OPINION: 5Cs should prioritize creation of an intercollegiate Native American/Indigenous Studies department

An Indigenous American woman receives a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Written in pen on her arm are the words "For the love of Native People."
As COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples, the 5Cs should work on creating an intercollegiate department of Native American/Indigenous Studies. (Courtesy: Karen Ducey via Getty Images)

In the year since the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a global pandemic, I have seen countless breaking news headlines flash across my phone screen. From the early months of the virus, a common theme that has consistently appeared on my newsfeed is the danger that COVID presents to the Indigenous communities across the world. 

The population is the second most at-risk category in the United States after Black Americans with one in every 2,300 Indigenous Americans dying — this is a rate nearly twice that of white people

Tribal elders who have died from the coronavirus have taken with them an incalculable amount of language and tradition that would typically flow from older generations to the youth. A loss in language and culture risks them disappearing forever, resulting in a profound negative effect on the Indigenous population in which the community and Indigenous identity is fractured

As members of an educational institution which prides itself on diversity and occupies land traceable to genocide and marginalization of Indigenous peoples, it is our responsibility to focus efforts on the creation of an intercollegiate Native American and Indigenous Studies department. 

The initial concept of a NAIS department was created by the Indigenous Student Alliance, a group formed in 2012 when students grew frustrated with the lack of resources available for Indigenous students

An updated proposal was drafted in 2014 outlining the mission of the group alongside a petition which gained over 500 signatures. The petition stated, “A NAIS department would promote diversity, expand research and knowledge, support local Indigenous communities and increase the social justice work of the colleges.” Seven years later, with the risk of losing Indigenous culture at the hands of COVID-19, the department is more important than ever. 

The Kizh Nation, a tribe local to Claremont, reflected on the impacts of coronavirus on their community: “It is a reflection of the loss of our culture … of abuse; it’s a reflection of losing identity through the years and subsequently us having to find our culture again.” In further reflection, the member added that it is also a matter of “rebuilding our culture.” 

Claremont students should be present in that rebuilding by learning the history of these tribes, observing their work and offering support. The creation of a department is critical to realize these goals. 

While it may be small, the population of students at the 5Cs who come from Native American heritage should feel that their voice can be heard. The NAIS Network at the Claremont Colleges continues to advocate for creation of such a department, focusing on building relationships within the Claremont student community and that of local tribes while other clubs — such as the “Indigenize Academia Now!” club — are working to increase availability of support for Indigenous students. 

A department would enable these students and those of the general Claremont student population to create meaningful connections with those outside of the academic sphere by engaging in work with local Indian communities and tribes. 

Fostering a community is an essential aspect of a liberal arts education. In any education for that matter, the experiences outside of the classroom can be some of the most worthwhile. By allocating greater resources to a NAIS department, there is far more ability for outreach.

Scripps College recently approved a minor in the field of NAIS, becoming the first of the 5Cs to do so. And, while students across the 5Cs could propose their own major in the field, an official department would easily guide students through the available courses and make a concentration in the field more available as intended with the minor at Scripps. 

The structure of a department, as opposed to the variety of courses dabbling in the area as we have now, would increase student outreach. Students are more likely to pursue this field of study if a set academic course load is readily available. 

Allocating the necessary economic resources to supply faculty and funding to form the department would be a future investment in the 5Cs. Sheila Walker, Scripps psychology professor and former chair of the intercollegiate Africana Studies department, told TSL in 2014, “the department would serve to help with the recruitment of native students.” 

As a liberal arts institution, we pride ourselves on the richness of our education due to our school’s diversity. If we want to gain insight into the Indigenous community, including their experienced hardships, we should turn to our peers and learn to listen. It is time to stop promoting diversity without ensuring that we are doing all we can in order to create it. An intercollegiate department ensures all voices are heard — not just by one school but by the Claremont community as a whole. 

I encourage everyone to explore the interdisciplinary field, and for those who are considering a major or minor in NAIS, talk with your dean and the faculty who teach courses in the subject area. A way to get the ball rolling on the creation of a department requires consistent interest and action by both the students and staff of the 5Cs. 

Abby Loiselle PO ’23 is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a STEM major, she is looking forward to exploring classes that discuss the medicinal practices of Indigenous peoples.

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