UW Today

March 7, 2016

UW increases focus on Indigenous knowledge

News and Information

Intellectual House, or wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, on the University of Washington campus

Intellectual House, or wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, on the University of Washington campus

A longhouse-style building opened on the University of Washington campus in March 2015, on land where the longhouses and village of the Duwamish tribe once stood.

Intellectual House, or wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, is a tangible recognition of the area’s original inhabitants. And it is a catalyst for the university’s recent efforts to ramp up Indigenous learning in departments across campus.

Over the past three years, the UW College of Arts & Sciences has added seven faculty members focused on Indigenous studies. Those include three anthropology professors and two Native faculty members in the Department of American Indian Studies — including its chair, Christopher Teuton, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. American Indian Studies and the College of the Environment is each searching for an assistant professor with Indigenous studies experience, and the UW Information School is taking the unusual step of hiring two faculty members focused on Native North American Indigenous knowledge systems, replacing one faculty member who recently retired and adding a second position.

­­­­­­­­­­“The UW is right at the top of colleges and universities that are demonstrating a commitment to Indigenous studies broadly and working with indigenous communities across various disciplines,” Teuton said. “That’s exciting.”

The recent hires also include Chadwick Allen, associate vice provost for faculty advancement, who is also an English professor and an expert in Native American and global Indigenous studies. Allen, who started his position in August 2015, is tasked with assisting the university in hiring and retaining a diverse and inclusive faculty. He said the UW’s cluster of hires focused on Indigenous knowledge increases its appeal to prospective students and faculty members.

“The UW is positioned really well to move Indigenous studies forward,” said Allen, who is of Chickasaw ancestry. “There are good things happening throughout the university.”

The iSchool’s hiring of two faculty members is strategically savvy, Allen added, since academics studying Indigenous knowledge are more likely to be interested in campuses where they don’t feel isolated.

Chadwick Allen

Chadwick Allen

“It’s a smart model,” he said. “It’s rarely done, because it requires long-term planning and a commitment from the dean. But that’s what it takes to signal your seriousness to the broader community that you want to either sustain the field or build the field.”

Information School Dean Harry Bruce said the move aims to establish Indigenous knowledge and information systems as a key area of study in the school, with the goal of attracting more Native students and faculty to the UW.

“I want what we’re doing to be a further expression from this university to tribal communities about what our university is all about,” he said. “It is a place for all students. It is a special place for Native students.”

“It happened here”

Indigenous research at the University of Washington ranges broadly, and the recently hired scholars are redefining the field in their own ways.

Sven Haakanson, a UW associate professor of anthropology and member of the Alutiiq Tribe, travels to museums in Russia and European countries, documenting traditional skills and arts and then working with Native communities to revive those practices. The curator of Native American anthropology at the Burke Museum, Haakanson this winter led the construction on campus of an Angyaaq, a traditional boat made by Alaska’s Sugpiat peoples.

Sara Gonzalez, an assistant professor of anthropology, pursues research and teaches courses on indigenous research methods in archaeology — including a summer field school in Oregon that she will lead for the second time this year, organized in collaboration with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Stephanie Fryberg, an associate professor of psychology and American Indian Studies, is a senior member of the Tulalip Tribe whose research focuses on education and achievement of Native students and the social psychology of Native children and families. She worked closely with the Tulalip Tribe in the wake of the 2014 mass shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

José Antonio (“Tony”) Lucero, associate professor at the Jackson School of International Studies, researches Indigenous movements in Latin America and Indigenous politics along the Mexico-U.S. border. Jean Dennison, an assistant professor of anthropology who started at the UW last fall, is a member of the Osage Nation whose work focuses on issues of Native American governance and sovereignty.

Jean Dennison

Jean Dennison

For some academics, the field is about reclaiming Indigenous knowledge at a tribal level; for others, it’s about social movements that transcend tribes and borders. But most agree that the field has shifted from one focused on Indigenous populations in a historical context to an increased recognition of their contemporary relevance.

“So often, Indigenous peoples are put in the past or seen as remnant populations,” Dennison said. “But so much of what Indigenous nations are doing is building stronger nations and trying to do things that are going to better support their communities and their citizens.”

The field has also moved away from an “extractive industry” to one focused on working with Indigenous communities to define what research is appropriate, said María Elena García, director of the UW’s Comparative History of Ideas program and an associate professor in the Jackson School.

“For so long, research has been about going in and gathering the data and then utilizing it to build careers or something else,” said García, who researches Indigenous cultural politics and works with Native activists in Peru. “There’s been a shift in that whole approach to one that’s about relationships, about collaboration, about working with others.”

Janelle Taylor, chair of the UW’s Department of Anthropology, said the UW’s increased focus on Indigenous studies provides an opportunity to confront the lingering impacts of colonialism. Like many universities around the country, she noted, the UW was built on land long ago appropriated from Native people.

“This is not something that only happened in faraway places, such as Africa,” she said. “It happened here. And we’re still living the consequences of colonialism. I feel like it’s a responsibility for us as scholars and as citizens to try to come to terms with that. An important part of that is trying to highlight the voices of people today who are speaking from the perspectives of indigenous communities.”

Field is “radically changing”

The field of Indigenous studies is far removed from Cheryl Metoyer’s days as a doctoral student at Indiana University in the 1970s, where she was one of only two Native students on campus.

“It was difficult,” said Metoyer, an associate professor emerita at the iSchool, where she founded the Indigenous Information Research Group, which focuses on knowledge, information and technology in American Indian and Alaska Native populations. “I was homesick at IU, and there was certainly a sense of isolation.

“But here at UW, with the increasing recruitment, retention and graduation of our Native American undergraduate and graduate students, Native scholarship is advancing and flourishing,” said Metoyer, who is Cherokee. “That growth is also due to the groundbreaking work our faculty and students are doing in partnership with the tribes.”

Metoyer said it’s still not unusual to find Native doctoral students or faculty members who have colleagues who left college out of a sense of isolation. But Native scholarship is growing, and some point to the establishment of the international Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2009 as a key factor in attracting scholars to the field.

Allen, who previously served as the association’s president, said the group has fostered connections among Native populations around the world and prompted scholars to look at the field in new ways. More broadly, he said Indigenous studies have been transformed over the past decade or so by a critical mass of scholars who bring a unique understanding of Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems.

“That’s really new,” he said. “In that way, the field is radically changing.”

The opening of Intellectual House, Teuton said, has created tremendous goodwill toward the UW among Native communities. He believes the momentum now underway across campus can assert the university as one of the nation’s leading institutions for Indigenous learning.

“The more we showcase that this is a home of Indigenous knowledge, the more we’re going to get support from those communities,” he said. “I think we can build on what we’re doing right now and make this the place where people would want to come to study Indigenous knowledge and see Indigenous knowledge nurtured.”