UO adds Native American Studies minor to ethnic studies curriculum

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Chris Finley teaches Native American Gender & Film
Chris Finley teaches Native American Gender & Film

The University of Oregon is providing students an opportunity to learn about historic and contemporary Native American issues through a new Native American Studies minor, offered as part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Ethnic Studies program.

Native American Studies is the result of three decades of planning and work on campus, and aims to help students “understand contemporary Native American lives, and to examine Native American identities, practices, histories, cultures and political statuses in context from the earliest times until the present.”

 “People began talking about Native American Studies at the University of Oregon in the 1970s,” said program director Brian Klopotek, a Choctaw whose family hails from Louisiana. “We’ve had Native American Studies courses for quite some time, certainly since I’ve been here and before that.

“The minor really makes our Native American Studies offerings much more visible and puts them in a coherent program where we can tell people, ‘This is what you need to be doing to have a grounding in the field of Native American Studies.’”

The program covers more than just Native American history and culture—it also covers contemporary issues, including climate change, politics, theater and more.

“You can take classes about film, or Native American literature taught by Kirby Brown, and education classes taught by Brian,” said Chris Finley ’05, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and a visiting instructor in the program who taught Native American Gender & Film last term.

While the minor is open to any student who wants to learn more about Native American issues, it may be of particular interest to Native American students who are interested in learning more about their own tribal heritage.

At one point in Oregon’s history there were more than 60 individual Native American tribes. Now just nine federally recognized tribes remain, after the federal government forced the survivors of many of the smaller tribes to consolidate on shared reservations, such as the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

All of the western Oregon tribes were legislatively terminated in the 1950s—only the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes avoided that fate. When the process of restoration began in the late 1970s, not all of Oregon’s tribes were provided with reservations—the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians had to purchase its own. The 27 tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians once lived on a 1.1-million-acre reservation; today, their reservation covers just 15,000 acres.

“One concept that’s critical to Native American Studies, and what we want to convey in Native American Studies, is that as the first nations of this land, they have a right to continue to exist as nations,” said Klopotek. “That’s what federal recognition is about from a tribal perspective. It’s about honoring the right of those nations to exist.

“This initiative involved more than 30 faculty and staff from across the university, and had the support of representatives from the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon,” Klopotek said. “I want to emphasize how empowering that is, to have a broad swath of people saying we need to push this forward. Within that group everyone knew about it and was very excited about it. The administration of the College of Arts and Sciences was very supportive of this project.”

Learn more about the Native American Studies program.

- by Damian Foley, UO Alumni Association