Starting this year, UW students will be able to major in American Indian Studies for the first time. Although courses in American Indian Studies have been available on campus since 1970, students previously could obtain only a minor, or a concentration within American Ethnic Studies or General Studies.
The new major is the culmination of a five-year effort, said American Indian Studies Chair Tom Colonnese. He said the program’s eight faculty members pulled together to plan for the new degree, looking first at other programs around the country and developing new courses before preparing their proposal. The proposal has received approval from the dean of arts and sciences, the president and the provost, as well as the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“It’s been a longstanding dream of people on campus to get an American Indian Studies major,” Colonnese said. “We’re excited that it’s finally happening.”
American Indian Studies began at the same time as American Ethnic Studies, in the wake of student protests in 1968, but has never been a part of that department. “American Indians aren’t an ethnic group. We’re a political group,” Colonnese explained. “We’re made up of nations, so we have a nation-to-nation relationship with the United States, and one of the big issues within AIS is sovereignty. So it wouldn’t really be appropriate for us to be in American Ethnic Studies as another ethnic group.”
American Indian Studies began as a program; then in 1982 it affiliated with the Anthropology Department as the American Indian Studies Center. But by 1997, its faculty had dwindled and its survival was in question. But then-A&S Dean David Hodge decided it was worth saving and authorized the hiring of new faculty. It was in 2003, when all those faculty were in place, that the push to develop a major began. At the same time, American Indian Studies was made an independent program no longer affiliated with anthropology or any other department.
The UW is in many ways a natural location for an American Indian Studies program, Colonnese said. He said Washington State ranks sixth among states in Indian population. Its 26 tribes equal the number in Arizona, and it has 11 additional tribes that are landless and lack federal recognition.
That’s not to say that only native Americans can, or should, take American Indian Studies classes. According to Colonnese, 75 percent of students in AIS classes are not American Indians. Only half of the eight professors are.
Nonetheless, Colonnese believes, the presence of an American Indian Studies program encourages Native Americans to come to the UW, whether they take classes in the program or not. Indeed, between 1970, when it was first established, and 1982, the American Indian Studies Program, working with the Office of Minority Affairs, helped increase the number of Native Americans attending the University by more than 400 percent — from 125 to 500 students.
Students who choose to major in American Indian Studies will be required to take at least two of four core courses. One is an introductory course and the others focus respectively on history, contemporary Indian issues and the American Indian aesthetic and world view. Beyond that, students take electives either in the program or from a select list of courses in other departments. They also complete a senior project.
The program is multidisciplinary even if students stay within AIS, Colonnese said. Although two of the faculty have doctorates in ethnic studies with a concentration on American Indians, the others earned their degrees in fields such as English, history, anthropology, documentary filmmaking and art.
One of the faculty members earned a law degree and advised and represented Indian tribes in Washington State for 15 years before returning for a doctorate in history. Her presence is a particular advantage, Colonnese said, since more than 40 percent of successful native legal challenges on such topics as fishing rights have come from Washington.
“The main thing that AIS does is it looks at history, it looks at literature, it looks at art, it looks at ecological issues from an Indian perspective,” Colonnese said. “So rather than having everything from a western European perspective, it offers a diverse way of looking at the world.”
Already, 20 students have declared majors in American Indian Studies; the program hopes to have about 50 in three years.
Colonnese credits his AIS colleagues and their administrator, Marcia Feinstein-Tobey, along with A&S Interim Dean Ron Irving, Divisional Dean Judy Howard and Provost Phyllis Wise with helping to make the major a reality. But he had some special words of thanks for President Mark Emmert.
“Mark was raised right by the Muckleshoot reservation, so he had a lot of Muckleshoot friends when he was growing up,” Colonnese said. “Then his first job out of college was in Wyoming, and he lived on the Wind River reservation. I don’t think there are very many university presidents who have lived on a reservation. It’s those experiences that have given him insights that most people don’t have and a desire to build the program.”