- Critical Mass and Other Crucial Factors in a Developing American Indian Studies Program
The American Indian Studies Program at Michigan State University (MSU) became a reality in fall 2000 with the appointment of the first director and the establishment of a budget. While many people had been hoping for and working toward the creation of such a program for some time, it took the efforts of a critical mass of faculty, both Native and non-Native, to bring the program into being. Other factors, including the support of staff, students, and administration, were crucial, but it was the presence of a dedicated group of faculty that drove the development of this program, committed to an interdisciplinary approach, a focus on Indian peoples of the Great Lakes, and service to Native communities.1
MSU has offered courses about American Indian peoples and cultures since the 1960s, beginning with classes in the Anthropology Department. In 1981, the university began a program of outreach and service to Michigan Indians, when the Native American Institute was created in the Center for Urban Affairs.2 Directed by George Cornell (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa), the institute's mission is to provide training and technical assistance to Native tribes and organizations. The institute was active in working to resolve Michigan Indian fishing rights controversies in the 1980s. More recently, outreach efforts have focused on promoting tribal economic development and acting as an advocate for American Indian higher education. Cornell was also instrumental in recruiting additional Native American faculty and in working with nonnative faculty to develop American Indian studies courses.
Gordon Henry Jr. (White Earth Chippewa) joined theEnglish Department at MSU in 1993 and began teaching courses on Native American literature. Susan Sleeper-Smith came to the History Department in 1994, to teach early American history, and began developing courses specifically in Native American history. Patrick Russell LeBeau (Cheyenne River Sioux /Turtle Mountain Chippewa) [End Page 216] became a faculty member in the Department of American Thought and Language (ATL) in 1995, teaching composition, Native literature, and Native film. He was joined at ATL in 1996 by Phil Bellfy (White Earth Chippewa), who also teaches composition and courses on Native literature and culture. In fall 1998, both Jefferson Faye (Polar Inuit) and I (Oklahoma Cherokee) came to MSU on temporary appointments. I was a visiting minority scholar in the Anthropology Department (and was hired on a tenure-stream basis in 1999), teaching courses on American Indian communities and cultures and on Indian women. Faye was part of the ATL Department, teaching writing and courses in Native and Western science and Native film. Along with George Cornell, who was teaching in history and American studies, seven faculty members were actively engaged in teaching and research on American Indian issues and were expressly interested in joining their courses to a formal program in American Indian studies. Collectively, they felt a need to develop a program with which faculty and students could affiliate.3
These faculty members began meeting to discuss how a program might be structured and what it would include.4 They looked at other area studies programs within the university and at other American Indian studies programs at other schools as models, selecting what seemed appropriate and feasible. What emerged was a vision of an undergraduate interdisciplinary specialization or minor, with a core of courses in several departments; a focus on the Native peoples of the Great Lakes, including both the United States and Canada; and an emphasis on service to Native communities. The faculty felt that an undergraduate program was a more pressing need than a graduate-level specialization, for graduate students at MSU were already doing Native studies through American studies, anthropology, English, and history. The diversity of disciplines represented by the faculty involved in the project was an important component in developing it as a multidisciplinary program, along with an emphasis on the idea that American Indian studies encompasses more than just history or anthropology. All of the faculty felt that a specialization or minor was more appropriate than a major, believing that students needed to have homes in traditional academic disciplines as well as a cross-disciplinary...