Native studies is a relatively new discipline. Although there is no common definition, it is generally distinguished as dialogue between Western and Aboriginal perspectives to a critique of Native-state relations. Many focus on the need for an Aboriginal perspective that encompasses Aboriginal history grounded in colonization, traditional knowledge and language, Aboriginal rights, and decolonization focusing on healing and wellness. Native studies contributes to an awareness of issues, priorities, and events as they relate to Native peoples. Others see Native American studies as a critique of dominant society, history, and relations. The term Native studies is used primarily in Canada to mean a study of Aboriginal peoples, defined in the 1982 Canadian Constitution as Indians, Métis, and Inuit. In the United States, frequently used terms are American Indian studies; Native American studies; or, alternatively, Indigenous studies, meaning a study of Native American peoples or Indigenous peoples internationally. Emerging from disciplines such as history, ethnohistory, and anthropology, it is touched upon by other fields, such as political science, law, art, community development, social science, and medicine. Native studies has become multidisciplinary and holistic in approach. Native academics are currently pushing the boundaries of Native studies to include academic inquiry written in the Native languages and informed by their traditional knowledge. There has been a movement by Native peoples to establish their own institutions of higher learning.
Recognition for the Need for a Separate Discipline
Acknowledgment for Native studies separate from other disciplines was first shown in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Previously, Native issues had been discussed almost exclusively among anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians. According to Noel Dyck, these early interests included traditional ethnology, acculturation studies, and Native-state relations. Anthropologists and historians first attempted to reconstruct, analyze, and document the precontact life before extensive European incursion. Ethnology consists of the examination of acculturation among Native communities. Native peoples were forced to assimilate and integrate into Euro-Canadian and Euro-American culture, as well as having to abandon their own culture and languages in order to be a part of the national whole. Fieldwork was conducted concerning the changes that were taking place within the Aboriginal communities brought about by assimilation policies and practices. The third category is studies of Native-state relations, which focus on the characteristics of the relations between Native peoples and the government, institutions, or agencies. A large topic of interest is the difficult issues of land claims, Aboriginal rights, and federal Native policies.
During and after World War II, it became apparent that tensions between Native peoples and governments were problematic. Again, anthropologists began to investigate changes caused by these relationships and state agencies, the Department of Indian Affairs (Canada), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (U.S.). There was recognition of changes taking place with Native peoples at the community and individual level. Scholars explored the activities, procedures, and administration of Native affairs at all levels of government. Most of the published material on Native peoples before the 1970s was written by anthropologists employed by museums, universities, and the government, and read mainly by these scholars.
Even though research was based on the lives of Native Americans, most results or analysis never reached the Aboriginal communities themselves. In the 1970s, Native leaders voiced their concern over the anthropologists working in their communities. They were tired of being studied to death by outside experts, and they wanted to have ownership and control over, access to, and participation in the research in their communities. This became a new development in research—anthropologists’ and other researchers’ roles have shifted from power and decision-making roles to partnerships with Native communities. Today, Native communities are establishing protocols and bodies to manage research done in their communities. New bodies are formed, such as elders’ committees to approve and oversee research to legislation to regulate research. Many communities are insisting on final joint approval of research results conducted in their territories. These measures are in place because of past abuses and misappropriation of culture and knowledge. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing concern from Native communities over protection of their traditional knowledge under intellectual property and cultural rights laws and declarations, particularly their medicinal knowledge. Internationally, there has been growing interest because of unauthorized reproduction of traditional designs, the publishing of secret knowledge, and issues around access and benefits. These and other issues are being discussed and negotiated at meetings of the World Intellectual Property Organization and other international venues.
In the past, states have sought to resolve the “Native problem” by eliminating Native rights, resulting in attention to the need for Native rights protection, legal decisions protecting those rights, and identification of the need for Native studies. The 1969 Canadian government White Paper, in fact, proposed to solve the “Native problem” by eliminating Indian rights granted under the Canadian Indian Act of 1876 and transferring administration to provinces and territories. The resulting public and Native outcry brought attention and extensive media coverage to Native issues across the country. The United States had implemented a similar termination policy prior to this, but eventually it was overturned. In the United States, Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924; in Canada, citizenship was not granted until the 1960s.
Also, in 1969, Native American literature boomed with the publication of numerous protest books written by Native authors, many of which became bestsellers. During the same year, with the increase of interest in Native issues, three postsecondary institutions began to offer Native studies programs: the Navajo Community College and the University of Minnesota in the United States, and Trent University in Canada. These schools would mark the beginning of a growing field within social sciences.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Native studies literature by anthropologists was predominantly ethnohistory, ethnology, community studies, and Native-state relations. There were literary and oral accounts of life histories, detailing the positive and negative impacts of the social, economic, and ecological consequences caused by colonization. Ethnological studies focused on Native cultural practices and beliefs. This expanded to studies of social organization, kinship, and domestic relations. There was some literature on traditional botanical knowledge, traditional medicine, and material culture. There was much interest in the significance of traditional economic activities such as hunting, fishing, and trapping. Anthropologists conducting research in communities considered themselves participants in these studies, which typically looked at change and adaptation within specific Native communities compared to other Native communities’ experiences and identities.
