Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 30 Number 1
October 1990


Bobby Wright


American Indian Studies (see Note 1) emerged as an academic field from the turbulent student protests of the late 1960s and early '70s, when minority students demanded more relevant college curricula. Angry and often militant students charged that the traditional curriculum was ethnocentric, and it ignored, distorted and denigrated their ethnic experiences.

Since that time, academe has given birth to a growing number of programs which have as their foundation the study of American Indian culture, history and contemporary affairs. Heth and Guyette (1984) identified 107 two-and four-year institutions with American Indian studies programs, most in (see Note 2) colleges and universities serving significant Indian student populations.

These researchers also found several institutions which were planning additional programs. The movement continues today as diverse institutions such as Lake Superior State University in Michigan and Stanford University explore new academic programs in American Indian studies--indicative of the growing acceptance and importance of this emerging field of study.

The academic structure of the programs which house this developing field varies, ranging from autonomous departments with their own roster of interdisciplinary courses and their own faculty to decentralized interdepartmental, interdisciplinary programs. Often, too, American Indian studies is part of a more encompassing ethnic studies department which may include African-American, Hispanic and Asian studies. In 1984, almost half of the Native American studies programs enjoyed full departmental status or were programs administered by another academic unit (Heth & Guyette, 1984).

The roles these programs play in their respective institutions also range in scope. Nonetheless, to varying degrees, they perform the same traditional functions as other academic departments; that is, teaching, research and service. Unlike most academic units, however, American Indian Studies programs assume other unique roles, including American Indian student support services, student recruitment, and affirmative action responsibilities. This article discusses each of the major functions in light of issues and prospects which will affect their status in the 1990s (see Note 3).


American Indian studies programs typically offer instruction in interdisciplinary courses of study focusing on Native American culture, history and contemporary affairs. Their offerings range from a few courses to a comprehensive curriculum leading to a graduate degree. Of the 107 programs identified by Heth and Guyette (1984), 18 (16.8 percent) offer a major in American Indian studies, while 40 (37.4 percent) deliver a minor. Six institutions including the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Arizona offer graduate degrees in American Indian studies.

Since the emergence of this new field of study, faculty from more established disciplines have critically questioned the academic integrity of the Native American studies curriculum. Ethnic studies, they've argued, has no academic substance, no theoretical foundation, no scholarly tradition--all of which characterize the traditional disciplines. However, like other interdisciplinary area studies--Women's studies and American studies, for example--American Indian studies programs have stemmed the tide of conservatism and elitism that characterize the academy. They have demonstrated their academic quality and importance, and over the past two decades have gained at least grudging acceptance by the academic community. Indeed, Native American studies has earned a significant place in the academy, and its role will become even more important in the 1990s, as institutions respond to emerging issues in higher education.

One of the main issues concerns diversity. During the past few years, student unrest has revisited the college campus--at such diverse institutions as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Citadel, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Manhattanville College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Rutgers University and the University of California at Berkeley (Wilson & Justiz, 1987-1988). The list goes on. Meanwhile, civil rights organizations have documented episodes of racial harassment at more than 250 colleges over the past three years (Black Issues Wire Services, 1990). These tensions call attention not only to the needs of culturally diverse student populations, but of all students who must learn to function in an increasingly multicultural, interdependent global society. In response to these needs, many colleges and universities have mandated, as part of their general education requirements, coursework in multicultural and/or global perspectives. Among those which have adopted diversity requirements in the last year or two are the State University of New York College at Cortland, Penn State University, Williams College and the Universities of Cincinnati, California at Berkeley, Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Vermont (Magner, 1990). These and other institutions rely on ethnic studies programs to respond to this general education need. Consequently, the American Indian studies role is expanding beyond providing a scholastic specialization for a limited audience. Today their academic importance penetrates the very core of college curriculum, addressing a critical need for diversity in the academy.


American Indian studies faculty, like those in any established academic unit, conduct research. Although the interdisciplinary field of American Indian Studies claims no theory or methodology independent of the established disciplines, scholars of American Indian studies scrutinize theories and facts stemming from the traditional academic fields and consequently contribute fresh perspectives to existing bodies of knowledge.

