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Colleges for Native American Studies (A Thanksgiving Tale)

A table is loaded with food including turkey, sweet potato casserole, crescent roles, and more. People are preparing and picking food.


Colleges for Native American Studies (A Thanksgiving Tale)

It goes under a lot of names. Whether it’s Native American Studies, American Indian Studies, Indigenous American Studies, Aboriginal Studies, or First Nations Studies, it’s an interdisciplinary academic field spanning history, politics, and contemporary issues.

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Students graduating with a degree in Native American Studies will have a unique ability to understand the nuanced situation of Native Americans and serve as mental health counselors, social workers, or attorneys specializing in Native American issues. Work for non-profits, in museums, or with historical organizations are always great options. On a larger scale, graduates can consider becoming community organizers, lobbyists, public analysts, or legislative assistants.  

To do this, though, students have to understand everything about Native American history, including the widely mistaken events surrounding the popular American holiday of Thanksgiving. 

An Uncensored History of Thanksgiving

At the core, this idea of gathering together and sharing wholesome food is beautiful. Some of the old, embarrassing family stories that get unearthed aren’t, but there’s no Men-in-Black-style memory wipe gadget to make everyone forget about that one time you [insert the same story from when you were 6 years old told at every family gathering ever].

Chris Hemsworth in "Men in Black: International" using the neuralyzer to wipe a memory.

Rather than bringing up old childhood stories, we need to bring up the history of America, all of the blood shed by Native Americans, and the issues still faced today by this underrepresented group. 

The “Facts” of the “First” Thanksgiving 

Depending on where you source your information, there will be different retellings of the story—the most inaccurate likely being the one in American textbooks, but there’s a broader reason for that. 

American education is designed around facts, which is a sound idea, theoretically, except when it comes to certain instances in history, such as Thanksgiving. Hardly any part of the event fits neatly into a “fact,” and to understand the pain Native Americans feel regarding it requires a deeper dive into history, one that doesn’t support the beloved idea of unity or friendship depicted in "The First Thanksgiving" (1915) by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris.

The iconic "The First Thanksgiving" painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris where a pilgrim is handing food to a Native American Indian.

One of the most commonly agreed upon “facts” is that Thanksgiving first happened in 1621, which coincides with approximately one year after the pilgrims arrived. After spending their first winter on the ship and losing more than half of those who’d made the journey, the pilgrims came on land and began life ashore at Plymouth Rock. 

It was an area that was surprisingly ready for a settlement—because there had already been people living there. The Wampanoag who had primed the land for habitation, as well as in tribes ranging from Provincetown, MA, to Narragansett Bay, had all died of yellow fever or smallpox or leptospirosis complicated by Weil syndrome, or had been sold into slavery thanks to previous European landings. An estimated 45,000 Wampanoag, two-thirds of the population, died. 

A Native American named Squanto (who’s story is much more complex and sad than today’s accepted version) assisted the pilgrims in cultivating corn, extracting sap from maple trees, and catching fish. The day in question, the feast, was a harvest festival thanking the Christian God for the first successful harvest. This wasn’t considered a “Thanksgiving” by the people celebrating it, nor does it explain the meal together. 

In reality, most sources agree that it’s unlikely the Wampanoag were invited to the feast. There are two possible reasons that Wampanoag were there that make more sense to historians. One, was that the Wampanoag leader was making a diplomatic call. Since the Wampanoag were also planting on the other side of the brook, very close to the pilgrims, it’s quite possible the visit was just a normal, scheduled visit that coincided with the pilgrim’s harvest festival. 

The second theory is that the pilgrims were celebrating by shooting guns into the air, a common practice for harvest festivals elsewhere, which 90 Wampanoags warriors heard and went to investigate. Because of previous clashings with Europeans and even with the Vikings before that, the Wampanoag stayed to ensure it was only peaceful celebration, not an attack.

Meanwhile, sixteen years later, there was an actual report of the usage of the word “Thanksgiving” — but not in the context we would like, want to talk about, or celebrate. Governor John Winthrop declared an actual day specifically called thanks-giving in the fall of 1637, specifically to celebrate the slaughter of 700 Pequot men, women, and children by English and Dutch colonials. 

