New courses elevate knowledge of Indigenous peoples
For too long, the Indigenous peoples of North America have been overlooked or pushed to the side. Stereotypes of American Indians have been commonplace across media and even academic texts.
With the launch of the first of several new courses in American Indian and Indigenous Studies during Winter Quarter 2022, however, Jonathan Byrn hopes to contribute to a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and their roles in the United States and North American culture as a whole.
“The purpose of American Indian and Indigenous Studies [AIIS] is to move the narrative from ‘studying’ American Indians or Indigenous peoples to one of learning about, from and alongside Indigenous peoples,” said Byrn, instructor of ethnic studies and American Indian and Indigenous studies.
That’s particularly important at Yakima Valley College, which is located on Yakama Nation treaty land in a state with 29 federally-recognized Native nations.
“American Indian and Indigenous Studies is about talking about the quiet parts out loud and exploring how the vast number of Indigenous cultures have survived and thrived in the face of genocidal actions and pressures to assimilate.” — Jonathan Byrn
Byrn noted that, at one time, exhibits on Indigenous peoples and cultures in the U.S. were housed in zoos alongside animals or in natural history museums alongside extinct species such as mammoths and dinosaurs. Indirectly, that equated them to a sub-human status alongside other peoples from across the world.
Moreover, scientists across various fields viewed the extinction of Indigenous cultures in North America as inevitable in the late 1800s, and the U.S. government took steps to speed this process up, attempting to ensure their assimilation or absorption would occur to relinquish treaty obligations.
“Indigenous peoples have long been the subject of scientific inquiry, yet many were not allowed to take part or lead research themselves until the mid-20th century or later by U.S. law and practice,” Byrn said. “AIIS is about talking about the quiet parts out loud and exploring how the vast number of Indigenous cultures have survived and thrived in the face of genocidal actions and pressures to assimilate.”
In winter quarter, Bryn will teach the first two new courses, “AIIS 101 Introduction to American Indian and Indigenous Studies” and “AIIS 209 Native American History to 1815.” The first course will introduce students to the discipline of AIIS and give them a springboard to further studies at YVC or elsewhere. The second course digs into specific topics and events deeper than is possible in general U.S. history courses, as well as pre-U.S. and pre-colonial histories and cultures. In particular, students will learn from Indigenous oral histories, stories and accounts of events.
Two more courses will be offered for the first time during spring quarter. “AIIS 210 Native American History Since 1815” will cover more recent histories and contemporary issues Native Nations face in the U.S. including the Reservation Era, the Indian Wars, boarding schools, social justice movements, and Indigenous resurgence and economic development. Meanwhile, “AIIS 202 Contemporary Issues of Native Nations,” which requires students to take AIIS 101 first, will break down issues facing Indigenous peoples today and how Native Nations respond to these challenges in contemporary societies. Byrn said the course will encourage students to explore in-depth how Indigenous peoples go about the process of decolonization, the role of tribal sovereignty, and larger social issues like missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, historical trauma, environmental issues and cultural preservation.
Through these classes, Byrn wants students to discover why Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are so important to understanding many things in the world around them, ranging from cultural practices to climate change, astronomy and even fields like environmental science.
“I hope students will take away new knowledge and understanding about the role Indigenous cultures played in making our society into what it is today as well as the real histories and stories of the numerous, vibrant and thriving Indigenous cultures across North America,” Byrn said.
“Cultural exposure and inclusion is a major part of AIIS and it will be a cornerstone of the courses we will be offering here at YVC.” — Jonathan Byrn
Beyond this year, additional AIIS courses will be introduced during the 2023-24 academic year, including offerings that will explore Native American representations in film and American Indian education.
Byrn noted that he and other faculty are working to include cultural practitioners and tribal citizens within classes whenever possible.
“Cultural exposure and inclusion is a major part of AIIS and it will be a cornerstone of the courses we will be offering here at YVC,” he said. “This will likely take the role of guest speakers, visits and even field trips if we can work things out with the nation.”
For YVC students interested in taking their studies even further, Byrn noted that the new courses were designed to be part of a direct transfer program with the University of Washington’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies program for students interested in earning their bachelor’s degree with a major or minor in the subject. In the future, YVC hopes to develop direct transfer programs with other four-year schools in the state that have American Indian and Indigenous Studies programs.
“It’s a really exciting time to get into this new focus and I hope any students who are interested will take a few of the courses with us,” Byrn said.