Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

How many of us can recall any mentions of Native American and Indigenous history after the Manifest Destiny unit in school? In New York’s Suffolk County, Stony Brook University (SBU) has announced the launch of a new Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) initiative which will culminate in a new minor within the College of Arts and Sciences. In its nascent stage, the upcoming program was proposed and is led by inaugural director Joseph M. Pierce, a Cherokee Nation citizen, associate professor in SBU’s Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, and Hyperallergic contributor.

“One of the main concerns that I learned from consultation with local community members is that Long Island high schools do not teach Native issues at all,” Pierce said in an interview. “Many secondary educators have very little experience with Native people or Native issues, and we are in the position as a university to help.”

The initiative comes at an important moment for Stony Brook University, which was recently selected to anchor the New York Climate Exchange — an international carbon-neutral center for the advancement of environmental sustainability in the global climate crisis — on Governor’s Island (Lenape: Paggank).

“The university is moving towards interdisciplinary research around environmentalism, and the administration understands that it has to include Native people at its core for it to work,” Pierce told Hyperallergic. Pierce has taught at SBU for over a decade and specializes in Latin American, Queer, and Native American and Indigenous studies. “Across the school, there is a growing interest in Native Studies which is demonstrated by students in departments that do currently offer related courses.”

“What students don’t have is a focal point around which to organize,” Pierce continued, noting that the cross-departmental program will be built to bridge gaps between the university’s natural and social sciences. “We’re building a program in Indigenous Studies, which is by definition interdisciplinary.”

The university has committed to hiring five new faculty members to help diversify the current course offerings in Native Studies that are largely taught by liberal and visual arts professors. Pierce specified that he’s looking to include scholars whose specialties intersect with cultural ecology, ecological justice, and gender and anthropology to help supplement the forthcoming program offerings as well as one designated faculty for core coursework in Native American and Indigenous Studies to get the minor off the ground by next year.

The minor’s steering committee includes both faculty members, such as Department of English Chair and professor Andrew Newman, and representatives from Long Island’s Native tribes: the Unkechaug, Montaukett, Setalcott, Matinecock, and Shinnecock Nations. Both Pierce and Newman told Hyperallergic that the university’s NAIS program prioritizes collaborating with the local tribes with regards to the island’s broader education on Native histories, culture, and futurity.

Pierce highlighted the the State Education Department’s approval of a new teacher certification in Indigenous Culture and Language Studies late last September as a site for the university’s potential to work with local tribes for improved education across the island’s school districts.

Last week, Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the Montaukett Nation’s bid for state recognition for the second time in her tenure after three rejections from former Governor Andrew Cuomo, citing a 1910 state Supreme Court ruling that said the nation had vanished. This announcement during Native American Indian Heritage Month, coupled with several Long Island school districts’ lawsuit to continue using Native American mascots and team names that have been prohibited since May, are just two small examples of how much work remains to be done.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Sandi Brewster-walker, a writer, geneaologist and tribal representative for the Montaukett Nation, expressed her initial trepidations regarding the initiative at Stony Brook due to so-called “pretendians” in academia, but said she was “supportive” and that tribal representatives on the steering committee get to review applicants for the program’s faculty positions.

“I think it’s good to introduce a minor, but the university has to be very careful with how they present it,” Brewster-walker explained. “A well-rounded offering will encourage people to understand our struggles and our presence. We’re here, living next door as neighbors on Long Island — not everyone lives on reserve land. We shop at the same places.”

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