However, RCD will now be better able to hire a tenured faculty member in the field of indigenous studies due to the greater autonomy in personnel decisions it will enjoy as a department, according to former American studies lecturer Jami Powell, the current curator of Native American art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum. Powell noted that doing so would greatly benefit RCD.

“Creating some longevity in the position, I think, is important, particularly for students who want to have someone advising them throughout a research project,” Powell said.

Powell added that as a department, RCD will have the ability to house interdisciplinary faculty members, whereas they would have previously been in another department.

Bishara explained that a potential Native American and Indigenous Studies program would likely be modeled on the other minors already offered by RCD. These programs typically consist of six courses, including an introductory survey course and a capstone, and students have the ability to explore the topic through an interdisciplinary selection of courses. However, a Native American and Indigenous Studies minor would be housed in RCD itself.

“I think it would … put Native American and Indigenous Studies back in the context of race, colonialism and diaspora, which in many senses I imagine [would] be in every single course about Native American and indigenous studies, but [it would] do that really explicitly,” Bishara said.

Bishara noted that while the effort to create a Native American and Indigenous Studies program has been led by students, there is enthusiasm for the proposal among faculty members, too.

Lone Fight suggested that courses focused on a wide range of topics, including tribal law, Native American literature, Native American religion and the contemporary Native American experience, could be included in a new Native American and Indigenous Studies program.

“Most ethnic studies programs are interdisciplinary just by virtue of the fact that when you’re studying something like ethnicity, it’s difficult to only look at that exclusively through a historical lens, or through a literary lens, or through a visual artistic lens, or art historical lens,” Lone Fight said. “The reason the interdisciplinary approach has become useful for ethnic studies, broadly speaking, is because ethnicity does not easily map onto a single discipline.”

In 2016, RCD hosted a workshop titled “Native American and Indigenous Studies, Colonialism, and the University,” which featured Native American leaders from the Northeast region, as well as discussions about native art, colonialism and indigenous status. The workshop grew out of student activism to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day at Tufts.

Lone Fight said that Tufts should be eager to further orient itself toward an “indigenous future.”

“There’s a demand for [a Native American and Indigenous Studies program] here at Tufts. There’s also a demand for it nationally,” Lone Fight said. “Cultural studies programs [and] native studies programs, in particular, are [part] of a growing field. In addition to that, Tufts needs to step up and begin doing native recruitment.”

Lone Fight noted his belief that the university has not concentrated enough time and effort in creating relationships with local and national tribal communities, adding that there needs to be a stronger push to recruit native scholars and native students and to have this mission trickle down to faculty and students, as well.

Less than one percent of all Tufts students identified as “American Indian/Alaska Native” in fall 2017, according to the Tufts Fact Book. That figure is also one percent for faculty and staff across all Tufts schools.

Lone Fight also noted that the university’s location on unrelinquished tribal land creates its obligation to prioritize native studies.

“Even if that doesn’t necessarily de jure create an obligation to, at the very least, begin doing native recruitment and thinking about a native studies program … I do think it’s certainly de facto important aspect of what Tufts needs to do,” Lone Fight said.

Both Bishara and Lone Fight feel confident that the housing of a new Native American and Indigenous Studies minor in RCD would better facilitate relationships and conversations with Native community members and feel that the program would be beneficial for students, the university and Native peoples.

“I think that Tufts gets a positive regard from bringing in good Native scholars and establishing a good Native scholarly program and to begin working within these kind of broader communities and movements within the country,” Lone Fight said.

Bishara noted that students and faculty must now focus on building support for a Native American and Indigenous Studies program and tailoring its curriculum to best educate students about indigenous communities.

“It’s a really exciting moment. It’s crucial that we build this minor to not only respond to students’ interests, but also to celebrate [the] struggles, cultures [and] experiences of Native American and indigenous people and to think about how Native peoples in the United States are related to other indigenous peoples around the world,” Bishara said.