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American Indian Studies Gains Department Status

Story by
Nancy Joseph

First introduced as a center in 1970, American Indian Studies is now an Arts and Sciences department.

A dancer performs at a UW Winter Pow Wow. Students in an AIS course on pow wow, offered in conjunction with the student group First Nations@UW, help organize the annual event.

A dancer performs at a UW Winter Pow Wow. Students in an AIS course on pow wow, offered in conjunction with the student group First Nations@UW, help organize the annual event.  Media credit: Karen Orders

AIS was first developed as a center at the UW in 1970, following student protests calling for more diversity at the University. It aimed to increase the recruitment and retention of Native American students and faculty, offer courses about Native American life and history, and provide a place for Native American students on campus. In 1982, AIS established a formal affiliation with the Department of Anthropology; in 2003 it became an independent program. Its new status as a department will help strengthen existing relationships with tribal leaders in the area and attract prospective students wishing to major in AIS. 

“The creation of this department demonstrates our commitment to diversity and provides students with the unique ability to learn about American Indian cultures and customs through an interdisciplinary approach,” says Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "It also speaks to the accomplishments and dedication of the faculty and students in American Indian Studies." AIS currently has nine faculty. 

The University of Washington ranks among the top 25 American Indian-serving universities in terms of the number of Native undergraduate and graduate students. Students who choose to major in AIS will take a selection of courses related to history, contemporary Indian issues, art, and the American Indian aesthetic and world view. These students actively participate in the American Indian community and culture by hosting Pow wows each year and participating in the Native Voices Film Festival.

“This is an important and momentous movement on behalf of the Board of Regents for American Indian people and studies,” says Tom Colonnese, professor and chair of American Indian Studies. “It demonstrates a web of support that doesn’t exist at just any university and sends a strong message to students about the importance of their study and degree.”