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OU Native American students highlight importance of Native American Studies department

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Five Moons Student Lounge sign

A sign inside of the Five Moons Student Lounge during the Five Moons Student Lounge dedication March 24.

In March, OU honored five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma with the opening of the "Five Moons Lounge" in Copeland Hall, which was intended to serve as a "source of representation and inspiration for all." OU Native American students, however, said they still feel underrepresented at OU and by education surrounding Native American studies. 

OU Press Editor Joseph Brandt and OU President William Bizzell sought to construct an American Indian institute at OU, according to the Native American Studies website. Three courses were inaugurated in the 1930s, making OU one of the first universities to make Native American and Indigenous studies a curricular focus.

While the NAS department at OU has taught students about American Indian history and culture for many years, Native American education in other areas of Oklahoma hasn’t been as complete. Kamryn Yanchick, a Native American studies and political science junior and citizen of Seminole Nation and descendent of the Muscogee Creek Nation, said her experience in an Edmond Oklahoma high school did not effectively teach students Native American culture and history. 

“I would say my experience (in high school) with Native inclusion in Oklahoma history was laughable,” Yanchick said. “As a whole, the curriculum isn’t built with a big enough emphasis on Native American people or tribes, especially in the contemporary sense.” 

Celena George, an advertising junior who is a part of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Delaware, Cherokee and Birdcreek Shawnee tribes, said textbooks from Oklahoma primary schools often word discussions about American Indians in the past tense when “they are obviously still thriving.” George said despite limited teaching in K-12 education, NAS classes at OU effectively teach students Native American history and encourages students to learn from it. 

Despite this, some Native American students said their classmates in NAS courses aren’t always interested in the course material. 

Students can take NAS or Native American language classes to fulfill the university’s general education requirements, including two foreign language courses and one world culture course. 

While students can benefit from taking NAS classes, letters sophomore and Cherokee Nation citizen Taylor Broadbent said she feels some students enroll in those courses to fulfill the general education course requirement without engaging with the curriculum. 

“I would love to say that once I got done with my Intro to Native Studies class, that all those kids (in it) had a deeper understanding of tribal culture and an appreciation of native people, but that's not the case,” Broadbent said. 

George said although it is easy to take NAS courses for the general education requirement, students can make their classroom experience more meaningful through a willingness to learn about Native culture.

“(These classes) feel more important, and it feels more necessary to (take them) when you're talking about a culture that hasn't had as much representation or as much acknowledgment,” George said. 

According to the OU Spring 2021 enrollment analysis report, American Indian and indigenous students make up approximately four percent of the university's undergraduate population. According to enrollment analysis reports from the past three years, the number of these students has not changed substantially. 

According to the World Population Review, there are about seven million Native Americans in the U.S today, making up about two percent of the entire population. Thirteen point three percent of Oklahoma’s population are Native American. 

There are also 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the U.S. There are 39 tribes in Oklahoma, according to The Oklahoman, but only the Osage, Caddo, Kiowa, Comanche, and Wichita are considered indigenous. 

Raymond Orr, an associate professor and NAS department chair, said the purpose of the NAS program is to expand students’ knowledge of indigenous tribes across America, emphasize Native American roles in history and provide knowledge to all students with a genuine interest in the field. 

“There's a lot of variety in what we're offering as a department in terms of classes and educational experience,” Orr said. “I think we all should be really proud of both the department and university.”

Yanchick said she was impressed with the variety of classes the NAS department had to offer, especially since the classes include current tribal policy and leadership, not just historical lessons. 

To teach relevant Native American history, Broadbent said it’s important for students to learn about issues like the blood quantum clause, which restricts citizenship to Native tribes. She also pointed to the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred on Native American land. Learning about these events will expand students’ knowledge and greatly benefit them, she said. 

Oklahoma tribes play a large role in supporting OU, Broadbent said, highlighting the Chickasaw Nation’s aid in the university’s purchase of Cross Village. She said examples like these showcase the need for education on tribal governance. 

Broadbent said she appreciates President Joseph Harroz and the OU administration for recognizing that aid, but she feels the funding by Native American tribes goes unnoticed by students. 

“I think it benefits students to expose them to a culture that they don't understand and a culture that they need to understand to be better citizens,” Broadbent said. “I wish every student had to learn about Native culture because there's a lot more than we can dive into … (on) things that are both done bad to Native communities and things that Native communities are currently doing bad that need to be addressed.” 

Broadbent said after taking her first NAS class, she was surprised to learn about the wide range of indigenous tribes across the world.

“(I) also learned a little bit more about tribes, because even as a tribal member, you don't really understand all the different tribes that are not your own because your own is a little complicated by itself,” Broadbent said.  

It is highly important to spread awareness regarding involvement opportunities for Native American students at OU, George said. She also said she feels the university could do more to highlight the NAS department. 

 “I feel like there's limited acknowledgment from the university on those courses, especially with the entire department being located in Copeland Hall, and a lot of people don't really know where Copeland is,” George said.  

Yanchick also said though the NAS department is familiar to many Native American students on campus, it might be “invisible” to other students. 

 “I definitely think it is the responsibility of professors outside the department to make sure that they're integrating Native people into their curriculums whenever possible,” Yanchick said. “Because with non-Native students who aren't involved or aware of the department, it is still pretty easy to not recognize the work that the department is doing or the history of current issues that people face.” 

To highlight opportunities available in the NAS department, George suggested more be done at the introductory level.

“I think something the university could do to help that entire department is to talk more about it whenever they're doing tours or just in general to highlight the very impressive and the very important department we have here on campus,” George said. 

 Students should take the time to find a deeper appreciation of Native history and culture, especially when it’s featured on campus, Broadbent said. She also said she encourages students to visit the “Five Moons Lounge” so they might recognize and appreciate the importance of Native American history in Oklahoma.    

“There are things students need to understand because they have a huge weight in how Oklahoma works,” Broadbent said. “Oklahoma doesn't function independent of the tribes — they haven't for at least 50 years. And they won't ever again.”  

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