Equally important, the research activities of American Indian studies programs have effectively addressed socioeconomic and educational problems facing Indian communities. Applied research conducted through these programs have included business feasibility studies, tribal historical research for federal recognition petitions, recreation market research, and student outcomes assessment for tribally controlled community colleges. Academic researchers in the traditional departments have largely ignored such lines of inquiry. In response, several larger institutions have established American Indian studies research centers, some supported by a professional refereed journal which offers a forum for scholarship by and about American Indians. The American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, publishes the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, and the American Indian Quarterly is a scholarly publication of the University of California, Berkeley.

A decade ago, Thornton (1980) identified research as the most pressing American Indian studies need for the 1980s. He argued that,

since the initial "creation," American Indian studies had not sufficiently developed intellectually for it to flourish or even perhaps survive in the academic system, and if it was to do so, it must "come to grips" with the scholarly activities characteristic of other disciplines (p. 5).

American Indian studies, he concluded from this premise, "needed to develop greater scholarly and research activities" (p. 5). He also stressed the need for more American Indian scholars, who can bring new sensitivities and fresh approaches to existing lines of inquiry.

A decade later, these needs remain as critical as ever, particularly in four-year institutions where scholarship production is a primary measure of departmental quality. In the 1990s, the academic acceptance and integrity of American Indian studies will continue to depend on its quality of research and its contributions to the knowledge base.


Institutional and public service activities are important and time-consuming expectations of academic units and their faculty. Service to the institution encompasses such endeavors as campus committee work, guest lecturing, and student recruitment. Public service entails activities which support community and professional organizations--consulting and technical assistance to local communities, program planning and evaluation, participation on governing boards, and leadership in professional associations, for example.

Institutional service has become particularly problematic for Native American studies faculty, especially among the severely underrepresented few who are women and American Indian. College committees, many of which mandate minority representation, overutilize available Indian faculty. As a consequence, their research programs, as well as their tenure and promotion opportunities, often suffer. However, because the Indian voice is important in institutional decision-making, Native American studies faculty are reluctant to decline participation and thereby risk the advancement of American Indian student and community concerns. This is a dilemma that must be addressed through expanded and concerted affirmative action measures.

In their public service, American Indian studies programs have made special commitments to Indian communities and organizations. They serve as liaisons between the institution and its Indian constituents and seek to extend institutional resources for the benefit of native communities. The Center for Native American Studies at Montana State University, for example, recently established an Office of Tribal Service. Staffed by a tenure-track Indian faculty member, this office is charged to coordinate University-Indian community interactions and to extend the institution's resources to meet needs identified by the tribes of Montana. The Center's faculty development activities on behalf of Montana's tribally controlled colleges have been lauded as a national model of inter-institutional cooperation (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1989, pp. 33-34, 82-83). Such service and outreach commitments to Indian people are costly and place additional demand on program resources, especially in times of retrenchment. Nevertheless, the commitment to service is essential to the unique identity of American Indian studies and must persist with equal vigor in the 1990s.

American Indian Student Support Services

Unlike typical academic departments, American Indian Studies programs assume the additional responsibility for academic, social and cultural support to increase American Indian student enrollment and retention. Heth and Guyette (1984) found that 62 of the 107 programs (57.9 percent) administered minority student support programs and that 74 (or 69.2 percent) had special counselors for American Indian students. Other support includes scholarship and fellowship programs, tutoring, cultural/social/educational centers for Indian students, American Indian student organizations, developmental coursework and the like.

In assuming this special role, American Indian studies programs offer social-cultural enclaves for students, especially those from rural reservations, who often experience alienation and isolation from the mainstream. Wright (1985) demonstrated that American Indian studies programs and the special support services they embrace "are meeting the serious needs of American Indian college students" and contribute significantly to their success (pp. 1-7).

Like the service and outreach functions, this unique student services role imposes unusual demands on American Indian studies faculty and program resources. However, American Indian students remain severely underrepresented in higher education institutions and their retention is disproportionately low. As long as these conditions persist, Native American studies programs will remain a vital resource for Indian students in the coming decade.

