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Native American Studies in the Department of American Culture

Where other programs stand freely, offering degrees in American Indian studies alone, Native American Studies (NAS) at the University of Michigan works in close concert with other elements of the Department of American Culture (AC) and with other disciplines. NAS at the University of Michigan recognizes that American Indians live today, and many have long lived, in a world of diversity.  Interestingly, the increasingly pluralistic nature of Native American lives has only strengthened, not eroded, the determination for more self-government.  Reservations and tribal governments have, if anything, been gaining strength and authority in recent decades.  But federal power remains important.  Whether in the United States or in Canada, Native North Americans’ lives are influenced, more deeply than those of most other peoples, by changes in policy, by judicial pronouncements, and by bureaucratic initiatives and blunders.  For these reasons, because of the tension between autonomy and metropolitan rule, it makes sense to house NAS within an academic program, such as the Department of American Culture, that dedicates itself to the strains and strands among the many peoples of America and its various structures of power.  At the University of Michigan, we seek to study American Indian cultural production, history, and current realities without losing sight of the fact that Indians are an integral part of America and the larger world.

What has been called the “Michigan model” for American studies places “ethnic studies,” broadly defined, at the center of America, not at its periphery.  Instead of searching vainly for some definitive, mainstream “American Character” or “American Identity,” instead of hiving off a separate “ethnic studies” unit, AC at Michigan plunges into tense, strained, conflicted, and negotiated zones of interaction, exchange, and intermingling among the myriad social and cultural groups that make up the United States and its domestic and overseas empire.  The Latina/o Studies program, the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies program, and the Native American Studies program have all arisen under the umbrella of the Department of American Culture.  And while the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies has developed its own, freestanding program, it stands, physically, just one floor above AC, and several of its professors have joint appointments in the Department of American Culture.  The faculty in these units, then, communicate with each other and with the Department of American Culture as a whole, in constant efforts to keep our bearings while gaining, as well, new orientations as we negotiate the dynamic currents that course through American studies.

Native American Studies deserves a prominent place in American studies.  All of what the federal government now calls “The Homeland” once fell under the sovereignty of indigenous North Americans or Hawaiians.  “The Homeland” is the ancestral homeland of indigenous peoples.