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Finding an ‘academic home’: The push for Native American and Indigenous Studies at Princeton

On the left, brown woodgrain. On the right, a gray glassy surface with text overtop reading: "EFFRON CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF AMERICA"
The Effron Center for the Study of America is located in Morrison Hall.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

In March 1970, the University invited Native scholars, professionals, artists, and historians to campus for the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars. At the convention, chaired by Alfonso Ortiz, assistant professor of anthropology, attendees discussed Indigenous Studies and its future in higher education.

According to Native American essayist and novelist Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the gathering called for “the development by Indians of bodies of indigenous knowledge,” and specifically for the development of “Native American Studies as an Academic Discipline.” 


Today, Princeton remains one of only three Ivy League schools without an official academic program in Native American and Indigenous Studies. However, since that gathering in 1970, students and faculty have pushed to expand offerings in Indigenous studies. 

For example, in 2011, Rebecca Rosen GS ’18 and Joshua Garrett-Davis GS ’20 founded the Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group (PAIISWG) as a hub for graduate students and faculty who work on Native American and Indigenous studies. A few years later, former president of Natives at Princeton (NAP) Jessica Lambert ’22 helped develop the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP) webpage, which centralizes information and resources about Indigenous studies, as well as events and a database of associated students and faculty. Additionally, initiatives like Nuclear Princeton have allowed for more in-depth exploration of Indigenous studies topics at Princeton and beyond. 

Though Indigenous studies course offerings have increased overall, they have fluctuated in number over the years and are spread across departments, most highly concentrated in History, Latin American Studies, and Anthropology.

Since 2021, the University has hired at least four new professors who focus on Native American and Indigenous Studies. This aligns with the University’s longstanding institutional tradition of cluster hiring, which involves hiring multiple faculty into one or multiple departments around particular research topics in order to “bolster institutional excellence by increasing diversity and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration.”


After many years of advocacy, The Daily Princetonian spoke with professors and students on the path forward for Native American and Indigenous Studies at Princeton.

“People are hungry for this”: Teaching Indigenous Studies at Princeton

Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Ellis is a citizen of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. The University hired her two years ago as part of a “student-led push to build and develop Indigenous Studies.”

According to Ellis, one of the core pieces of Indigenous Studies is actively engaging with tribal communities and considering the often “severe implications” of academic work for contemporary Native nations. “When outsiders come in and research us, and they tell us what they think is wrong with us, that then does in fact shape the way the federal government is going to implement policy that can constrain our lives [and] open up or close off funding sources,” she said.

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“There are few words as dirty in Native communities as research,” explained Ellis, "because of the way that we’ve exploited Native peoples for generations … so we reckon with that legacy.”

In Ellis’ teaching and research, she explores the question: “What is the responsibility, as an institution with [many] resources, to contemporary tribal nations, to the people whose lands we inhabit?”

The University is currently building out a minor in Native American Studies through the Effron Center for the Study of America, though there is no definitive timeline for its launch. 

In December 2020, Princeton announced it would establish an endowed professorship of Indigenous Studies through the $5 million gift endowed by Wendy and Erich Schmidt ’76. Four years later, the position was filled by Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui as a joint appointment of the Effron Center for the Study of America and the Department of Anthropology. 

In both the Anthropology department and the Effron Center, Kauanui noted, "I kind of have the best of both worlds.”

Professor Kauanui will be working toward this formation of a Native American studies minor within the Effron Center.

Kauanui is Kanaka/Native Hawaiian and focuses on Hawaiian indigeneity, Indigenous sovereignty, the land back movement, anarchist history and activism, and global indigeneity. She will be leaving her position of 24 years as a professor at Wesleyan and coming to Princeton in Fall 2024, to begin teaching courses in Spring 2025.

Like Ellis, Kauanui reckons with colonial legacy and practices community-based scholarship. 

She also emphasized the importance of “decolonizing knowledge in the academy” by “speaking with different fields and disciplines, and challenging some of the conventions.” 

Professor Tessa Desmond, a research specialist in the School of Public and International Affairs and the Director of The Seed Farm, expressed a possible point for consideration regarding creating a cultural studies department. Creating a separate department for Indigenous studies could “silo” the field into a minor, and therefore discourage the inclusion of Indigeneity into disciplines across the board. However, creating an Indigenous Studies department has its own merits.

“Sometimes, you can create a central department and it ghettoizes a field, and the University feels like it doesn’t have to do more,” said Desmond, claiming there to be pros and cons of both. “I think there’s a real value in having a department and there’s also a real value if there’s real support for a cross-disciplinary effort to build a shared framework and set of goals," she reconciled.

