Professor presents the Dean’s Medal to American Indian Studies graduate

ASU American Indian Studies program trains advocates for indigenous communities

By

Parker Shea

Exclusively made up of indigenous professors, the American Indian Studies program at Arizona State University motivates the next generation of scholars to advocate for Indigenous nations and communities.

“We’re striving to make American Indian Studies not only important and relevant to Native nations, organizations and peoples, but also to society as a whole,” said James Riding In (Pawnee), professor and interim director of the program.

The curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students focuses on American Indian experiences, human rights and social justice, giving students a practical and theoretical understanding of complex issues facing American Indian communities across the U.S. and Indigenous communities around the world. 

The value of an American Indian Studies degree

“There are several values to our degree,” said Riding In. “It provides students with critical thinking and academic skills as well as knowledge of American Indian nations in both a historical and contemporary context.”

According to Riding In, American Indian Studies is broadly concerned with aspects of the human experience. As such, a student pursuing a degree, minor or certificate in American Indian Studies would gain an education rooted in humanistic ideals and social sciences methods. This dual structure helps students acquire analytical and critical-thinking skills, cultural expertise in American Indian affairs and a broad skillset applicable to a range of careers — especially in fields working with Indian nations or underprivileged/marginalized communities.

Graduates have gone to law school and doctoral programs all over the country. Given the academic nature of the subject, many pursue careers within Indian communities to help find solutions for the complex challenges facing these nations. Recent graduates have launched careers with the International Treaty Council, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and the local government. 

For example, alumna Madison Fulton (Navajo), who works for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said her education in American Indian Studies was instrumental in getting her to where she is now. She said exposure to caring and influential professors, American Indian Studies theory and thought, and engagement through discussion prepared her to work with tribes.

“The American Indian Studies paradigm and canon are the most important aspect of my education,” she said. “The canon has given me the knowledge to be an advocate for Indian rights in terms of sexual assault advocacy, ethical research, and health and wellbeing of Indian communities and people.” 

American Indian Studies scholarship and impact

The American Indian Studies faculty at ASU have produced scholarship that is shaping the discourse on Indigenous issues today. Their research and publications range from the sacred histories of various Indigenous peoples to the contemporary problems faced by American Indian communities, such as: American Indian child and adolescent issues, graves protection, decolonization and spiritual beliefs.

Furthermore, the program is home to a peer-reviewed journal that publishes work by American Indian scholars from around the country.

Wíčazo Ša Review is an interdisciplinary academic journal devoted to publishing American Indian scholarship. The journal was started in 1985 by founding editors Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Beatrice Medicine, Roger Buffalohead and William Willard. Professor James Riding In (Pawnee) has been the editor-in-chief of Wíčazo Ša Review since 2005. 

The Review fits well within the paradigm of the American Indian Studies program, which states: “American Indian Studies faculty must view their teaching, research and service as a ‘sacred’ responsibility to Indian nations undertaken for the sake of cultural survival.”

“Most of the journals were those that come from the fields of history, anthropology and others,” Riding In said. “And it was very difficult oftentimes for indigenous scholars to get their work published because oftentimes their work fell outside of the realm of what many of those gatekeepers who were in charge of those disciplines thought was pertinent scholarship.”

Riding In said the journal’s most important function today is to provide an outlet for indigenous scholars to get their work published. He emphasized how valuable such an outlet is for young native faculty working in universities across the country.

With Arizona having the second largest Native American population of any state, Indian affairs is an area in demand from both the U.S. federal government and the Indian tribes themselves. The American Indian Studies program strives to partner with Indian nations, communities and organizations to seek solutions for the unique challenges faced by American Indian nations.

“ASU continues to develop an impressive cohort of scholars engaged in American Indian cultural, social, educational, legal and economic issues. We have built world-class programs in American Indian Studies, American Indian legal Studies and Indigenous conceptions of justice,” said President Michael Crow in a 2015 statement on the university’s commitment to American Indian tribes. “Our work, however, is not complete. We must further … integrate Indigenous knowledge and engage Indigenous issues globally.”