Forging A Path for Native American Studies

Though offerings in Native American studies at Harvard are few and far between, a small number of committed students and faculty are dedicated to maximizing the resources available to them, and hope to see more opportunities in the future.
By Mia C. Karr

A student asks the four panelists, Adrienne Keene, Irene Bedard, Migizi Pensoneau, and Loris Taylor, a question after the last panel of the Native Peoples, Native Politics conference. The title of the panel was Native Politics in Broadcast Media and Film.
A student asks the four panelists, Adrienne Keene, Irene Bedard, Migizi Pensoneau, and Loris Taylor, a question after the last panel of the Native Peoples, Native Politics conference. The title of the panel was Native Politics in Broadcast Media and Film. By Hayoung Hwang

When Blythe K. George came to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to study sociology and social policy three years ago, she didn’t realize how different her experience would be from her time as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.

George’s research focuses on reservations, and she explained that, at Dartmouth, there was ample opportunity for Native American studies. The college boasts an entire Native American studies department with multiple professors who exclusively study tribal communities. Currently, there are no professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences who works explicitly and singularly on Native American studies.

“I constantly remind Harvard that we need to be stepping it up because it’s not that hard, honestly, with the necessary institutional commitment,” George said.

The dearth of Native American studies is not particular to the College or GSAS, but can be found across the University. Affiliates of Harvard’s 12 schools who seek to pursue Native American studies gather around the Harvard University Native American Program, an interfaculty initiative sponsored by the Provost’s office.

According to HUNAP Faculty Chair Dennis K. Norman, a professor at Harvard Medical School, the program has just three employees and one staff support person working with all of Harvard’s schools. Similarly, Native American student groups, such as Native Americans at Harvard College, have memberships that range from under five to the mid-teens.

Though offerings in Native American studies at Harvard are few and far between, a small number of committed students and faculty are dedicated to maximizing the resources available to them, and hope to see more opportunities in the future.


Across the University, Harvard has only a handful of faculty who specifically focus on Native American studies. And while student efforts at the College have recently mobilized around Latino studies and Asian American studies, Native American studies has less of a foothold in FAS.

Latino Studies was introduced as a secondary field in the fall, and the newly-formed Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies received official recognition last month. Yet the number of Native American studies faculty has decreased at the College in recent years.

Two junior faculty members who focused on Native American studies—Lisa Brooks in History and Literature and Malinda Maynor Lowery ’95 in History—were hired for tenure track positions in 2005 and have since moved to other institutions.

Norman said their departures were influenced by the lack of mentorship available in their field.

“There was no senior faculty to support them and their work [and] they were given very good offers at other places where there was more support for their work,” Norman said.

Tessa L. Desmond, the Administrative Director for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights , said that just one senior faculty hire could substantially change the status of Native American studies at the College.

“Senior faculty are able to advocate for junior faculty hires, and senior faculty hires make new scholars more willing to come to a university,” she said. “If you get a job offer from Harvard University and there’s nobody working in your field, especially if you’re a junior faculty, you have to think really seriously about taking that offer.”

Where classes do exist in Native American studies at the College, such as a class on the Archaeology of Native America taught by Archaeology associate professor Matthew J. Liebmann, they are often affiliated with EMR. Norman, as well as HUNAP Director Shelly C. Lowe, serve on the EMR committee.

Kaipo T. Matsumoto ’17, co-president of Native Americans at Harvard College, said the lack of faculty has proven challenging for his personal academics.

As a freshman, Matsumoto expected to take a placement test for the Hawaiian language to place out of the College’s language requirement. However, he initially was not able to because Hawaiian is not offered at Harvard, and it took two years to work out a test.

For Matsumoto, his ultimate goal would be an independent Indigenous Studies concentration, similar to the African and African American Studies Department or the Native American Studies department at Dartmouth.

Matsumoto added that for now, however, the goal is simply more faculty, both in FAS and elsewhere.

