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It’s time for a Native American Studies program

| Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Perusing the list of University staff and students picked to form the committee advising administrators on the much-debated Columbus murals, I noticed that listed as committee chair on the Feb. 14 press release was the director of Italian and Dante Studies.

OK. Sure, I guess. I kept reading, looking for that corresponding “Yada Yada, Professor of Native American Studies.” Or “So and So, Member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi.” Nada. Zilch.

I’m a relative newbie on campus, but I’ve been around long enough to know we are on Potawatomi land. The student senate passed a historic resolution in early March affirming this fact, declaring, “We acknowledge our presence on the traditional homelands of Native peoples particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik/Pokagon Potawatomi, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years, and continue to do so.” An accompanying — and perhaps even more important — resolution called for Notre Dame to create a Native American Studies minor.

These gestures, along with the covering of the Columbus murals, are important. Marcus Winchester-Jones, president of the Native American Student Association and a member of the Pokagon Band, noted in an Observer op-ed last month that the land acknowledgment serves “as both a sign of respect to people who are still here, but also [as] an effective tool for those who do not know whose land they occupy.”  

But the question still stands: Why does a Catholic university with a $13.1 billion endowment on Potawatomi land not have a Native American Studies program?

Understanding the history and culture of Native people is vitally relevant to parsing current events. Witness the Trump administration’s attempt to completely eliminate the nearly $40 million fund tribal scholarship and education program in its proposed 2020 fiscal budget. Then there’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who I really like otherwise — and her DNA test publicity stunt last year, met with dismay by tribal community leaders nationwide and derision by conservatives. Last month, the President of Mexico asked the Catholic Church and Spain to apologize for the genocide of indigenous people, and the initial request and ensuing response (a cold-as-hell “no” from los Españoles) is still making headlines.

The absence of a Native American Studies program is especially jarring considering the fact that Notre Dame oversees the American Indian Catholic Schools Network, which supports underserved Catholic schools on seven reservations across the country.

Notre Dame’s very founding was based on the relationship between Fr. Stephen Theodore Badin, Fr. Edward Sorin and the local Potawatomi, who, under the leadership of Leopold Pokagon, had to adopt Catholicism in order to survive the westward push of white settler-colonials.

A November 2014 Observer editorial laments the fact that the Notre Dame community is “unaware of important interactions between its founders and local Native Americans.” Wouldn’t a Native American Studies program be a step in the right direction?

Given the past and present of the United States — and really all of the Americas — the study of Indigenous history and culture should be an essential part of any curriculum dealing with Catholicism, the environment, healthcare, politics, sociology, criminal justice and so on. Especially at this University, it should be an area of study in its own right, not something taught intermittently by a non-Native professor or in a once-in-a-blue-moon exhibit at the Snite. Notre Dame should recognize this history and create a Native American Studies program to fulfill its mission statement goal of cultivating in its students “a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many.” Especially when that injustice happened in its own backyard.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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