Summary and Recommendations

Institutions which house and fund American Indian Studies fully expect that these programs and their faculty will perform the traditional teaching, research, and service functions of all academic units. Meanwhile, American Indian Studies programs have assumed several roles which extend beyond those of typical academic departments. First, they assist institutions in meeting their diversity goals through the multicultural dimension of their faculty, students, and curriculum. Second, they assume an active role in minority student recruitment and retention. Third, they serve as a vital link between the academic and Indian communities. And finally, these programs represent and advance Indian concerns within the academic community. These special and important responsibilities which American Indian Studies programs shoulder remain relatively unnoticed and unrewarded by the institutions they serve.

In 1980 Lujan and Hill concluded that with questionable integrity and continuous accommodation to external pressures, the [American Indian studies] programs become all things to all people. This results in reduced academic respect and the image of ethnic studies as an administrative sop to pacify minorities (1980, p. 196).

The present article has stressed that the image and importance of American Indian Studies programs have changed positively in the decade since Lujan and Hill advanced their cynical but grounded remarks. Still, the multiple demands placed on these programs remains troublesome.

Looking to the 1990s - after a decade of stabilization, growth, proliferation, and academic acceptance of these programs - American Indian studies will need less to legitimize itself, as institutions increasingly view their presence on campus and their roles as central to their missions. They will, in short, become institutional assets, instead of fleeting liabilities. Still, in spite of this optimism, this paper highlights several issues which institutions and their Native American programs must address to ensure the continued development of these emerging academic units. Considering these concerns and with sensitivity to the already great expectations of these programs, the following recommendations for the 1990s are offered:


1. American Indian studies programs should reexamine their role in the college curriculum. Once viewed by institutions and by some programs themselves as a smattering of "relevant" courses primarily for Indian students (Lujan & Hill, 1980, pp. 195-197), the Native American studies curriculum can now assume a more prominent role, especially as higher education continues to confront the issue of diversity in the 1990s. Emerging from the academic isolation that once characterized Native American studies programs, they can infuse the curriculum in a variety of ways--by offering coursework to satisfy core curriculum or general education requirements, by encouraging interdepartmental agreements which permit appropriate American Indian studies courses to satisfy major requirements of other departments, by providing opportunities for Indian studies faculty to team-teach in other departments, and by proposing courses for such special programs as women's studies and university honors programs.

2. In light of the limited availability of qualified Indian doctorates, many of whom have found an academic home in American Indian studies, and in recognition of the unusually heavy demands on minority faculty, institutions should develop special faculty development programs designed to recruit, nurture and tenure American Indian faculty. Such programs might encompass research support funds, release time provisions, early sabbatical leaves, mentorships with senior faculty, and financial support for Indian faculty pursuing their doctorates. Moreover, institutions must recognize that, in recruiting American Indian faculty, they are entering a fiercely competitive marketplace where minority doctorates are a rare commodity (Mooney, 1990b; Nitzschke et al., 1990). Accordingly, they must be prepared to offer competitive, often higher salaries which reflect this market consideration - much in the same vein as the salaries that engineering and science faculty command.

3. American Indian studies programs must place quality scholarship at the top of their priorities. Faculty should no longer accept the burden of institutional service and other unrewarded activities at the expense of their academic advancement and tenure. Likewise, programs should encourage research which serves the American Indian people while it contributes new perspectives to existing lines of inquiry. And to address the critical future need for American Indian scholars, Native American studies programs should develop fellowships, cross-campus mentorship programs and other efforts to recruit and nurture Indians for the professoriate.

4. American Indian Studies programs should be recognized and adequately funded for their distinctive community outreach and student services activities. These programs remain in a unique position to meet institutional commitments to American Indian communities and their students. Their efforts must be duly rewarded. In a recent report, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended "a fresh concept of scholarship," which rewards faculty activities other than academic publications--teaching, service and other professional activities (Mooney, 1990b, p. 1). American Indian studies programs should embrace this movement to broaden the definition of scholarship, so that the unusual faculty demands of institutional and public service, student support, and teaching are appropriately rewarded in the faculty review process.

