In the northern and southern hemispheres of the Americas, there are more than 600 Indigenous nations—also called Indians, American Indians, and First Nations—each with distinct tribal identities, forms of kinship relations, and social and political alliances with other groups.
The field of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) focuses on the cultures and histories of Indigenous peoples, locally and globally. At Penn, NAIS courses offer cultural, political, epistemological, and methodological insights that can help students better understand cross-cultural and trans-national histories.
In May of 2014, the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) Curriculum Committee and Faculty approved a new interdisciplinary NAIS minor, linking 34 courses taught by 19 faculty members across 13 departments and four different schools.
Margaret Bruchac, a Native American of Abenaki descent, is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at SAS and the coordinator of NAIS at Penn. She says the minor is open to all Penn students, who can choose among NAIS courses offered across the University curriculum, including at Penn Law School, the School of Nursing, and the Departments of History, Linguistics, and Religious Studies at SAS.
Bruchac says these courses often address broad disciplinary questions, such as how indigeneity intersects with the environment, or how Native nations reckon identity and sovereignty.
“It’s not just about sitting back and studying cultures at a distance,” she says. “It’s about getting engaged with a topic, understanding the real-world effects on the Indigenous people involved, and discovering what insights can emerge.”
The resources at Penn allow students to get hands-on experience in the archives and exhibits at the Penn Museum, study Indigenous language recovery with the Graduate School of Education, or even conduct fieldwork with Bruchac studying wampum in museum collections and tribal nations in the Northeast.
NAIS courses have already broadened the academic outlook of some Penn students. Ashley Terry, a biological anthropology major, says taking Native studies courses, “rooted as they always are in explaining and exploring contemporary social issues,” has provided her with skills to discuss other social issues.
Graduate student Stephanie Mach, of Navajo Native American descent, notes that the NAIS initiative brings together resources—faculty, courses, funding, research centers, ongoing projects, partners, and events—that were previously dispersed. She says she is especially enthusiastic about how Native students can benefit.
“While our home communities may be far away, the impact of our studies and the partnerships we create here can have immediate and enduring significance,” she says.
Bruchac says she wants Penn's NAIS initiative to give Indigenous cultures a voice in the academy, bringing clearer understandings of Native cultures and concerns to students of all disciplines.
Her hope is to inspire both Native and non-Native students to "engage with Native American studies and the tenets of Indigenous knowledge as a way to consider why knowledge matters."