Dialogue highlights status of Native American studies

Students gathered in the ALANA Center to discuss the history of Native American Studies as well as the future and viability for the program now that there is a correlate in the American Studies Department. Photo By: Alec Feretti
Students gathered in the ALANA Center to discuss the history of Native American Studies as well as the future and viability for the program now that there is a correlate in the American Studies Department. Photo By: Alec Feretti
Students gathered in the ALANA Center to discuss the history of Native American Studies as well as the
future and viability for the program now that there is a correlate in the American Studies Department. Photo By: Alec Feretti

On Monday March 25, the ALANA Center played host to an event called, “Imagining an Indigenous Vassar: The History and Future of Native Studies/Students” as part of the on-going ALANA Faculty Dialogue Series. Professor of English and American Studies and founder of the Native American Studies program at Vassar, Molly McGlennen, introduced the topic of Indiginaiety at Vassar and provided a history of Native American (NA) studies at Vassar. Director of the ALANA Center, Luz Burgos-Lopez, also helped lead the discussion.

McGlennen started off by providing a historical context for NA studies at Vassar. According to McGlennen, students began pushing for more opportunities to study Native scholars in the early 2000s. In 2006, the American Studies department applied for a grant for a native studies post-doctoral fellow recognizing that the lack of NA studies at Vassar was a critical gap. McGlennen was hired and served as a resource for students and faculty members for two years. During this time, she also hosted several meetings with faculty members from a broad range of departments in order to find ways to incorporate NA studies into academics interdepartmentally. In 2009, McGlennen was hired as a full-time professor and NA studies correlate was created within the American Studies Department.

According to the American Studies website, the purpose of the Native American Studies correlate is to include a group in the study of history that has often been over-looked. “Students electing the correlate sequence are trained in the methodology of Native American Studies as a means to critically assess western colonial discourses, examine the many ways Native peoples have contributed to and shaped North American culture, and analyze and honor the autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous nations, peoples, and thought,” it reads.

At the core of McGlennen’s presentation was one question: Is our current NA studies program sustainable? As she recalled later, “[The main concerns expressed at the event were] if and how Native American Studies is sustainable here at Vassar into the future, and how students, faculty, and administrators can grow Native American Studies.”

As one of the founding member of the Native American Students Alliance, Kaitlin Reed ’14 has also worked extensively with developing the NA studies program at Vassar. She echoed the concerns of McGlennen, saying, “The biggest concern, obviously, is the sustainability, or lack thereof, of Native American studies at Vassar. The bottom line is that we need institutional support and we’re not getting it.”

She continued, speaking to the organization she is a part of. “NASA originally started out as organization meant to create a safe space for Native students, which did not really pan out given the lack of Native students on this campus which, I think, much of the blame should fall on the Vassar institution. Unfortunately, the organization has pretty much died out due to lack of support and leadership,” she said.

As McGlennen and others noted, though the “N” in ALANA stands for “Native American”, native issues and experiences are often given less consideration. As McGlennen said, “[NA studies] has started to become represented through the newly formed Native American Student Alliance and the events and programs I and NAS have done in the space and on the campus at large. However, we need actual student bodies in order to sustain NASA group. And, because so few Native students are admitted into Vassar, the future of the N in ALANA is uncertain.”

One of the major problems with NA studies at Vassar that was brought up by several of those attending the event was the invisibility of Native experiences and activism on campus. Many complained that they didn’t know of the Native American Studies correlate until too late in their time at Vassar. Reed furthered this idea, stating that faculty and students need to do more to bring attention to native studies. “Annual events such as the Unsettling Columbus events are great but that doesn’t give our student body an excuse to ignore indigenous issues the other 364 days of the year,” she said.

The NA studies correlate also proved to be a point of contention for many at the event. While everyone agreed that the creation of the correlate was a definite victory, many expressed concern that the correlate was too difficult to attain because of the scarcity of classes that count towards it. On top of that, many students were worried that too few professors taught courses that were relevant to NA studies. McGlennen herself recognized that though the correlate is alive and well right now, she can’t always be the only person holding it up. The correlate offers a wide selection of courses by different professors, but few of these courses are offered with consistent regularity.

In contrast, Reed spoke to the more positive aspects of the NA studies correlate that she currently has and recognized it as one major victory for native studies at Vassar. “My Native American studies correlate literally changed my entire perspective on academia and what I will study here on out. If it weren’t for the courses I’ve taken with Professor McGlennen, I wouldn’t be getting my PhD in NAS next year, that’s for sure,” she said.

Towards the end of the discussion, McGlennen asked the group for any possible solutions they saw to the precariousness of the NA studies program. The group presented a few strategies for furthering the growth of the NA studies at Vassar. One idea that came up focused on assembling a group of faculty members and students to create opportunities for further academic consideration of native perspectives and scholarship. As McGlennen explained, “They have great ideas.  One idea that seemed to have the most potential is to form a NAS advisory group that would be created with NAS students, faculty and administrators to meet and hopefully develop ways to better and specifically recruit Native students and to think more critically about Vassar’s responsibility to growing NAS.”

Though lots of works remains to be done to ensure the future of NA studies, McGlennen remains hopeful. “I think because of the incredible student support, we can build NAS here at Vassar. It’s going to be a long road and a lot of work, but that can’t deter us from being optimistic,” she said.

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