Kau’i Baumhofer is a fourth-year graduate student at the School of Public Health and the president of the school’s recently-formed Native American Student Organization. She said that the school’s lack of both Native American faculty and faculty who focus on Native American studies almost deterred her from attending Harvard at all.

“That was actually a big concern of mine, coming into HSPH as a Native student: who was going to mentor me, and how was I going to work on the type of research project that I have been doing for the past 10 years of my career?” she said.

Matsumoto, who currently serves as a student representative on the Provost’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Affairs, said the committee has communicated the desire for more institutional support to University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76.

Lowe, who is also a member of the Council, said Garber has been open to hearing these concerns.

“I do believe the Provost is very open to hearing us and I do believe he would like to see changes,” she said.

University spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in a statement that several partnerships and initiatives at Harvard, such as HUNAP, “ brin[g] together Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students and interested individuals from the Harvard community for the purpose of advancing the well-being of indigenous peoples through self-determination, academic achievement, and community service.”


Native American studies at Harvard Law School has a larger presence compared to other schools at the University.

Lowe cited the establishment of the Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Professor of Law position as an example of a positive development towards increasing Native American studies faculty. The visiting position, endowed by the Oneida Nation, a federally recognized tribe headquartered in New York, is currently filled by Robert T. Anderson, who is serving two consecutive five-year appointments as the Oneida Chair.

Anderson said he thinks there is enough student interest in American Indian Law to fill more classes than are currently offered in the field.

“Students are very interested [in American Indian Law] because it’s a very high-level student body as you would expect at Harvard, and many of the students are going on to prestigious federal and state clerkships where they’re encountering these issues,” he said.

In addition to the Oneida professorship, professor Joseph W. Singer has developed an American Indian Law problem for a mandatory “Problem Solving Workshop” required for every first-year Law student. He also leads a reading group on American Indian Law. Additionally, the Law School runs a Native Amicus Briefing Project, which recruits students partly to keep track of cases of federal Indian law and ultimately provide amicus briefs to the cases.

However, co-presidents of the Native American Law Students Association Aharon B. Kaslow and Esther A. Labrado said, they think what currently exists is not enough. One concern is that the Oneida Chair lacks the stability of a tenured position, they said. Another is the fact that Federal Indian Law, a field of common law, is underrepresented both in the curriculum and the faculty.

“Federal Indian Law is its own real area of law and it’s constantly being litigated and going to the Supreme Court, so it’s intellectually very interesting and one of the more complicated areas,” Kaslow said.

Like the Oneida Chair, many of the Native American studies faculty at other Harvard schools are visiting, not permanent, professors.

“The only experience I’ve had with Indigenous studies at Harvard in my time has been through visiting professors,” Matsumoto said.


Although the lack of Native American studies poses an academic problem, students and faculty say that having access to these programs is also important because of the University’s history and attracting more Native people to Harvard.

For many Native American studies proponents, any discussion of the field would be incomplete without referencing the College’s charter signed in 1650, under which it continues to operate. The charter established the school as a center for “education of the English and Indian youth of this country.”

Yet some students and faculty allege that Harvard has neglected this mission. George said she thinks Dartmouth, which has similar language in its founding document from 1789, has pursued that objective more earnestly than Harvard.

“[Dartmouth’s Native American studies program] is directly based in Dartmouth’s founding as a school for Native Americans,” George said. “Harvard was similarly founded but they have failed to honor that obligation for most of the last several centuries.”

Neal, the University spokesperson, said Harvard has made a concerted effort to sustain Native American Studies research on campus and recruit Native scholars.

“While research, teaching and learning in [Native American Studies], as with nearly every field of inquiry across the University, is generated by faculty and students in Harvard’s Schools, the Office of the Provost works to support and knit together School-based efforts,” he wrote in an emailed statement. He added, “We also work to help individual Schools in their efforts to recruit, appoint and retain both tenured and tenure-track faculty whose scholarship focuses on issues related to indigenous peoples for the benefit of the entire University.”