Kauanui has not been hired to form or chair a new Indigenous Studies department, but to contribute to pre-existing Princeton departments. However, on the issue of “siloing,” Kauanui responded by saying “both-and.” She believes forming a department depends on the institutional climate and what people on the ground are interested in doing. However, she confirmed that the University will continue to recruit faculty to the broader initiative of Indigenous studies. “As I understand it,” she said, “I don't think I will be the last hire in this area.”

With regards to whether Indigenous Studies should become its own academic department or be holistically incorporated into many departments, Vice Provost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Shawn Maxam said, “I think you can do both. I don’t think you have to choose.” 

Maxam explained his perspective on the University’s approach. He notes the importance of having “a center of gravity, like an anchor,” but also believes that approaching Indigenous Studies as a multidisciplinary effort will bring “a lot of vitality.” 

Ellis also commented on the potential of an Indigenous Studies department at Princeton, identifying the current priorities as increasing the Indigenous studies courses offered and hiring more professors, but “not all at once.”

Professor Ikaika Ramones is Kānaka ‘Ōiwi — Native Hawaiian — and Ilocano, and joined the Department of Anthropology faculty in Fall 2023. Ramones was hired along with Associate Professor of Religion Garry Sparks who focuses on Mesoamerican traditions in the same cluster. Ramones spoke about their journey of becoming a Princeton professor and experience so far in their first year here. 

“I was really drawn to Princeton, first because of my department and how wonderful it is, [and] also I was just excited to see how the institution is really serious about building and expanding Indigenous Studies,” they said. They added that they have seen how the University is “putting in the effort, the time, and the thoughtfulness, and it is actually having results.”

Ramones commented on the importance of “deeper dive” courses in Indigenous studies, as this builds an arc for students to follow. “It’s not just the intro courses, but also what’s next — application, topical areas, [so] that we can make it a true field and not just [a] one-off,” Ramones explained, adding that “there’s an intention to actually build continuity.”

Ramones also offered their perspective on the importance of Indigenous Studies for Indigenous students.

For Indigenous students, Indigenous studies is “more than just seeing yourself in a syllabus … It’s the ability to talk through those issues at Princeton in a course.”

Kauanui said she is also looking forward to being at a campus that has a critical mass of Native students, which she said Wesleyan lacks. “I'm excited to work with all students at Princeton, and especially excited to be able to engage with Native American and other Indigenous students,” said Kauanui.

Noah Collins, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and graduate student in the Anthropology department, echoed this sentiment. He is currently taking Professor Ramones’ graduate course, “Anti-Colonial Theory and Practice.”

“There have been other courses that have been about Indigenous peoples or Native Americans, but this is the first course about theory,” emphasized Collins.

Ramones also sees a desire for Indigenous studies on this campus from both Native and non-Native students, believes Indigenous Studies is open to students of all backgrounds and disciplines

“People are hungry for this kind of coverage because it covers a lot of issues that people want to understand,” he explained. “Living and learning on this land, there are a lot of questions people have about history, and ethics, and what it means to address some of our social issues by centering Indigenous epistemologies, and students want to understand that.”

Ellis, the instructor of “Introduction to Native American History,” and has seen many students enter the course with no relationship with Native people or prior knowledge of Indigenous histories.

“Students often tell me I’m one of the first Native folks they’ve met,” noted Ellis, “which is troubling, so [the class is] designed to be really broad and interdisciplinary.”

Maxam rebukes the assumption that “people study who they are,” saying that “People have many identities and they go into many different disciplines. So partially you’re just going to bring your perspectives and lived experiences into that, and that’s going to actually allow us to ask new types of questions.”

Ixtle Montuffar ’27, a Hñähñu Indigenous student from Central Mexico, is Vice President of Natives at Princeton (NAP).

Montuffar has noticed that non-Indigenous students are often unaware of Indigenous histories. They explained, “Indigenous people are not discussed enough and even the harms that this country has done to Indigenous and Black people, and still does today, are not recognized adequately.”

Samuel Lee Regan ’26, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, views Princeton as responsible for ensuring that students are educated on matters of Indigeneity. “The country is suffering from [a] lack of knowledge, but when I think of the resources available here, it’s especially disturbing and almost looks nefarious,” said Regan.

Ella Weber ’25, a tribal citizen of MHA Nation (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara), echoed that many students do not understand the history of the land they live on. She has experienced some inquiries about blood quantum — namely, the measure of how much of one’s blood is “Native blood” — which she found to be “a little bit tone deaf.” However, Weber “[doesn’t] hold it against people” because she understands the “systemic lack of knowledge surrounding Native issues.”

“If you’re not exposed to these [Native issues] or [don’t] know how to talk about it,” said Weber, “you’re not going to really know how to approach it.”

