On the University of Washington campus, the study of American Indian and Indigenous issues isn’t confined to a single department. Or, for that matter, to any one UW building, research institute or museum that explicitly focuses on various aspects of Native communities.
While each of these campus units is thriving on its own, what’s missing is a link to bring together the diverse faculty and students involved in American Indian and Indigenous studies, an interdisciplinary field of research that intersects the social sciences, arts and humanities, education and natural sciences.
Now, as the discipline of American Indian Studies approaches its 50th year at the UW, a new research center is in the works: the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, which is supported by multiple colleges and schools. Led by Jean Dennison, associate professor of both American Indian Studies and anthropology, and Chadwick Allen, professor of English and associate vice provost for faculty advancement, the center aims to support research in American Indian and Indigenous Studies across the three UW campuses, as well as with surrounding Native communities.
In its first year the center will solicit input from interested individuals not only on the three UW campuses, but also from surrounding Native communities. In committing to support American Indian and Indigenous faculty, students, staff and communities, Dennison said, the center must first determine what kinds of support are most needed.
“My goal with the center is to facilitate conversations around what it means to do American Indian and Indigenous studies well,” she said. “We have amazing programming and resources, but we’re not all connected. We’re doing this work in silos. We’re hoping that the center can build bridges across silos, connect folks doing this work, and foster relationships across campuses and with local Native communities and nations.”
Approved in late spring under former Provost Jerry Baldasty, the center was officially organized in September through a governance committee of four deans from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education, the College of the Environment and the Information School. The Department of American Indian Studies will serve as the center’s academic home, and an advisory board recently formed to start planning programs and outreach activities.
Nearly a dozen units, including the Provost’s Office, the Graduate School, UW Tacoma and UW Bothell, have contributed to fund the center and related activities, a total of more than $1 million over five years.
Discussion of a research center had been circulating for years, but it intensified this past year as a potential means of retaining faculty, particularly in the Department of American Indian Studies, professor and chair Chris Teuton said. When it comes to the discipline, few other universities have the academic infrastructure the UW has, he added, but several have been promoting additional resources and recruiting faculty.
Through the new center, Teuton said, the UW can build on its strengths, from its geographic location to ongoing scholarship and community outreach, like that driven by the College of the Environment, the College of Education and the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute in the School of Social Work. By bringing people from different units together, offering more research opportunities to graduate students and collaborating with Native communities, he said, the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies is better positioned to elevate scholarship and create impact. The issues that often come up among Native communities — language revitalization, food sovereignty, environmental stewardship, governance and Indigenous education — are also areas of interest among current faculty and students.
Researchers around campus have asked about working with Native communities, but they’re often not sure how to approach the work as a partnership, Teuton said, and the center could facilitate that.
While leaders say the precise name of the center may change — to something in the native Coast Salish language of Southern Lushootseed, for example — the idea of building stronger partnerships with both American Indian and Indigenous peoples is central.
The term “American Indian” is itself a construct, Allen pointed out. How do you recognize First Nations peoples in Canada, who are separated from Native communities in the United States by only a line of latitude? What about other Indigenous peoples across the hemisphere and around the world, many of whom share similar histories of colonialism?
“Indigenous studies always starts with the local. Whose land are we on? What’s the history of this place?” Allen said. “The local is always the foundation, but set within the reality of the global. We don’t pretend that our communities here somehow exist within a bubble. So we need to ask, what kind of name will make people feel the center is doing the kind of responsible work we want to be doing?”
The timing is right to raise the profile of the discipline at the UW, he said. A new graduate certificate in American Indian and Indigenous Studies is being developed for next year. Several support and advisory groups are in place, serving all levels of the university, and there is potential to expand on new partnerships between the Department of American Indian Studies and community colleges around the state, which enroll approximately 4,500 Native students.
As the center continues to develop, leaders say collaboration is the key, with various ways for the campus community to be involved. The structure of the leadership was intentional — Allen will serve as co-director for one year, Dennison for three — and members of the advisory board will have staggered terms to allow others to join. The leadership expects to reach out to the broader campus about the center’s mission and programs later this year.
“It’s a very Indigenous way of doing things,” Teuton said. “Everyone shares what they have to contribute, and together it creates something wonderful. Something bigger comes out of our collective effort.”
For more information, contact the center at firstname.lastname@example.org.