‘This is no small feat’: Celebrating Brown’s first graduating cohort of Indigenous studies scholars

The first five graduating seniors in the critical Native American and Indigenous studies concentration shared reflections on their research and expanding a community of scholars.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A lot can change in a few years.

When Marie Bordelon, Ariana Clark, Chandlee Crawford, Shea Hueston and Kalikoonāmaukūpuna “Kaliko” Kalāhiki arrived on the Brown University campus as first-year students in 2019 and 2020, none of them knew their course of study would make University history. But that’s exactly what will happen later this month, when the five seniors will be the first at Brown to earn bachelor’s degrees in critical Native American and Indigenous studies.

“Critical Native American and Indigenous studies offers so much to this campus and to students, and provides much potential for opening doors for engagement with Indigenous communities and individuals,” said Rae Gould, executive director of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative.

The new concentration was developed over years of work by Gould and other faculty, staff and students. The College Curriculum Council approved it in 2022, and by Fall 2023, students could enroll in its first required course, ETHN 1200K: Introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies.

“ Not having a deep knowledge about Native American history in this country beyond the Thanksgiving myth and the Trail of Tears is akin to not understanding that slavery is foundational to this country’s story. ”

Rae Gould Executive Director for Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative

Some of the inaugural cohort members arrived at Brown knowing that they wanted to pursue a degree in an Indigenous studies-related field. Bordelon, part of the Binnizá people in the isthmus region of Oaxaca, Mexico, is also pursuing a concentration in anthropology and said she focused on courses related to indigeneity before the new concentration was introduced.

Others, like Crawford, a member of the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi, who is also concentrating in international and public affairs, weren’t intending on it.

“But I realized the core classes were actually so complementary to the rest of my studies,” Crawford said. “The teachers were really great, the community was really great, and at the end of the day, it just made me feel so much more knowledgeable. The longer I stayed, the more everything seemed to work well together.”

Clark and Hueston sit on a blanket outside, planting seeds
CNAIS concentrators Ariana Clark, left, and Shea Hueston work together to plant seeds as part of Clark's capstone project. Photo provided by Ariana Clark. 

Clark, a double concentrator in critical Native American and Indigenous studies and computer science and a member of the Muscogee Nation, said she wanted to take some Native studies courses when she started her academic journey at Brown. But few were offered, and they were in such demand that she wasn’t able to secure a spot during registration.

“I was like, ‘Alright, that’s it, I guess I’m never doing this,’” she said. “But now, the number of Native studies classes has grown exponentially, which is so amazing.”

The expansion of those courses — and the addition of Native studies faculty, staff, visiting scholars and graduate students to teach them — has been remarkably beneficial to the concentrators. It’s also helped to dispel a common misunderstanding that the concentration is specifically focused on cultures indigenous to the Americas rather than being a global field of study.

“Being surrounded by Native people from all over the world in academic settings has been a really essential part of my education here at Brown,” said Kalāhiki, part of the Kanaka Maoli, or Indigenous peoples of Hawaii.

The concentration also reflects a broader shift within higher education to be more mindful of research practices related to Native and Indigenous peoples.

Hueston stands in against a juniper tree in the desert wearing a turquoise dress
Shea Hueston, a Diné artist who is also pursuing a concentration in psychology, investigated different ways through which more resources could be allocated to elder care in Indigenous communities. Photo provided by Shea Hueston.

“If a scholar chooses to engage in a related topic, they should first ask how that community feels about the research, if they want to participate, and how it does or does not benefit them,” Gould said. “Academic research, including publishing and teaching, can’t be undertaken in a bubble.”

The concentrators say that this concept of engaged scholarship isn’t just good academic practice: it’s intrinsic to the way Native and Indigenous studies scholars conduct research. Mutual benefit, or reciprocity, is a key tenet of the concentration, and by adhering to that ethos — working with, not on, a community — scholars can more easily avoid research that is extractive, exploitative or inadvertently harmful to vulnerable populations, Gould said.

“That is the starting place for a focus on Native American and Indigenous studies,” Gould said.

The concentration’s curriculum includes a rich history of indigeneity that many students may not have learned in a classroom before now.

Gould says courses like Federal Indian Law, taught by legal scholar and visiting professor Honor Keeler — a Class of 2005 alumna and founding member of Native American Brown Alumni — provide historical context for contemporary political and social situations that many people hear about but don’t fully understand, like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women — a movement to increase awareness of disproportionate violence experienced by Indigenous women — or the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

“The more people are educated about these events and historical processes and how they influence contemporary lives, the better we will all be,” Gould said. “Not having a deep knowledge about Native American history in this country beyond the Thanksgiving myth and the Trail of Tears is akin to not understanding that slavery is foundational to this country’s story.”

Culminating the concentration through capstones

One of the requirements for all seniors who have declared a concentration in critical Native American and Indigenous studies is the completion of a capstone course, which offers an opportunity to share their research and reflect on the field.

