UW Today

This is an archived article.

April 2, 2009

American Indian Studies Program becomes a department

American Indian Studies (AIS) in the College of Arts & Sciences has been elevated to departmental status. The action was approved by the Board of Regents at its March meeting.


“The creation of this department demonstrates our commitment to diversity and provides students with the unique ability to learn about American Indian cultures and customs through an interdisciplinary approach,” said Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Cauce said the move by the Board of Regents is a recognition of the accomplishments and dedication of the faculty and students in American Indian Studies.


The UW ranks among the top 25 American Indian-serving universities in terms of the number of Native undergraduate and graduate students. Students who choose to major in AIS take a selection of courses related to history, contemporary Indian issues, art, and the American Indian aesthetic and world view. The students actively participate in the American Indian community and culture by hosting powwows each year and participating in the Native Voices Film Festival.


“This is an important and momentous movement on behalf of the Board of Regents for American Indian people and studies,” said American Indian Studies Chair Tom Colonnese. “It demonstrates a web of support that doesn’t exist at just any university and sends a strong message to students about the importance of their study and degree.”


Although AIS classes have been offered at the UW since 1970, the creation of the department will help strengthen existing relationships with tribal leaders in the area and attract prospective students wishing to major in AIS, Colonnese said.

The newly created department currently has nine faculty members, several of whom celebrated recent achievements. Marvin Oliver, renowned artist, recently received the Best of Classification award from the prestigious Heard Museum for his sculpture, War Helmets from Past to Present. Deana Dartt-Newton recently joined the faculty as assistant professor and curator of Native art at the Burke Museum, and Sasha Harmon, associate professor, recently published a new edited collection, The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties.


The development of an American Indian Studies Center at the UW began in 1970 following student protests calling for more diversity in the University’s curriculum, faculty, staff and students. Both Indian and non-Indian faculty were involved with the center from departments including anthropology, art, English, history, sociology, and political science, as well as the Burke Museum.


The goals of the AIS Center included increasing Native American student recruitment and retention; creating courses that address every major area of Native American life and history; attracting new Native American faculty; and creating a place for Native American students on campus.


The next decade was a period of program expansion, with nearly 30 American Indian part-time and full-time faculty teaching courses in departments that supported the center, and American Indian student growth from 125 to 500 students. In 1982, the AIS Center established a formal affiliation with the Department of Anthropology, which lasted until 2003 when AIS was made an independent program.