New American Indian Studies minor available]

The Native American Studies House located at 1206 W. Nevada St. in Urbana is the home of the newly offered American Indian Studies minor. Erica Magda

The Native American Studies House located at 1206 W. Nevada St. in Urbana is the home of the newly offered American Indian Studies minor. Erica Magda

By Terrell Starr

“Do Southwest Indians exist?”

Several years ago, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, assistant professor of American Indian Studies, received an e-mail from an Urbana elementary school teacher seeking his help to answer this question, which her second and third graders had been debating intensely.

“When I got the e-mail, I kind of chuckled,” Gilbert said with a grin.

When he visited the class, the University professor delivered a presentation to the elementary students about Southwest Indians. He discussed a little history, but said he really drove home the fact that Southwest Indians exist today.

“They were amazed,” Gilbert remembered. “They were so happy.”

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After his presentation, he asked the children if any of them had ever met a Southwest Indian before. All of them said no. Then he said something to the young children that made their eyes grow with further amazement.

“Well, you’re looking at one right now.”

As Gilbert, a Hopi Indian, told this story to his History of American Indian Education class at the University of Illinois, they were also amazed.

He was especially optimistic that the new undergraduate minor in American Indian Studies will help prepare students to inform the public about Native culture. Some of these students may become elementary school teachers like the one who invited Gilbert to her class. For the first time in school history, University students can now take courses leading to a minor in American Indian Studies.

Gilbert then asked his students why they were interested in taking the course and if any were considering the new minor. While most students said they were taking his course simply for their own intellectual enrichment, some expressed interest in declaring an American Indian Studies minor in the future. Colin Taylor, senior in LAS said he would even consider delaying graduation to give himself time to undertake coursework for a minor.

Feeling that he was getting a negative portrayal of American Indians from his history classes, Sam Oehlert, junior in LAS, said he was taking Gilbert’s course to supplement his history major curriculum.

One of Gilbert’s other students, Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, graduate student in educational policy studies, said she would declare a graduate minor in American Indian Studies when it becomes available. Tsosie-Mahieu, a Navajo whose family lives on a reservation in Arizona, feels the minor will allow students to learn about Native people from a Native perspective.

“Usually, we’ve been looked at through a western lens,” Tsosie-Mahieu said. “And now it’s like ‘Hey. We are American Indians. We are teaching these courses. This is our history and our culture through our lens.'”

Whether personal, intellectual or professional, American Indian Studies program administrators welcome the various motivations that will attract students to the minor.

Robert Warrior, who directs the American Indian Studies Program and the Native American House, said the minor is an important step forward for the program and will expose students to the discourse in which scholars are currently engaged. He also mentioned that American Indian Studies is sometimes viewed as a “policing function,” which ensures that other disciplines are accurately portraying American Indian issues.

While Warrior believes this function is necessary at times, he envisions the American Indian Studies minor reaching out to students from a variety of academic majors who already have an interest in Native culture.

“Instead of going out and grabbing all of the education majors and giving them a lecture or a scolding on ‘hey do this better,’ (we’re saying) we’re already doing something else intellectually,” Warrior said. “We want to expose you to that so maybe you can start thinking in a different way instead of taking someone’s framework for thinking about American Indians, which is usually limited.”

Students who want to declare American Indian Studies as a minor must take 21 hours of coursework to fulfill requirements for the program’s course of study. The minor has just become available, so American Indian Studies program administrators said the number of students declaring it is not yet available, although one administrator said all of the Introduction to American Indian Studies courses are full.

John McKinn, assistant director of academic programming at the Native American House, said talks of a minor among American Indian Studies faculty began as early as 2002. But the legwork of drafting proposals and submitting them before the necessary committees started in 2006. The undergraduate minor eventually received University approval in January.

McKinn, who played a key role in ensuring that the visions of a minor would one day become a reality, said what makes the minor significant is that students can take a concentration of courses leading to academic credit in American Indian Studies, as oppose to receiving it through the history or English departments.

“It’s not that we don’t want to work with these units,” McKinn said. “In fact, much of the work is interdisciplinary. But it’s interdisciplinary on our own terms.”

Though Southwest and other American Indians still exist, they are few and far between. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 1.5 percent of the population considers themselves an American Indian or Alaskan Native. And their representation at the University is also low.

According to 2007 enrollment records, there are only 107 American Indian students on campus.

Because they are so low in number, Tsosie-Mahieu feels she and other Native students exist in the shadows of campus life. But she expressed optimism that the minor would help make them more noticeable.

“By getting the minor up and people actually taking these courses, we become more visible,” Tsosie-Mahieu said.