American Indian studies has emerged from the 1980s, realizing the importance of its visibility in the curriculum, the power of providing an institutional home for American Indian faculty and students, and the significance of creating safe, analytic spaces to discover and express its own scholarly voice. The coming decade, then, promises to be one during which American Indian Studies crosses the ledger from the credit to the debit side, as institutions increasingly recognize that these programs are vital assets rather than liabilities.


1. American Indian Studies is variously called Native American Studies, Alaska Native Studies, or for an individual tribe--for example, Navajo and Crow Studies. Heth and Guyette (1984) found an approximate 50/50 ratio between programs using the term "American Indian" and those employing "Native American" (p. 8). While I prefer the use of "American Indian Studies," I have alternated terminology in the interest of writing style and readability.

2. All identified programs do not have an academic program. Some rather focus their activities on American Indian student support. Heth and Guyette (1984) failed to include in their count most of the current 24 tribally controlled colleges, where Native American Studies constitute a major focus of their missions and consequently of their curricula. Accordingly, although no national surveys of Native American studies programs have been conducted since 1984, clearly their number is now significantly greater.

3. The degrees to which the individual programs assume the various roles vary, of course, dependent on institutional type and character. For example, community colleges, primarily teaching institutions, do not emphasize research and service. However, at tribally controlled community colleges, where American Indian studies is central to their mission of cultural renewal, preservation, and transmission, many of these institutions have assumed important research and service functions. I have not highlighted Native American Studies at tribal colleges, leaving that important topic to a later discussion. Instead, I have discussed the program roles which would be typical of four-year, particularly land-grant institutions, though I expect that the issues will apply to all institutional types.

4. Heth and Guyette (1984) identified 15 institutions which had research units.

5. Native American Studies programs at community colleges do not emphasize research. Neither is research typically a faculty expectation. However, because of their awareness of and responsiveness to community needs, many tribal college programs have engaged in important research activities such as tribal histories, community needs assessments, and native language studies. I would add, too, that, while research should be a priority, it must not be advanced at the expense of undergraduate teaching excellence.

Bobby Wright is currently a Research Associate and Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education, The Pennsylvania State University. He is a former Director of Montana State University's Center for Native American Studies and is an enrolled member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, Rocky Boy's Reservation.


Black Issues Wire Services (1990). Officials step up efforts to eradicate racist incidents on campus. Black Issues in Higher Education, 6 (21), 32.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1989). Tribal Colleges: Shaping the Future of Native America. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Heth, C., & Guyette, S. (1984). Issues for the Future of American Indian Studies: A Needs Assessment and Program Guide. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center.

Lujan, P., & Hill, L. B. (1980). Intercultural communication as an academic haven for American Indian Studies. In American Indian Issues in Higher Education. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center.

Magner, D. (1990). Difficult questions face colleges that require students to take courses that explore issues related to race. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 36 (28), A 19-A20.

Mooney, C.J. (1990a). Higher-education conferees applaud Carnegie plan to broaden definition of faculty scholarship. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 36 (30), A1, A16.

Mooney, C.J. (1990b). Universities awarded record number of doctorates last year; Foreign students thought to account for much of the increase. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 36 (30), At, At 1.

Nitzschke, D.F., Cleckley, B.J., & Satcher, D. (1990). Ethnically and racially diverse faculty: A response to change. In R.W. Hively (Ed.), The Lurking Evil: Racial and Ethnic Conflict on the College Campus (pp. 104-110). Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Thornton, R. (1980). American Indian studies as an academic discipline: A revisit. In American Indian Issues in Higher Education. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center.

Wilson, R., & Justiz, M.J. (1987, Fall; 1988, Winter). Minorities in higher education: Confronting a time bomb. Educational Record, 68 (4), 69 (1), 8-14.

Wright, B. (1985). Programming success: Special student services and the American Indian college student. Journal of American Indian Education, 24 (1), 1-7.

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