It’s argued that this 1937 even isn’t the basis of the current Thanksgiving holiday, but it’s sparked controversy and resulted in a protest called “The Day of Mourning,” now in its 50th year. 

A plaque commemorating the "National Day of Mourning."

Realistically, it wasn’t even the holiday we now know until more than 100 years later when New Englanders thought it resembled a holiday they were already celebrating. It wasn’t declared a national holiday until more than 30 years after that when Abraham Lincoln used this saccharine vision of a peaceful gathering between the Native Americans and pilgrims as a way to promote peace after the Civil War in 1863. 

Heck, the pilgrims weren’t even “pilgrims”; they weren’t called that until the 1880s—they considered themselves separatists. And they weren’t looking for religious freedom, they were looking to make money and establish a religious theocracy—pretty much the exact opposite. 

Even down to the very basics, such as the food that was eaten, none of what’s documented in stories or served today is accurate. There were definitely five deer brought by the Wampanoag—it’s the only thing that just about every single documentation of the first Thanksgiving agrees upon. Other than that, there was likely a fowl of some sort, but it was more likely duck or bird, along with more typical cuisine for the area, which included lobster, mussels, grapes, and corn. 

There was no sugar, butter, or flour for pies, either. 

Then again, though, we just can’t be sure what was eaten because neither William Bradford nor Edward Winslow provides a full menu—just like they don’t provide a full recounting of the events. Of Plimoth Plantation by Bradford and Mourt’s Relation by Winslow are the only two surviving recountings of that time, in that place. 

The primary issue with the pervasive idea of Thanksgiving as it stands is that it celebrates a very miniscule slice of history and overlooks the carnage, slaughter, and decimation that surrounds it, both before and after. What’s celebrated are three specific days where there was some semblance of peace without acknowledging that those three days didn’t have any impact on Native American and settler relations. 

Because Lincoln used this time period as a sign of unity post-Civil War, there’s still a lot of misinformation despite everything known—but this is why we need educators teaching the real story, historians uncovering more of what happened, and students majoring in Native American Studies. 

Real Talk About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, in truth, is a harvest festival with a different name, a tradition that far predates the 1600s, going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans having their own harvest festivals to praise their gods for their own bountiful harvests. 

Observing Thanksgiving, gathering together and celebrating being thankful for food, for friendship, for everything we have, is a good practice. Here in America, though, the rhetoric around the Native Americans associated with our idea of Thanksgiving needs to change. 

Colleges & Universities With Native American/Indigenous People Studies

One of the primary ways we can bust through these misconceptions is through education. Take a look at the courses offered at institutions you’re considering—many offer certificates, minors, and electives in American Indian studies. 

Some have complete departments dedication to Indigenous Peoples and, if you’re interested in taking this course of study on full-time, we’ve compiled a list of colleges below that feature full programs or programs with concentrations. 

Amherst College
Degree: American Studies, Native American Studies concentration

Amherst, MA

At Amherst College, students are encouraged to individualize their course of study. Within the American Studies degree, a concentration is a requirement with Native American Studies as an option. Students learn about indigenous communities, settlement, colonialism and much more, as well as assisting in the department’s commitment to community-based learning. 

Arizona State University

Degree: Native American Studies

Tempe, AZ

Offering both an undergraduate (BS) and graduate (MS) degree in Native American Studies, Arizona State University’s program focuses on indigenous communities all across the country, including in Alaska and Hawaii. Students are encouraged to conduct research and learn through internship experiences, as well as in the classroom. 

Augsburg University

Degree: American Indian Studies

Minneapolis, MN

Covering both historic and present situation of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, the American Indian Studies Department at Augsburg College offers a wide range of topics to study. Students study American Indian literature, philosophy, religion, political and social forces, sovereignty, and more. They also have the opportunity to participate in the native American Film Series, travel seminars, cultural excursions, and internships. 

