After Years of Advocacy, Native American/Indigenous Studies Minor Takes Root at Scripps

By Rachel Morrison
Tongva Elder Barbara Drake welcomed members of the Indigenous and Claremont Colleges community in a 2018 celebration of the spring equinox at the Bernard Field Station. Photo credit: The Student Life.

Growing up, Mischa Brown ’23, a biochemistry major and member of the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq People, noticed a disparity between the quality and availability of healthcare afforded to her people versus their non-Native counterparts. “Many Indigenous communities in Alaska, as well as the lower 48, don’t have access to adequate healthcare,” she says. “On top of that, Indigenous people face a lot of racism in our healthcare system.”

When she came to Scripps last year, she thought that the best way to combine her passions—healthcare and her people—would be to become a physician who serves Indigenous communities. Yet, while Scripps provided a clear foundation upon which to launch a medical career, the College did not have a formal Native American/Indigenous Studies (NAIS) degree program. “I felt like I needed to become involved and support the cause to achieve my academic desires,” Brown says.

She joined the Indigenous Peer Mentor Program (IPMP) as a first-year student, where she met other Indigenous students who had a strong desire to study NAIS. She and a small group of students and faculty members started meeting in the spring of 2020, eventually working together to write a NAIS-minor proposal.

This past November, that proposal was passed, and Scripps now offers a minor in Native American/Indigenous Studies. The minor is a six-course interdisciplinary program that aims to introduce students to topics related to Native Americans and Indigenous peoples from around the world, with special focus on settler colonialism, Indigenous history, contemporary communities, and Indigenous ways of thinking.

“There have been so many people working tirelessly to get this going for years,” says Kawaiuluhonua Scanlan ’21, who is Native Hawaiian and Samoan and who, along with Brown and faculty, helped draft the minor proposal. Indeed, the effort to integrate more Native American and Indigenous programming into The Claremont Colleges has a long history, one that Assistant Professor of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures and core faculty member of the NAIS program Claudia Arteaga knows well.

“When I started working at Scripps in 2015, there was already a long history of various efforts advocating for a NAIS program at The Claremont Colleges,” Arteaga recalls. Sheila Walker, professor of psychology and affiliate of Africana studies, Laura Vausbinder Hockett Endowed Professorship, recalls that about 10 years ago, there was a small group of Indigenous students across the 5Cs called the Native Student Alliance (NSA), of which she was their faculty advisor for a few years. Walker worked with Scott Scoggins (PI ’10), liaison for community engagement efforts at several colleges, as well as founder and director for Pitzer College’s Native American Summer Pipeline to College program. Scoggins, Walker notes, did incredible work serving over many years as a liaison with local Native and Indigenous communities to help recruit Indigenous students for the 5Cs.

These early efforts gained momentum, and faculty from the 5Cs began offering more Native American/Indigenous studies courses and supporting those who continued to lead efforts to create an intercollegiate major, among them Scripps Associate Professor of Music Cándida Jáquez.

In 2014, the NSA put together a draft proposal for an intercollegiate NAIS major. “Unfortunately, that proposal never got into the Colleges’ agenda to be voted on,” says Arteaga, who then joined a 5C working group of students and faculty in 2015. Members of that group included faculty, alumna Elizabeth Shulterbrandt ’12, and then-student Carolaan Duro ’20, who is Maara’yam and Kumeyaay. Indigenous students from other Claremont Colleges later formed IAN! (Indigenize Academia Now!). “Faculty and students envisioned a program that, besides holding an interdisciplinary NAIS-centered curriculum, could also provide students with a system of support, meaning an empowered cultural center and funding opportunities for scholarships,” says Arteaga. “Not less important, we also hoped to get tenure-track lines to hire Native American/Indigenous scholars.” Other students who played a pivotal role in NAIS advocacy include Olivia Irwin (PO ’20) (Denaakk’e and Iñupiaq) and Jonas Banta (PI ’20) (Mandan).

However, this group realized that the type of robust, intercollegiate program they envisioned was still a way off, as it had been challenging to obtain coordinated, administrative support from all five colleges, notes the NAIS working group. So, in 2020, Arteaga, along with Associate Professor of American Studies and Chair of the Department of American Studies Wendy Cheng, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Gabriela Morales, Assistant Professor of Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures Martín Vega, Brown, and Scanlan formed a small working group aimed at elaborating a NAIS program but as a minor and only at Scripps. “Our hope was to create a steppingstone to build an intercollegiate program, to advocate for institutional support for hiring Indigenous faculty, and to recruit and support Native American and Indigenous students. In that way, we will truly embrace this long history of Indigenous students’ efforts across the 5Cs over the years to get curriculum changes and institutional acknowledgment at their home institutions,” says Arteaga.

Scripps College has long been making moves toward diversifying its campus and curriculum. In 2014, the College launched its Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Initiative, with a stated goal of fostering a more inclusive campus environment. In IDEA’s 2020 year-end report, it outlined future recommendations related to Native American and Indigenous studies, including adopting the NAIS minor, eventually creating an intercollegiate NAIS department, hiring more Indigenous faculty, fundraising for NAIS scholarships and other initiatives to enhance the College’s connection to Indigenous communities, and a webpage created and led by Native/Indigenous faculty, staff, and students that documents the ongoing histories, cultures, and experiences of Native communities as well as the College’s placement on Tongva land.

“Tongva people have been inhabiting California for 4,500 years,” explains Arteaga. “As we know, it is not only a matter of recognizing that we are on Native land, which is a good starting point, but of understanding that with that recognition comes certain responsibilities. It is not just a matter of learning more about the history, but of learning how to understand history from Indigenous perspectives. This can lead to a more regenerative relationship with the land, so we can start inhabiting it in a critical way.”

Long term, advocates see NAIS programming as a tool for overturning longstanding gaps in educational access and attainment for Native/Indigenous students. “Indigenous students are not afforded the same educational opportunities as their peers, and it’s time we do something about it,” says Scanlan. According to Brown, “These types of programs help to increase support for Indigenous students on campus while also allowing them to study their own culture and traditions. Additionally, Native American and Indigenous studies can help to enrich the educational background of the student body.”

For Arteaga, the NAIS minor is the fulfillment of one of the key imperatives of the College’s mission. “Scripps College is joining this wave of increasing academic visibility from the vantage point of Scripps as a liberal arts college, whose structure has the potential to create close-knit relationships between faculty and students, institutions, and Native communities around,” she says.

Adds Scanlan, “There is so much work to be done and we aren’t finished yet!”