Through Native eyes
Indigenous Liberal Studies
Indigenous liberal studies
After graduating from the Institute of American Indian Arts last year, Alli Moran is readying herself for law school by developing the Ocˇéti Šakówin Scholars Alliance, a mentoring community for other aspiring tribal lawyers in the Great Plains region. The twenty-four-year-old Cheyenne River Lakota Nation member is one of the few graduates of IAIA to have earned the college’s degree in indigenous liberal studies.
“I chose to pursue my higher education at the Institute of American Indian Arts solely because of the indigenous liberal studies degree program,” Moran said. “I wanted to learn from an indigenous perspective and learn from traditional knowledge and oral histories. Ultimately, I aimed to learn how to revitalize our cultures and uphold our cultural value and knowledge systems within the progressive westernized system we now live in.”
As a student, she got to study with N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa writer and Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist. “He is very eloquent and his voice sounds like thunder. I loved his class because he taught us a generation’s worth of wisdom through his teachings of indigenous knowledge and the importance of language- and place-based relationships.”
Moran’s dual interest in indigenous and Western knowledge systems, along with her plans to put her education to practical use as a tribal lawyer, is what IAIA had in mind when it began crafting the indigenous liberal studies department during the past decade. “What we asked with indigenous liberal studies is how can we find the best way to create well-rounded students who can come back to their community and do some good,” said Stephen Wall (White Earth Reservation), who chairs the department at IAIA. He was hired in 2006 to launch the program at the behest of accreditation officials who told the school it lacked a general studies program — essentially a liberal arts degree. The school offered its first indigenous liberal studies classes in the fall of 2007, granted its first associate degree in the major in 2009, and its first bachelor’s degrees in 2011.
“We’re a very unique institution. We needed to provide a major for students not majoring in studio arts. But we’re too small to offer a traditional liberal arts degree with the range of English, anthropology, sociology, science classes, and so on,” Wall said. So Wall and school administrators and professors began collaborating on a program that would survey the traditional domains of the liberal arts — humanities, social and natural sciences — while building on IAIA’s knowledge base of Native American civilizations and advancing its cultural mission to develop graduates who will strengthen tribal communities.
The school has a long tradition of producing grads who go on to become self-sustaining artists with strong ties to their tribal communities; the student body hails from as many as 112 North American tribes and bands. Classes and certificates in business entrepreneurship are also offered as part of the indigenous liberal studies program, a move that supports the student need to find or create jobs in economically depressed regions.
“The indigenous liberal studies program is a tour of the indigenous world,” Wall said. “We require Native American history, a survey art course, a course on the cultural anthropology of North American Indians, classes on traditional arts and ecology.” One of the required classes, “Seeing the World Through Native Eyes,” is offered online.” We also want students to become familiar with online education, as that is how many other colleges and universities are providing instruction,” Wall said.
One current offering, “American Indian Mapping: Configuring Space and Time,” examines historical Native American techniques for mapping, navigating and traveling as tribes explored the Americas, analyzing the ways in which Native Americans represented their environment. Other classes offered by the department include “Indigenous Statistics,” “How Indians Made America: American History Before Columbus,” “Contemporary Tribal Governments,” and a senior seminar on postmodernism that examines changes in art, philosophy, and literature since 1950 from the vantage point of European, American, and indigenous critics.
Several of the courses are research-based, where students must conduct an original project driven both by their own interests and by the need of a particular community. “It’s not just a class built on writing a twenty-page paper based only on some books you read,” said Wall. “We require that they get out into a community, conduct interviews, do a survey of their needs. And also that they are respectful doing so. Where necessary, we require that they get the permission of the tribe or other local officials to do their research.”
As an example of the community-based, research-driven approach, he cites the work of a recent grad who came to IAIA from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Under the auspices of a senior capstone project, he essentially delivered a community-needs assessment around the creation of an elementary charter school in the Sioux community. Another student made trips to the Sonoran desert to conduct an oral history from the accounts of aging elders of the Tohono O’odham, an indigenous tribe whose land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The slogan for the indigenous liberal studies program is ‘Indigenous Knowledge for Scholarship and Leaders,’ “Wall said. “We’re not trying to produce graduates who are only going to be academics. It’s aimed at students who want to go back to their communities and want knowledge and research techniques that will help them be an asset to these communities. At the same time, we have a lot of students who have urban backgrounds, who are not going back to the reservation. The program serves them, too, with giving them the tools they need to go back into their communities and make a difference too.”
Recent IAIA graduate Alli Moran; top, Stephen Wall, chair, IAIA’s indigenous liberal studies department; photo Jason S. Ordaz