The University of Oregon will offer an undergraduate degree in Native American and Indigenous studies starting in either fall 2021 or 2022. It will be the only undergraduate program on campus with “explicit commitments to serving Indigenous nations and communities,” according to Native American Studies Director Kirby Brown.
“The university has stated public commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and has acknowledged that Indigenous and communities of color have been severely underrepresented, structurally and systemically,” Brown said. “Having a Native studies program on campus at the flagship institution in the state of Oregon, with nine federally recognized tribes, is an important symbolic but also intellectual gesture.”
UO is built on Kalapuya Ilihi land and has an Indigenous population 50% higher than the national average, with 0.7% of UO students identifying as Native American. A Native studies minor was created in 2013 and has grown steadily over the years, with an all-time high of 41 students currently enrolled in the minor. Over 80% of students in the minor identify as Native.
One of these students is UO senior Gwen Wolfe, who is a member of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma and is an Indigenous, race and ethnic studies major. They are involved with the UO Native American Student Union and work with Native faculty at the Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence.
Wolfe said they have been advocating for a Native studies major since coming to UO in 2017. Had it existed a couple of years ago, Wolfe said they would have absolutely declared the major.
“Indigenous studies is my focus within the IRES [major],” they said. “There have been classes that I've had to take to fulfill my major requirements that have caused me to not be able to take Indigenous studies-related classes that I wanted, because I just didn't have the slots open.”
The major, an extension of the current Native studies minor, will be offered as a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science. It will have an interdisciplinary track and a language track, both of which will require 56 credits. All students will take Intro to Native American Studies, Indigenous Peoples of Oregon, Native Feminisms and Indigenous Methodologies.
The program was approved by the UO Senate and Board of Trustees, and it now has to go through multiple levels of state approval. If completed over the summer, the major will begin in fall 2021. If not, it will start up the following year.
Brown said he wants the new major to be a place where Native students can see themselves represented in the curriculum and have their communities and experiences centered in the classroom. However, non-Native students are encouraged to take these courses as well.
“We believe that Native studies is for everyone, and we absolutely want every student who comes to the University of Oregon to have some exposure to Native American studies,” Brown said. “You can't really understand Oregon history or American history without understanding the relationship of Native peoples to that history and to the federal government.”
Students who are currently enrolled in the minor will be able to shift their credits over to the major. Additionally, undeclared students and other underclassmen will be able to declare the major along with incoming students.
Portland State University and Southern Oregon University already offer Native studies programs in their curriculum. Every course will be taught by faculty who currently work within the IRES department.
“The UO hasn't always had a reputation as a place that was welcoming for Native students,” Brown said. “I think that having a major curriculum that both Native and non-Native students can pursue at the university will be a pretty big draw for Native students who are considering higher education in the state of Oregon.”