“Headed in a better direction”: Indigenous students advocate for more curricular opportunities"

Sydney Eck ’24, an economics major of Cherokee Nation descent who was formerly a leader of Natives at Princeton, noted a desire for more resources and believes that an official department is “vital.”

Eck is a former head editor for the Features section of the ‘Prince.’

“I think we should [have an Indigenous studies department],” said Eck. “But I do think that it’s something that needs to be done with a lot of care.” She explained, “If it’s not done with care, and if it’s not done with intentionality, and it's not done with current engagement with Indigenous communities, [it can end up] doing more harm than good.”

Eck believes that having a department would guarantee that faculty, administration, and students are committed to exploring these issues and having “these pathways of knowledge preserved.” 

Without a department, Eck is uncertain that professors would make commitments to include Indigeneity in their classes due to a fear of mistakes, lack of “personal awareness,” or a perception that Indigeneity isn’t “relevant to their specific topic area.”

“When you don’t provide the resources, structure and support to make those things happen,” explained Eck, “It’s going to fall by the wayside.”

“The University is a colonial project,” said Regan. “It will always be, forever. You can’t really teach true Indigenous studies within a colonial framework. It’s not possible.”

However, Regan still affirmed that they “definitely want [an Indigenous Studies] department,” and they observed “desire and a need” for it.

Regan is intending to major in Art and Archeology. However, if Indigenous Studies was offered at Princeton they said they would major in it. 

Kauanui also reckons with the difficulty of teaching Indigenous Studies within a colonial framework. “Anthropology has a long legacy of being wrapped up with colonialism,” noted Kauanui. “At the same time, as a discipline in the U.S., it's done more than most disciplines [to] decolonize,” she added. Additionally, American Studies has been challenged and remade by scholars in critical ethnic studies, as well as Native American and Indigenous Studies. 

For Montuffar, the lack of an Indigenous studies department is “very disappointing.” They added that having a solidified department would be “representative of the fact that critical Native American and Indigenous Studies is not just this emerging field of study, but it’s been something that's been done for a while, and will continue to occur,” asking, “So why shouldn't there be [a] specific department for that?”

However, Montuffar did express, however, their hope that “we’re headed in a better direction.” They state that they want more Indigenous “staff that are designated to support Indigenous students.”

According to Montuffar, one way the University could improve is by creating a mandated course that “[emphasizes] understanding the land that we occupy and the history and legacy of this school and of this country.” 

In 2021, the University convened an institutional advisory faculty committee to provide recommendations to the University regarding Indigenous and Native Americans initiatives and opportunities. 

According to Maxam, the committee considers questions related to the University’s colonial legacy, including: “How does Princeton reconcile our own history? How do we think about the ways in which we do research and scholarship and how to have native and indigenous epistemologies embedded into it and integrated? What do we think about outreach [to Indigenous communities] and what does outreach look like?”

In order to further explore some of these questions, the committee will soon start visiting other institutions that Maxam explained, “have had longer histories with both building relationships with tribal nations, or thinking about notions of collaborative research,” to better understand what would be “mutually beneficial for the tribal nations and communities we’re actually in relationship with.”

During her first year at Princeton, Ella Weber ’25 noted that there weren’t any permanent Indigenous faculty members researching Indigenous studies. Weber credits the progress made since then to Jessica Lambert ’22 and Keely Toledo ’22, former co-presidents of Natives at Princeton

Weber explained that Indigenous students were involved in the search for a new Indigenous studies professor. Students were given the opportunity to have coffee chats with potential hires, “speak very candidly about our experiences,” and ask them how they approached certain issues. They were also able to write letters about the candidates after their meeting, though Weber is unsure of the influence their input had. 

Weber expanded on what Indigenous students would want from a faculty member. “We want more than just a professor that just stays strictly on the academic side,” Weber explained. “We want a professor that’s going to advocate for our well being and more resources for Native students.”

Weber added that the combined work of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty can make more change than students alone.

“Students just themselves are not going to be able to make too much of a change … very quickly,” noted Weber. “But … together, we’re actually able to combine our resources and actually make the University listen to us quicker.”

Weber sees a desire to learn from the student population, and a “willing[ness] … to put in the work.”

“Getting a department is not the end-all be-all,” noted Weber. “[They] actually need to put in the resources to keep it there and keep it growing.” 

“It will be just nice for students to feel like they have an academic home,” said Weber.

Editor’s Note: Four professors have joined faculty as part of cluster-hiring: Associate History professor  Elizabeth Ellis, associate Religion professor Garry Sparks, anthropology professor Ikaika Ramones, and Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. 

Raphaela Gold is an associate Features editor and head Archives editor for the ‘Prince.’

Mira Eashwaran is a staff Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

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