Beginning in 1998
American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS) began as an interdisciplinary academic program within American Studies in 1998. At that point, UNC offered few courses on American Indians. The Research Laboratories in Archaeology, founded in 1939, conducted archaeological research on American Indian sites, and anthropology faculty taught the occasional course in this field, as did a succession of history adjunct and visiting faculty, but no coherent program existed. After several years of lobbying by American Indian students, American Studies Chair Townsend Ludington, History Department Chair Richard Soloway, and Acting Provost Richard Richardson decided to act. They hired Professor Michael D. Green (American Studies) and Professor Theda Perdue (History) and charged them with creating a program. With the administrative support of a program assistant, Danny Bell, Professors Green and Perdue began teaching a wide range of courses in American Indian Studies, coordinating their efforts with existing faculty, pressing for additional hires, and designing a curriculum. In 2003, UNC began offering an interdisciplinary minor in American Indian Studies, and in 2008, American Indian Studies became a major concentration within American Studies. In summer 2009, Professor Tol Foster initiated the Cherokee Study Abroad program, and that fall, in cooperation with Western Carolina University, UNC began beaming in three semesters of Cherokee language instruction.
In fall 2013, Professor Dan Cobb oversaw the redesign of the major concentration and minor so that it better reflected UNC’s community of scholars. This included reconfiguring the categories of course offerings from History, Anthropology, and Literature to History, Law and Social Science, and Language and Expressive Culture. Cobb also added into the curriculum courses focused on the Indigenous peoples of Latin America, and the major concentration was renamed American Indian and Indigenous Studies to capture the hemispheric nature of our faculty’s research and the scholarly focus of two of the most influential professional organizations in the field, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and American Society for Ethnohistory. The result was an innovative academic program that integrated academic and experiential learning, and that afforded opportunities to engage in public-facing and engaged scholarship.
While on the surface AIIS appeared to be moving in the right direction, lurking below the surface was the troubling steady departure of Indigenous faculty. Between 2011 and 2022, two-thirds of the College’s Indigenous faculty left UNC. This spoke to what at best can be described as an unwelcoming and at worst a toxic environment for Indigenous scholars on UNC’s campus. These departures, including the tragic passing of Professor Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote in August 2020, left gaping holes in our curriculum, particularly in the fields of Anthropology, American Studies, History, Literature, and Geography. In addition to these departures, other problems plagued the curriculum. Declining departmental and College-level support, university-wide budget challenges, nearly disastrous proposed curriculum changes within American Studies, the failure of the university to acknowledge its entanglement with the dispossession of Indian nations of their land in the building of the university, and an increasingly unsupportive state and campus environment toward BIPOC faculty, students, and staff, forced American Indian and Indigenous Studies to the brink of being dissolved.
Formation of the Working Group
In the wake of another student-led effort to support American Indian and Indigenous Studies in the spring of 2022, the College rededicated itself to a reimagined and reinvigorated free-standing Curriculum in Global Indigeneity. With the arrival of Dr. James W.C. White as Dean of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2022, the College committed to a robust investment in Indigenous faculty, students, and staff. These developments, which include the formation of the Working Group on Global Indigeneity and a cluster hire in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, represent much-needed glimmers of light after a period of darkness. These initiatives, and others to follow, promise to re-envision and revitalize American Indian and Indigenous Studies, a critically important undertaking central to the University’s mission.