The five inaugural concentrators presented their culminating projects to the Brown community during the Second Annual Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative Spring Research Symposium, held over two days in April in Pembroke Hall on Brown’s campus.

“By being critical of our nation’s story, our scholarship, and the roles that higher education institutions can have in shaping this scholarship, we are contributing to the social justice work that Brown University is committed to, and we are creating more fully informed future leaders and advocates,” Gould said.

Bordelon stands in a tehuana she designed and fabricated herself
Marie Bordelon designed and fabricated her own tehuana, the traditional dress of the Binnizá people of Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo provided by Marie Bordelon. 

In addition to honoring the first graduates, the symposium highlighted the work of two dozen researchers from across the University and in various stages of scholarship.  

In her presentation, Hueston, a Diné artist who is also pursuing a concentration in psychology, unraveled the recent and devastating rise in Native elder suicide rates and analyzed proposals — such as elder-in-residence programs at elementary and high schools —  through which more resources could be allocated to elder care in Indigenous communities.

Kalāhiki shared insights from a collection of 13 interviews that will serve as the core of a podcast series they’re producing to celebrate, uplift and learn from the voices of māhū — a third gender in Kanaka Maoli culture. Kalāhiki, who is māhū, argues colonial damage in Hawaii has turned what was once a celebrated identity into a pejorative term for genderqueer Hawaiians.

Bordelon focused on the gentrification and sale of culture in Oaxaca, Mexico, specifically through the lens of the history of las Tehuanas, the traditional dress of the Binnizá. The “traje de tehuana” comprises several distinct elements, such as a large headdress called a “resplandor” and a huipil with colors and stitching patterns that offer instant recognition of tribe and place. For her capstone, Bordelon designed and is fabricating her own more utilitarian interpretation of the dress she hopes to reclaim.

For her capstone, Clark wanted to create a legacy of place for Native people at Brown for her capstone. In addition to compiling a set of recommendations for the University, she designed and tilled a traditional medicine and pollinator garden on campus, adjacent to the John Nicholas Brown Center on Benefit Street. The garden features Indigenous flora, including 100 seeds comprising 20 plant species donated by Elizabeth James-Perry, who served as a NAISI artist-in-residence for part of this semester. Clark hopes to include plant identifiers translated into Narragansett and Wampanoag.

Crawford olds his wampum in a bag
Chandlee Crawford created his own wampum belt, which he holds here in a protective bag. Photo provided by Chandlee Crawford. 

Crawford explored the grading of different Northeastern tribes’ wampum (a traditional shell bead often woven into belts or strings and used in ceremony, diplomacy, storytelling and more) by Western anthropologists. He argued that the classifications of quality — i.e., the notion that wampum from the Haudenosaunee is “superior” to the “inferior” Abenaki or Wabanaki wampum — were instilled by western archaeologists with little regard for the objects’ cultural significance. Crawford, a wampum artist himself, worked with a tribal elder to create his own wampum belt for his capstone.

The semester’s capstone course brought the concentrators together in a dedicated meeting place, but also offered an opportunity for the students to bond more organically as they worked through their five distinct yet connected projects.

“In that way, the class feels very Indigenous,” Kalāhiki said. “We were never working in silos, even though we’re all doing very different things.”

‘Resilient enough to get us here’

As the cohort’s undergraduate education at Brown draws to a close, they said they’re left with bittersweet reflections. On the one hand, they found and created a close-knit community, the bonds of which will outlast their time as Brown students. On the other, investigating the treatment of Indigenous peoples — including some of their own ancestors — and cultural objects across time was painful and emotionally draining at times.

As the concentration continues to expand, Bordelon hopes current and future scholars will be mindful of their privileges and the realities of Native and Indigenous people — that they aren’t ancient relics to be studied like artifacts, but living people who are simply going about their daily lives. 

“It’s really important for non-Indigenous people in Native studies to be aware that they can do all of the research, all of the studies they want, but at the end of the day, they won’t have that lived experience,” she said. “Which is not to say that their work isn’t valuable, but I don’t think anyone — even Indigenous people — can say that they’re a total expert in this field, when we’re in a constant state of learning and growing.”

Being surrounded by Native people from all over the world in academic settings has been a really essential part of my education here at Brown.

Kaliko Kalāhiki Class of 2024
Kaliko smiles at camera, wearing scarfs

Clark echoed the sentiment, noting that the intersections of her own identity were something she struggled with internally when she started at Brown.

“I’m mixed white and Native, and I grew up in a really white place where it took me a while to realize how I saw myself,” Clark said. “It led me to think, ‘If I’m not from the rez, I don’t belong in the Native community here.’” 

But that initial trepidation was quashed once she pushed herself out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a community — and cohort — that soon began to feel like a second home. And being able to take the knowledge gleaned from her time as a critical Native American and Indigenous studies concentrator and bring it back home to the Muscogee Nation is nothing short of remarkable.

“This is no small feat,” Clark said. “I think it’s amazing that we’re all still here, and that our people have been resilient enough to get us here. We should all be really proud of ourselves.”