UW Graduate School to get first Indigenous studies program

  • By Lilli Trompke Contributing writer
  • Dec 3, 2019 Updated Dec 5, 2019

Graduate student Laura De Vos had been trying to put together courses for her dissertation focused on Indigenous studies, but experienced difficulties organizing a schedule and receiving guidance from faculty.

In 2018, when the Simpson Center sent out the call for graduate programs to apply for funding, De Vos and Dr. Christopher Teuton, who was the chair of American Indian studies (AIS) at the time, wanted to apply for funding for American Indian studies in the Graduate School.

But there was no program. 

“We went and met with the Simpson Center and they said that you can’t re-imagine something that doesn’t exist,” De Vos said.

However, the Simpson Center encouraged them to apply for the category “other,” where they were able to propose their program exactly how they wanted it. The Simpson Center accepted, and was able to provide the funds that were needed to get the planning and organizing process started. 

Starting this winter quarter, the Graduate School will offer a new certificate program for American Indian and Indigenous studies.

The certificate, housed under the College of Arts & Sciences, consists of two required core classes, an elective, and a capstone project. The two core classes are designed to be alternatingly taught every winter quarter, so that no matter when a student decides to start the certificate program, they will be able to finish all requirements in two years.

The first class, Indigenous methodologies, will be co-taught by Jean Dennison and Megan Ybarra next quarter.

De Vos was hired as a research assistant for the program. Together with faculty, staff, and other graduate students, they were able to hold several community meetings discussing requirements, curriculum, and what people were generally looking for in such a program. It was important to them that the community had real input into what the program should entail.

“One Indigenous methodology that’s really important is that research ideas or community development ideas come out of community conversations,” Dennison, associate professor of American Indian studies and co-director for the Center for American Indian and Indigenous studies, said.

After about a year of meetings and community building, the certificate program was approved by the Board of Regents this quarter. With its creation, the UW is now able to open new doors for students at the Graduate School.

“The field is growing, but there’s no structured way to study it in very many places,” De Vos said. “And now UW is going to be one of the first places, one of the leaders really, in taking Indigenous studies into this next phase of being an institutionalized thing.” 

According to Dennison, the creation of the program is the most recent step the UW has taken in a yearslong process of improving their AIS department.

“This is all part of a really exciting moment that’s happening here at the University of Washington around Indigenous studies,” Dennison said. “A year and a half ago the university created the Center for American Indian [and] Indigenous studies. And within this last year and a half, we have created a new graduate certificate. We’ve gotten a $1.8 million grant from the Mellon foundation to support the work that we’re doing.”

De Vos hopes that, in addition to being a resource for grad students, the program will also challenge non-Native epistemologies and benefit Native students. 

“It makes institutionalized space for other ways of knowing, Indigenous ways of knowing,” De Vos said. “And I think that’s necessary in order to make the university more open or better able to support Native students.”

Dennison is a citizen of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma and spends a lot of her research time working with the Osage Nation, looking at the kinds of strategies that First Nations have to enact in order to face ongoing colonialism. As a scholar, she feels her core commitments are both to the Osage Nation, as well as to creating a stronger space for Native students and faculty on university campuses.

“We know that it’s an uphill battle,” Dennison said. “We have to do everything in our power to create a space in the university where native knowledges can thrive. And so this certificate seems like a really clear and important piece of that.”

Reach contributing writer Lilli Trompke at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @LilliTrompke

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