Topics and Issues Discussed Within Native Studies Courses
The purpose of having Native studies as a separate field resulted from the hugeness of the task and the relevance to the national agenda. The Native and academic communities recognized that a large portion of North American history and experience was not being studied and told. Native studies was absent from school curricula and education, and what was being taught was biased and simply inaccurate. Native peoples also wanted their story and perspective to be taught as part of a national decolonization process. Native students and leaders demanded separate programs to teach their traditional lifestyles and perspectives in educational institutions. They wanted Native studies programs that taught their histories, philosophies, language, and traditions. These programs— situated in academia and accessible to the wider population—would allow for a greater understanding of Native peoples in a national context. The discipline would not only educate non-Natives by acknowledging misconceptions and stereotypes associated with Native Americans, but also serve as a means to acknowledge that Native peoples have a significant national heritage and played a central role in the founding and molding of the North American history and culture. For Native students, their culture is celebrated, their history forms part of the national history, colonization is understood in the context of decolonization, and hope is restored for the healing and wellness of Native peoples.
Native studies has grown to include history, traditional and contemporary health and healing, art and literature, political science, business, law, linguistics, economics, and environmental science. There are now a number of Native Studies departments across North America, and in addition, many academic departments and disciplines now include Native studies scholars and courses. The result has been the indigenization of other fields and disciplines with both Native and non-Native scholars. This is indicative of the relevance of Native perspectives and knowledge on national issues and what traditional knowledge brings to ecology, science, law, development, and other fields.
The history of Native peoples is an integral part of Native studies. Understanding how Native peoples adapted and evolved from precontact to postcontact periods is critical to understanding the present. A thorough examination of Native peoples’ history allows North Americans to become conscious of the magnitude of influence that Aboriginal peoples had on North American society. Native peoples have made contributions to the food we eat, our language, our institutions, our place names, and our view of the world. Native studies gives us another look at history with Native peoples as participants, recognizing their struggles, injustices, and inequalities exclusive of former biases and stereotypes.
The history of Native peoples’ health is central to the history of the Americas. At contact, there was a huge decline in Native populations because they had no natural immunities to European diseases, such as smallpox and influenza. Historians have speculated that without great losses in Native populations, the history of the Americas would be more like China’s, with Europeans making only minor incursions at the edges. Native peoples still have the poorest health compared to the rest of the population. The history of their health falls into two major periods: the reservation period, characterized by deaths from tuberculosis caused by poor nutrition and inadequate housing; and the past 50 years, characterized by heart and respiratory diseases and diabetes from a poor diet and inactive lifestyles. Poor health has contributed to colonization. Assimilation policies directed at Native peoples, such as outlawing traditional culture and residential schools, have contributed to their high suicide rates and substance abuse. In response to ill health, Native peoples are revitalizing their language, culture, and healing ways. There have been some remarkable turnarounds in Native communities as a result of using traditional healing techniques such as healing circles and sweats and purification ceremonies.
Art and literature have created effective dialogue between Natives and non-Natives, contributing to growing awareness of Native issues, culture, and teachings. Art has always been a source of expression and communication, beginning with trade in Native products such as canoes, baskets, and so on to souvenirs such as beadwork and leather products. Contemporary Native art includes paintings, jewelry, and traditional arts, such as totem poles and masks. Today, Native arts participate in all areas of art, sculpture, music, dance, and literature.
Native peoples are said to be the first ecologists. Native concepts such as a living earth, making decisions for future generations, and living in harmony have made a significant impact on how the world sees the environment. Native peoples are making contributions to the environmental movement and environmental science. The Inuit in arctic Canada are noticing significant changes in the environment caused by global warming, such as shorter winters. The Inuit have expressed their concerns internationally about the changing environment and the danger of toxins in their food chain that affect their way of life.
Mi’kMaq scientists in Cape Briton Island have studied their environment and teamed up with local communities to reverse the adverse effect of polluted waters and a decline in shellfish. Scientists are working with traditional knowledge holders to improve the environment, knowing that these people have accumulated knowledge over hundreds of years.
Native studies now covers a wide range of disciplines and fields of study. There are Native studies academic journals, and it is clearly a growing field of scholarly study. Anthropologists and historians continue to work, but their methods have changed; methods such as participatory action research and research partnerships have replaced older methodologies. Native studies continues to be a catalyst in informing and educating the public and strengthening Aboriginal communities.
- Dyke, N. (1990). Cultures, communities and claims: Anthropology and Native studies in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 22(3), 40-55.
- Price, J. A. (1978). Native studies: American and Canadian Indians. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.