Penn Introduces Native American and Indigenous Studies Minor

Assistant Professor Margaret Bruchac is building an interdisciplinary program on long-term strengths.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

By Susan Ahlborn

A new minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) gives Penn students not just another academic option but another way of looking at the world. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Margaret Bruchac says, “I try to teach students to be aware of the cultural positions they bring to their studies, to be sensitive to multiple possibilities and perspectives and interpretations, and to carefully consider how these fit together.”

Bruchac, of Abenaki Indian ancestry, came to Penn in the spring of 2013 as the first Native American faculty member in the Department of Anthropology. As Coordinator of NAIS, she found, “Penn had the relevant intellectual grounding and many of the courses, but not the cohesion to pull it all together.” 

The University’s history of engagement with indigenous students and Native American studies reaches back to 1755, when Benjamin Franklin recruited Jonathan and Philip Gayienquitioga of the Mohawk nation to attend classes at the Academy of Philadelphia. Engagement with Native American communities continues now in the form of recruitment, outreach, consultation, exhibition, and repatriation projects.

Bruchac surveyed every school and department at Penn to determine what courses and programs already had Native American components. She then formed a faculty working group with representatives from anthropology, history, linguistics, and religious studies, as well as the Schools of Graduate Education, Law, and Nursing. 

The resulting interdisciplinary minor requires one core course, “Introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies,” taught by Bruchac. Students must also take three thematic classes, with topics including Native American Literature, Decolonizing Methodologies, and Public Policy, Museums, and the Ethics of Cultural Heritage. They also complete two related courses, which range from Caribbean Culture and Politics to the art history class Facing America, which explores the visual history of race in America.

Bruchac sees NAIS as an exchange of knowledge that goes beyond cultural voyeurism, and rejects the stereotypical view of primitive versus advanced knowledge. She gives as an example the Arctic Inupiaq, who have an intimate understanding of the science, weather, and wildlife in their region. “You cannot survive an arctic environment without deep knowledge of that landscape. … So why are we not learning from people who have done that for millennia?” She eventually wants to create exchange programs between Penn and students from Native American nations, and bring in more Native American scholars. 

“I don’t think of Native American studies as an interesting sideline,” she says. “I think of it as a source of foundational knowledge that can alter education in very productive ways.” The NAIS curriculum, she explains, can help to generate “more reflexivity, more empathy, more understanding of difference, and more insights into how conflict happens—and why—between different ethnicities and cultures.”

Visit the NAIS website at: