Stony Brook University aims to debut its Native American and Indigenous Peoples...

Stony Brook University aims to debut its Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies program by fall 2024. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Stony Brook University, recognizing the importance of "the voices of Indigenous Peoples" in understanding the nation's past, present and future, is seeking to debut a Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies program next fall.

The university's planned foray into developing the program as a minor area of study would place it among several other State University of New York institutions upstate that already have programs, an indication of the growth of scholarship in the field and of its overall importance, several professors said.

"Over the past few decades, the field of Native American and Indigenous studies has grown," said Joseph Pierce, an associate professor in Stony Brook's Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, who is the inaugural director of the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies initiative. Pierce, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, added: "And we can no longer imagine that our current moment can be fully comprehended without the voices of Indigenous Peoples."

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Stony Brook University recently approved a new Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies program as a minor, which may debut by fall 2024.
  • The new program plans to cut across a number of fields, such as language, literature, culture, history, climate and the environment. Five new faculty are to be hired for the program over three years.
  • A steering committee, which is to include representatives of local Native tribal leadership, is to provide guidance on the development of the program’s curriculum.
Joseph M. Pierce, a Cherokee Nation citizen and associate professor of Latin...

Joseph M. Pierce, a Cherokee Nation citizen and associate professor of Latin American Studies at Stony Brook University, is helping put together the new minor in Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Pierce and other Stony Brook professors involved in the development of the new minor said it would cut across many fields. Among them: language, literature, culture, history, climate and the environment.

Climate crisis solutions

When it comes to the "climate crisis," for example, Pierce noted that "in many respects, the solutions to today's problems have already been modeled by Indigenous Peoples. All we have to do is listen."

Locally, he pointed to the "good work that the Shinnecock kelp farmers are doing." Pierce said the farming of kelp, a specific type of seaweed, "allows other plants and animals to return to the area. Kelp also captures carbon and nitrogen so it has a direct impact in the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

"That’s a really good example of local environmental resurgence," Pierce said of the Shinnecock kelp farming.

The new minor under development would involve the hiring of five tenure-track faculty over three years, Stony Brook officials said. In addition to the hiring of professors, Pierce said, officials were in the process of "defining the core curriculum." He said part of the course development would involve integrating courses with "Native American content" already taught at the university. 

"So we're linking courses already taught, as well as adding new courses. That is what the steering committee has been formed to help provide guidance about," Pierce said.

Hochul proclamation

Stony Brook's decision to go ahead with developing the minor came about very recently, and is to be formally announced Monday, which is the Columbus Day holiday. A proclamation by Gov. Kathy Hochul will also recognize it as Indigenous Peoples Day.

"Somehow, the timing was just right to get this started," said Axel Drees, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where the new minor program will be housed. Drees said discussions began in August and approval came within weeks. He and others said they hope to launch the new minor by fall 2024, or possibly later in the academic year.

Andrew Newman, chair of the university's Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Committee as well as the English Department, said the program's approval "was the fulfillment of the aspirations of the working groups I've participated in the last few years."

Newman pointed to the university's "land acknowledgment" statement at the bottom of its landing web page. The statement says the university "resides on the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the aboriginal territory of the Setauket or the Setalcott tribe. We acknowledge federal and state recognized tribes who live here now and those who were forcibly removed from their homelands."

Involving local tribes

Harry Wallace, chief of the state-recognized Unkechaug tribe located on the Poospatuck reservation near Mastic, initially voiced concerns because university officials had not reached out to local Native communities about their plans. He was surprised to learn of them from a reporter.

But Pierce said "it is my faithful intention to involve local communities in the development of the program," and he and Wallace subsequently spoke last week.

"They got off on the wrong foot because I shouldn’t have to find this out from the news media," Wallace said later. "Be that as it may, efforts are being made to correct that error and invitations are being extended to the local Native people in order to participate fully" in the steering committee.

"That is my understanding and that is what I’m excited about," he added.

When Stony Brook's new Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies program gets underway, it will join a handful of other programs across the state, many of them at other SUNY institutions such as SUNY Cortland, Fredonia and Oswego, which offer minors in the discipline, according to Pierce. He also noted that the University at Buffalo had a full department devoted to Indigenous Studies. 

Mishuana Goeman, chair of that department, said it was formed two years ago, though the area of study is still offered as a minor. She said they are working on developing it into a major course of study. "We are a new department, and the minor was a first step that did not require external evaluation," Goeman said. "Majors and degree granting programs require public notice and approval at many levels in the SUNY system. Minor focuses can be done internally."

'A time of reckoning'

Lori Repetti, a professor in Stony Brook's Department of Linguistics and a former chair of her department, said she's been involved in the initiative to form a Native American and Indigenous Peoples Studies program since 2018.

"The Linguistics Department houses the language courses that will be part of this minor," she said, citing courses on the Algonquin language that involve bringing in members of Long Island's Native community. 

Ultimately, Repetti said the importance of having a program on Native American and Indigenous Peoples was clear.

"I think this is really a time of reckoning in the United States, where we need to come to grips with our past," she said. "We need our students and our teachers to know about who the people are that are still here today, that had ancestors that were here before other people moved in, before the Colonial period began … It's just the right thing to do."

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