UO Adds Native American Studies Minor to Ethnic Studies Curriculum

Chris Finley ’05 teaches her Native and Gender film class.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the federal government sent Native American children to boarding schools; schools that were based upon founder Richard Pratt’s principle of “Kill the Indian… save the man,” where the students were forbidden to speak their own languages or express their own cultures and beliefs.

One of the first such schools established in the United States was erected in Oregon.

“The thing with Northwest tribes is that a lot of the negative history has happened within the last 100 years, so it’s really recent, it’s not in the distant past,” said Chris Finley ’05, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Now, the University of Oregon is taking an approach that could be described as “Understand the tribes… honor the nations” by offering students a chance to learn about historic and contemporary Native American issues through a new Native American Studies minor. The program is the result of three decades of planning and work on campus, and aims to help students “understand contemporary Native American lives, and to examine Native American identities, practices, histories, cultures, and political statuses in context from the earliest times until the present.”

“People began talking about Native American Studies at the University of Oregon in the 1970s,” said program director Brian Klopotek, a Choctaw whose family hails from Louisiana. “We’ve had Native American Studies courses for quite some time, certainly since I’ve been here and before that.

“The minor really makes our Native American Studies offerings much more visible and puts them in a coherent program where we can tell people, ‘This is what you need to be doing to have a grounding in the field of Native American Studies.’”

The program covers more than just Native American history and culture—it also covers contemporary issues, including climate change, politics, theater, and more.

“You can take classes about film, or Native American literature taught by Kirby Brown, and education classes taught by Brian,” said Finley, a visiting instructor in the program who is teaching Native American Gender & Film this fall and will teach Native Resistance: Indigenous Political Theory in the 21st Century and Native Feminism during the upcoming Winter Term.

While the minor is open to any student who wants to learn more about Native American issues, it may be of particular interest to Native American students who are interested in learning more about their own tribal heritage. The UO—a tier one, Very High Research Activity university—currently has just 171 students who are classified as Native American, but the Native American Studies minor, combined with the fact that resident tuition is available to Native American students from tribes whose boundaries traditionally included parts of Oregon—regardless of where they live today—could see that number rise in the years to come.

“I’m thrilled that this university is making a commitment to Native American Studies,” said Angie Morrill ’05, UO Coordinator for Native American Recruitment. “I can tell students who are potentially interested that one of the best universities in the country has this new model for them. That’s pretty incredible.”

At one point in Oregon’s history there were more than 60 individual Native American tribes. Now just nine federally recognized tribes remain, after the federal government forced the survivors of many of the smaller tribes to consolidate on shared reservations, such as the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. All of the western Oregon tribes were legislatively terminated in the 1950s—only the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes avoided this fate. When the process of restoration began in the late 1970s, not all of Oregon’s tribes were provided with reservations—the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians had to purchase its own. The 27 tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians once lived on a 1.1-million-acre reservation—today, their reservation covers just 15,000 acres.

“One concept that’s critical to Native American Studies, and what we want to convey in Native American Studies, is that as the first nations of this land, they have a right to continue to exist as nations,” said Klopotek. “That’s what federal recognition is about from a tribal perspective. It’s about honoring the right of those nations to exist.”

Klopotek’s alma mater, Yale University, offered just three classes with Native American content while he was a freshman there in the early 1990s, and one professor taught from a forty-year-old textbook that referred to Native Americans as “primitive.” That experience spurred Klopotek to specialize in Native American issues as a faculty member, and he envisions the UO’s Native American Studies minor as being “a place [students] can go to intellectually engage with issues in Native America.”

“This initiative involved more than 30 faculty and staff from across the university, and had the support of representatives from the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon,” Klopotek said. “I want to emphasize how empowering that is, to have a broad swath of people saying we need to push this forward. Within that group everyone knew about it and was very excited about it. The administration of the College of Arts and Sciences was very supportive of this project.”

Learn more about the Native American Studies program.