Bacone College

Degree: American Indian Studies

Muskogee, OK

The Division of American Indian Studies at Bacone University offers both a bachelor’s and associate’s degree in American Indian Studies. As of 2015, the college began offering a unique concentration in Tribal Languages through which students can take courses in native language, teaching education, linguistics, and more. 

Black Hills State University

Degree: BA in American Indian Studies; minor in Lakota culture

Spearfish, SD

Black Hills State University’s American Indian Studies program has been offered since 1997 and works in cooperation with the University of South Dakota. BHSU is also home to the Center for Indian Studies that functions as a liaison among the institutions and tribal governments, promotes awareness, and offers support, encouragement, and funding for research and publication.  

Colgate University

Degree: Native American Studies

Hamilton, NY

Offering both a major and minor in Native American Studies, Colgate University’s program spans the art archaeology, culture, geography, literature, and religion of Native Peoples in North and South America. Colgate is also home to the Longyear Museum of Anthropology, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Iroquois materials in the region. 

The Evergreen State College

Degree: “Path of Study” Native American and Indigenous Programs

Olympia, WA

Through a unique path of study that combines both academic and public service programs, students at The Evergreen State College learn about Native Americans. This highly interdisciplinary course of study is founded upon Evergreen’s tribal relationships throughout the Americas and Pacific Rim. 

Fort Lewis College

Degree: Native American and Indigenous Studies program

Durango, CO

Building on the worldviews of indigenous communities and indigenous thought, the Department of Native American & Indigenous Studies offers both a major and minor for interested Fort Lewis College students. Core courses include Contemporary Issues of Native Nations, as well as Native American History and Federal Indian Policy. Students can choose from electives that include Native American Gender Issues, Oral Tradition, Cultural Heritage Preservation, and more.   

Humboldt State University

Degree: Native American Studies

Arcata, CA

In close proximity to several Native American communities, Humboldt State University offers a Bachelor of Arts in Native American Studies in an environment ripe with opportunities. The curriculum spans everything from culture and tradition to sovereignty to community development. HSU also offers minors in Native American Studies; Tribal Leadership; and Indigenous Peoples Natural Resource Use and the Environment. 

Northland College

Degree: Native American Studies

Ashland, WI

With particular attention to the Lake Superior regional native history, Northland College provides first-hand contact with local tribes as part of the Native American Studies curriculum. The program covers social, economic, and environmental situations that affect Native communities today complemented by the environmental mission of the college. 

Northern Arizona University

Degree: Applied Indigenous Studies

Flagstaff, AZ

The Applied Indigenous Studies (AIS) curriculum at Northern Arizona University covers tribal histories and cultures, federal policies, and contemporary reservation conditions. Available as both an undergraduate degree, undergraduate minor, and graduate certificate, students can choose the degree that best supports their professional goals, whether that’s with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science; a minor in Indigenous Health Studies or Tribal Public Administration—and there are other options, too! 

San Diego State University

Degree: American Indian Studies

San Diego, CA

Providing a broad understanding of Native American Peoples, the American Indian Studies program at San Diego State University exams history, culture, and contemporary life. There’s particular focus on the tribes of South California.

San Francisco State University

Degree: American Indian Studies

San Francisco, CA

Offering both a Bachelor of Arts and minor, San Francisco State University’s American Indian Studies Department also has four areas of emphasis students can choose from to tailor their degree. Students can choose from: California Indian Studies; Creative Arts & Humanities; Law, Politics; and Society, Science, Health, and Environmental Studies. 

University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Degree: Alaska Native Studies

Fairbanks, AK

The University of Alaska in Fairbanks offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in Alaska Native Studies with curriculum surrounding tribal histories and culture, governmental policies and local indigenous affairs with emphasis on those in Alaska. UAF also offers a minor in Tribal Management for those interested in working within tribal and local governments or organizations. 

University of Arizona

Degree: American Indian Studies (AIS)

Tucson, AZ

The University of Arizona offers both a bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and minor in American Indian Studies. The fundamentals of the program include: Sovereignty, Culture Diversity, Native Voices, and Indigenous Knowledge, as well as Natural Resources and Economic Development. The University of Arizona is home to the Native American Research Training Center, the Native Nations Institute, and more.  