Vice president of Native Americans at Harvard College Damon J. Clark ’17 said he chose Harvard because it is, according to its charter, the oldest Indian college in the country.

“This isn’t just something we should do because it’s important to have someone studying Native Americans or doing Native American Studies or whatever our ethical commitments are, but it’s actually written in our founding documents,” she said.

Leaders of NAHC and NALSA say that having established Native American studies coursework can often make a difference for Native students choosing between Harvard and peer institutions.

“Native students that I know personally have been much more inclined to go to Stanford because of the infrastructure there as regards to coursework,” Matsumoto said.

Kaslow said every Native student he knows at the Law School has chosen to take the American Indian Law class.

“I think being able to study the law that governs your people is a really important thing,” he said. “To have a well fleshed out program… is kind of the smallest step you can take to making a person that identifies with that unique background feel like they have the opportunity to explore that, even if they don’t plan on practicing in Indian country.”

A separate, but related, issue for both HUNAP and the student groups is the lack of faculty who identify as Native, regardless of their area of study, across Harvard’s schools. FAS, as well as many of the graduate schools, currently have no faculty who identify as Native, according to Lowe.

Kaslow said having the Oneida Chair be filled by Native professors in the recent past has made Native students feel more supported at the Law School.

“It just so happens that we’ve been lucky to have the leading experts in Indian Law recently also be Native American, and I think it’s played a huge role in helping NALSA feel like it has a stronger presence in the institution,” he said.


Despite Harvard’s lack of formal coursework in Native American studies, students interested the subject have found ways to pursue it, through cobbling together creative schedules and academic engagement outside of the classroom.

Both Matsumoto and Clark said they chose fields that they say allowed them flexibility to pursue a form of Indigenous studies. Matsumoto is a History and Literature concentrator with a self-titled subfield in Pacific world and Indigeneity, and Clark is a Social Studies concentrator with a focus in Indigenous communities in contemporary America. According to Clark, there are currently three Native students concentrating in Social Studies in his year alone.

“I really tried to shape a curriculum that incorporated the very few Native American courses at Harvard, while also incorporating other courses at Harvard,” he said. This has meant traveling to various graduate schools to take courses, he said, including a class on nation building taught by Norman and available to undergraduate and graduate students.

In addition, Clark is one of three students who had the opportunity to take a Navajo language course this year, which Desmond said was organized through a collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Education, HUNAP, and the EMR program.

Programs like HUNAP can also provide an outlet for students interested in Native American studies. This year, the group has hosted a variety of events co-sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute, including a symposium entitled “Native Peoples, Native Politics.” Several schools have active specific groups to talk discuss Native academic studies.

However, like visiting professors, Harvard students are only here for a limited time. According to multiple students, this means that some groups die out without enough students to sustain them.

“NALSA could very easily go away in a year based on admissions,” Kaslow said.

Matsumoto said that NAHC was worried it would not be able to fill its board in the next few years if Harvard did not attract a large number of Native students for the Class of 2020. Admissions numbers for Native admits to the College,though, are up from the previous year.

Although no comparable student group exists at GSAS, George said she has been involved with NAHC and is part of a newly-formed Native American and Indigenous Studies working group.

She said that she sees the lack of Native American Studies offerings puts Harvard at a disadvantage.

“I know Harvard likes to do things its own way, but it holds itself to the standard of the best,” she said. “They constantly remind themselves that they’re the best at everything, and I think that in my time here as well as the undergrads who are looking for these departments, they can say some very specific things that our school is not the best at.”

—Staff Writer Mia Karr can be reached at Follow her on twitter@miackarr.

Harvard Law SchoolHumanities DivisionSocial Sciences DivisionSchool of Public HealthFacultyUniversityUniversity NewsFaculty News