Community discusses possible implications of Native American Studies program

By Natalie Sutton, Staff Writer

Guilford is exploring the the possibility of developing a Native American Studies program.  Before anything is officially proposed, there are many important questions that need to be asked and answered.

A key question is: What are the social and cultural implications of implementing such a program?

A group of five faculty members is in the midst of exploring such questions and determining whether a Native and Indigenous Studies program should even be proposed as an addition to the college curriculum.

Mark Justad, director of the Center for Principled Problem Solving, is one of these faculty members.

“There is no proposal for a new program at present,” said Justad in an email interview. “The effort spurred by the Diversity Plan is to explore the desirability and feasibility of a Native American Studies program.”

And these two questions of desirability and feasibility are certainly large ones.

Assistant Professor of History Damon Akins is also a part of this process and feels undecided on the matter.

“I’m still quite torn,” said Akins in an interview. “There’s a lot of interest for Native American issues on campus … so on the one hand, we need to meet the needs of the students who are here, on the other hand, there are no resources that any of us can see sufficient to hire Native faculty and full-time support staff, which is key to any successful Native American Studies program.”

This lack of appropriate resources is an issue that makes many community members hesitant to consider the program, including Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Jeremy Rinker who is also one of the five faculty members involved with this program proposal.

“It revolves around issues of power and control,” said Rinker in an email interview. “Natives, like other oppressed peoples, want to have control of the telling of their own story — not from the perspective of white academics, but from their perspective. Without an intentional space for their voices we have seen too often the colonization of native voice by outsiders (even some outsiders with good or benevolent intentions).”

In addition to being ill-equipped for handling such an important topic that is so heavily linked to race and privilege, the college’s location is another obstacle that stands in the way.  Would having a Native American Studies program taught on colonialist land be inherently inappropriate?

This question is certainly not being ignored by those who are in the stages of developing a proposal for such a program.

“No matter what ideological … perspective the faculty may have, there’s the structural fact that Guilford is a place where we have precious few Native students,” said Akins.  “We’re not doing anything to recruit Native students actively, we have no Native faculty, and if you go back in our history, this was Native territory, and it is not Native territory now. There are just some real colonialist implications structurally.”

Although there seem to be many potentially harmful outcomes from having a Native American Studies program that is not developed appropriately, there are a lot of potential positive outcomes as well.

Junior Madisen Forehand is half-Cherokee and her grandparents once lived on a reservation in Oklahoma. Forehand feels excited about the possibility of other people learning more about Native American history and culture.

“The program could be beneficial because all Native American cultures are slowly dying and it would be great if others could learn about them … as long as there are faculty members that know the true facts about different Native American cultures,” said Forehand. “It would be a good chance for people to learn about cultures that are not talked about much.”

As for the next step, there is still a lot of thorough discussion and research that needs to take place.

“We’re mostly trying to educate ourselves about the issues, especially ethics,” said Tom Guthrie, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, in an email interview. “I’m enjoying the conversation and think the process has demonstrated integrity and sensitivity.”

Rinker also has enjoyed the challenges that this conversation has provided.

“I have enjoyed the discussion and learned a lot in having it,” said Rinker. “I believe that through the discussion we are making a space for greater understanding, and this is a great first step. Where the next step will be in still unknown.”

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