Becoming a Native American Studies Major: What to Know

Majoring in Native American studies gives students a chance to learn or increase their knowledge of the history and current experiences of Indigenous peoples in the U.S.

The emergence of this academic discipline began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stemming from the civil rights movement and student activism on college campuses, experts say.

“It started out as a need to locate within the academy a place where scholars, often from various disciplines, could focus on both the past and present of American Indian and Alaska Native existence in the United States,” says Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation and professor of Indigenous and American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University, a tribal university in Kansas. “There was a clear recognition that there was really no place in the academy for that focus.”

[Take Should You Change Majors in College?]

With its Department of American Indian Studies approved in 1969, the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities claims to have the oldest program in the country with “autonomous departmental status,” according to its website. Since then, Native American studies programs have evolved and spread across colleges nationwide.

What Is Native American Studies?

Native American studies — also referred to as American Indian studies or Alaska Native studies at some colleges — is an interdisciplinary major or minor that focuses on the past and current histories and varying cultures of Native American and Alaska Native communities. Some university departments also include Indigenous studies in the name to encompass Native and Indigenous peoples from Central and South America, Oceania and other regions.

“Undergraduate students come into Native American studies with interests in a variety of academic disciplines, especially with an interest in working with or for Indigenous people, tribal entities or tribal-based programs,” Catherine N. Montoya, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and senior student success specialist of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, wrote in an email. “Native American studies is a great space to explore issues and challenges of Indigenous peoples and nations both historically and contemporarily.”

Common Coursework in Native American Studies

Curriculum varies by degree program. But due to its interdisciplinary nature, students majoring in Native American studies can expect to take courses related to tribal laws and policies, pre-colonial and post-colonial history, religion, languages, federal-tribal relations, environmental justice and contemporary issues.

“Native American studies prepares students to be community engaged leaders who work toward socially plural, culturally inclusive and healthy communities that drive positive human interactions and acknowledge the diversity of human experience and creative expression,” Montoya wrote in an email.

As part of the American Indian studies major at the University of North Carolina–Pembroke, for instance, students are required to take 15 semester hours in one of three areas of focus: peoples and histories, social and cultural issues, or stories and literature. Courses include American Indian Health, Colonial Encounters in the Eastern Woodlands, American Indian Religious Traditions, Indigenous Women and Native American Poetry.

Majoring in Native American studies may also look different at tribal colleges and universities, or TCUs, versus another type of higher education institution. Most TCUs are located on or near reservation land and typically serve students in those communities, although non-Native students can usually also attend. Such a school’s curriculum often mirrors its student population.

[READ: Ethnic Studies: What It Is and How to Use a Degree in the Field.]

For instance, Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota offers a bachelor’s degree in Lakota studies, which focuses on the tribe’s history, values, culture, traditions and language.

Also, I?isa?vik College in Alaska has an associate of arts in Iñupiaq studies in which students “develop objects of art in the Iñupiaq style using at least three different media, advance their capability to understand and speak semi-fluent Iñupiaq, and demonstrate an increased understanding of the relationship between Iñupiaq culture and the land, sea and animals,” according to the school’s website.

Haskell — one of two TCUs that only Native students can attend — enrolls undergraduates from across the country, so curriculum may focus on common themes or foundational issues “across all our histories,” Wildcat says.

The fact that all students at Haskell are Native “does lead maybe to a different kind of curriculum and possibly even pedagogy,” he says. “Because it does make a difference when we are just talking amongst ourselves as opposed to presenting something to a public that we presume, for the most part, knows very little about us.”

Some examples of courses in Haskell’s Indigenous and American Indian Studies program include Environmental Protection in Indian Country, American Indian Treaties and Agreements, and American Indian Film — which examines how Native characters are represented in media. Students are also required to complete service outreach, known as an internship, in their community or at the national level.

“The cool thing about Haskell is our students are often coming from communities and have parents or grandparents who’ve been a part of issues that are on the ground right now in their own communities that people read about in The New York Times or see on CNN,” Wildcat says. “So we make sure that’s very much a part of what we do.”

How to Know if Native American Studies Is Right for You

First-year students who are undecided about their major or have changed their area of focus should explore and register for a wide range of courses, experts say. And if there is specific interest in the different histories and cultures of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, take related courses and see if you enjoy the content.

“I think it helps when they can see how their degree is helping them reach their career goals or aspirations or when they can see how they can use this information to give back or pay it forward to Native communities,” Montoya wrote in an email. “Also, maybe it’s challenging what they previously thought about a topic or issue or broadening their perspectives.”

Native American studies is not limited to Native students; any interested student can major in it.

[READ: Choosing a Major in College: What to Know.]

“Native communities need allies of all sorts who understand or are willing to learn,” says Mary Ann Jacobs, a member of the Lumbee tribe and professor and chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at UNC Pembroke. “Just in the United States, there’s more than 570 federally recognized tribes and 200-plus non-federally recognized tribes or quasi-recognized tribes. So tribes need allies.”

What You Can Do With a Degree in Native American Studies

There are many career options for students who graduate with a degree in American Indian studies. Graduates can earn a master’s degree or Ph.D. in American Indian studies or go into other academic disciplines including law, public administration, geography, public health, social work, museum studies and environmental science, experts say.

Students with this major can become historians or archivists. Others may work for their own tribal government; tribal, state or federal agencies; Native community-based nonprofits or other tribally based programs.

“Depending on how one shapes it, it really opens a door to a lot of different opportunities,” Wildcat says.

Schools Offering Native American Studies

Check out 10 schools below that offer Native American or American Indian studies programs. This is not a comprehensive list, so prospective students should do their own research on available academic programs at schools of interest.

Augsburg University Minneapolis, MN 17 (tie), Regional Universities Midwest
Colgate University Hamilton, NY 18 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges
Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 12, National Universities
Haskell Indian Nations University Lawrence, KS Unranked in Tribal Schools
Institute of American Indian Arts Santa Fe, NM Unranked in Tribal Schools
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Minneapolis, MN 62 (tie), National Universities
University of Montana Missoula, MT 285 (tie), National Universities
University of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 212 (tie), National Universities
University of North Carolina–Pembroke Pembroke, NC 56 (tie), Regional Universities South
University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND 250 (tie), National Universities

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