University of California at Los Angeles

Degree: Native American Studies

Los Angeles, CA

One of the oldest programs in Native American studies, UCLA is also well-known and highly ranked. Students can earn a minor, undergraduate, and master’s degree in Native American studies. 

University of Connecticut

Degree: Native American and Indigenous Studies

Storrs, CT

Although a little bit different than previous entries, the University of Connecticut offers a full degree in Native American and Indigenous Studies through its Individualized and Interdisciplinary Studies Program, or IMJR. UConn also offers a minor in NAIS through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Degree: American Indian/Native American Studies (2)

Manoa, HI

The University of Hawai’i at Manoa as a whole is focused on preserving the rich history of Hawaiian natives, and students earning a degree in American Studies can individualize their program to focus on American Indian studies. The university also offers a master’s program with a concentration in Native American Studies. 

University of Minnesota-Morris

Degree: Native American Studies

Morris, MN

Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Minnesota in Morris covers the sovereignty and diversity of indigenous cultures across North America. 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Degree: Native American Studies

Lincoln, NE

The University of Nebraska offers both a major and minor in Native American Studies. Providing a multi-discplinary study of indigenous peoples, the program focuses on tribal cultures of the Great Plains. Students will learn about Native belief systems, post-contact histories, oral traditions, and more. The Native American Studies Program brings Indigenous leaders, scholars, and artists to campus and hosts lectures on a variety of topics, from gaming to the Indian Health Care system, from the dispossession of land to bison management programs. The university is also home to the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium and the Lincoln Indian Center. 

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Degree: American Studies, concentration in American Indian and Indigenous Studies

Chapel Hill, NC

Housed in the Department of American Studies, the American Indian and Indigenous Studies major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focuses on cross-cultural interaction, diversity, globalization, art, and social justice. For hands-on experience, UNC-Chapel Hill majors and minors have secured internships with the federal government and National Congress American Indians. 

University of North Dakota

Degree: American Indian Studies

Grand Forks, ND

The University of North Dakota offers a Bachelor’s in American Indian Studies, as well as a minor. Exploring American indian perspectives and cultures, the curriculum is designed to make students critical thinkers and effective communicators. 

University of Oklahoma

Degree: Native American Studies

Norman, OK

The Department of Native American Studies has roots dating back to the beginnings of the University of Oklahoma. One of the earliest institutions to make American Indian subject matter a curricular focus, OU has grown to serve educational needs for both Native and non-Native students. While the degree is known to be flexible so students can best reach their professional goals, there is always particular emphasis on Tribal Governance and Policy, Indigenous Media and Arts, Language, History, and Cultural Knowledge. 

University of South Dakota

Degree: Native American Studies

Vermillion, SD

The undergraduate degree in Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota is designed to prepare students to effectively communicate and establish mutually beneficial relationships with tribal communities. Students can also opt for a Lakota Studies Specialization or participate in USD’s annual Native American Essay Competition. 

University of Washington-Seattle Campus

Degree: Native American Studies (2)

Seattle, WA

The Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington has a collective goal of fostering indigenous wellness and cross-cultural understanding. Students can earn a major or minor in American Indian Studies, as well as a Master’s degree in Native American Documentary Film, Video, and New Digital Media. 

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Degree: American Indian Studies

Eau Claire, WI

The American Indian Studies program was founded in 1996. Through this program, students at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire learn through research and hands-on collaboration with faculty. The most unique aspect of this particular program is the Ojibwe language component, which is offered online. Students also have access to a special collection in the McIntyre Library hosting American Indian artifacts. 

Vassar College

Degree: American Studies, sequence in Native American Studies

Poughkeepsie, NY

Vassar College’s American Studies program features a sequence in Native American Studies that examines Indigenous cultures, politics, histories, and literatures. Courses from previous years have included: Indigenous and Oppositional Media; Transnational Literature; Feminism, Knowledge, and Practice; Amerindian Religions and Persistence. 


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