PSU to offer Oregon's first major in Indigenous Nations and Native American Studies
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: August 1, 2018

Portland State University this fall will begin offering the state's first bachelor's degree in Indigenous Nations and Native American Studies, an effort years in the making.

The Indigenous Nations Studies program, which is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Gender, Race and Nations, has offered a minor since 2002, but the long-term goal was always to establish a major.

"There's no coincidence that this major is finally here and that's because of the work over years and years on the part of students and dedicated faculty and staff members," said Winston Grady-Willis, director of the School of Gender, Race and Nations. He served as the interim director of the Indigenous Nations Studies program this past year while a national search was conducted to find a replacement for former director Cornel Pewewardy, who recently retired. 

A petition signed by hundreds, a survey and letters of support showed there was a demand for the major and, throughout the months-long approval process, the proposal received near-unanimous support. The new major cleared its last hurdle in June when the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission unanimously approved it.

PSU's Indigenous Nations Studies program aims to provide both Natives and non-Natives alike with opportunities to study the history, culture, values and contemporary issues of Native peoples. 

The 56-credit major will offer courses that focus on tribal governance and sovereignty, critical race theory, decolonization, traditional and cultural ecological knowledge and contemporary issues such as community health, food sovereignty, Indigenous land management, community development and self-determination.  

Community-based learning will also give students hands-on experiences with tribal and urban Native communities and organizations as well as government agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the regional government Metro. 

The first graduates could receive their degrees as early as spring or summer 2019.

"One of the ways that we challenge the reality of a genocidal and colonized history with respect to Indigenous peoples is that, intellectually, we do whatever we need to do to honor the sophistication and complexities of those experiences," Grady-Willis said.

The launch of the new degree coincides with the Oregon Department of Education's development of a K-12 Indigenous Studies curriculum. Josh Powell, program coordinator for PSU's Indigenous Nations Studies program, said both initiatives recognize the need to educate the public about the rich history, culture and contributions of people who inhabited the area long before the arrival of white settlers on the Oregon Trail.

"I think the culmination of the two initiatives intersecting will give students a real pathway to help break down some of the negative 'people of the past' narratives at an earlier age and give people the option to go to a university and continue to learn and look at the differences between cultures," Powell said.

Idallis Riggs, a senior majoring in criminal justice and minoring in Indigenous Nations Studies, said the courses have provided her with the knowledge and confidence to educate others about the Native American experience and give a voice to her community. Having grown up on a Navajo reservation and attended predominantly Native schools, Riggs said she experienced her first encounters with racism on campus. But her professors encouraged her to educate people rather than get angry with them.

"Coming out here, getting educated and going back home, I'm able to teach my people that we shouldn't be treated like this and that we need to work together," she said. "Helping my people get a voice is really what I'm able to do now with these classes and supportive staff and faculty."

PSU students who have minored in Indigenous Nations Studies have gone on to find work in government agencies, natural resource management, education, criminal justice, community development and urban planning.

From humble beginnings to now

PSU's Indigenous Nations Studies program began as a cobbled-together minor for anthropology and history students but later evolved into its own program under the direction of Pewewardy, who arrived on campus in 2008.

Previous efforts to create a major never came to fruition, but Pewewardy's retirement in 2017 was a turning point. A small but mighty group of students, staff and faculty came together last summer to hammer out the proposal.

"We really looked at this as a way to honor his dedication to the program and his legacy," Powell said. "We didn't think we'd get as far as we did, but it was really meant to speak to how much we love and respect Dr. Pewewardy and wanted to see this happen for him."

Ted Van Alst, the newly named director tasked with leading the program into its future, said the new major was a big draw for him and showed PSU's institutional commitment. He most recently chaired University of Montana's Native American Studies department.

Van Alst, who started Aug. 1, said it'll take some time for him to settle in, but he looks forward to meeting with students, faculty, staff and the broader community about their priorities and needs.

"With a new major, it's an opportunity to look across the U.S., Canada, Central and South America and see what the best teaching practices and offerings are and work to make sure that we're among the very best," he said.

Both Van Alst and Grady-Willis said that hiring additional faculty, especially tenure-track, would be key to the program's continuing success.