COLUMN: Native American studies program should departmentalize
To readdress the status of the Native American studies program, OU should convert the program to a stand-alone department. This would not only bring more depth, credibility and diversity to OU, but would improve the life circumstances of the most impoverished of all identifiable ethnicities in the United States.
There is no real reason for OU to resist developing the Native American Studies program as a stand-alone department.
According to faculty and students in OU’s Native American Studies program, OU has resisted departmentalizing the program at risk of appearing as though it is giving special attention to American Indians over other ethnic groups, thus detracting from OU’s effort to promote ethnic and cultural diversity.
This excuse is based in a misunderstanding. American Indian tribes are often mischaracterized as just another ethnic minority group instead of political entities or sovereign nations.
Understanding and recognizing the actual status of Indian tribes and departmentalizing the program would not detract from, but rather contribute to, the diversity of ideas, languages and cultures on campus.
Departmentalizing the Native American Studies program would also help alleviate social issues within federal and national tribes.
For generations, American Indians have lagged at the bottom nearly every standard and social indicator of well-being. These findings have been repeatedly confirmed over the years and are represented in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report from 2003.
Indians have endured epidemic levels of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, domestic abuse, infectious diseases, infant mortality, divorce and breakdown of nuclear and extended families.
Government and institutional failure to reconcile two linked and fundamental contradictions of Indian legal status is largely to blame. According to Paul Spruhan, a representative of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, we must reconcile “Indianness” as race versus as a political entity, and Indian as sovereign versus as wards of the state.
Congruently, government spending on the Native population is drastically less than what is allocated to other groups or the mainstream population.
Since the U.S. is failing to uphold its moral responsibilities to the tribes, it is largely left to the citizens or governments of the tribes to improve their own circumstances. Tribes can only do this by generating trained, educated professionals with specialized knowledge and intimate familiarity with Indian cultures and communities that can help address the persistent problems in ‘Indian country.’
By resisting making the Native American studies program into a department, OU is missing an opportunity to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with the 39 tribal governments in Oklahoma. OU is discouraging millions of dollars in grants and endowments from these tribes and detracting from ethnic and cultural diversity on campus.
The University’s present stance on this issue is problematic for Native tribes and their citizens.
Again, call or write the OU Board of Regents, OU President David Boren, your state legislators or your tribal leadership and make sure they understand what is at stake.
Scott Starr is a Native American studies senior.