Only 26 Georgetown students are taking a class on Indigenous people this semester. Of the over 6,000 undergraduates attending Georgetown, that’s only four thousandths of a percent.
That’s how many students are enrolled in PHIL 156, Intro to Indigenous Philosophy, the lone three-credit course on Indigeneity being offered this semester. Sure, other professors could bring in discussions about Indigenous people into their curriculum—but they aren’t required to. And if a student is hoping to go to some department-sponsored events and learn on their own time, that might be a bit challenging as Georgetown has no formal Native or Indigenous studies program.
Georgetown’s name cannot be found on the list of over 100 schools—including peer institutions like Yale, Dartmouth, and Cornell—who host Indigenous or Native American Studies majors, minors, or program certificates. Where some universities boast entire departments complete with classes on First Nations languages and Indigenous law, Georgetown offers only an undersupported working group, led by faculty such as Bette Jacobs on their own time and without compensation.
At a university at least nominally committed to approaching higher learning from a wide range of racial perspectives, this absence is shocking. It seems educating Hoyas about the people whose land the university’s founders stole, who attend university with us, and who have been chronically written out of history should be a no-brainer at Georgetown.
But considering the university’s history, maybe this gaping hole of a department shouldn’t be so surprising. Georgetown is, after all, a predominantly white institution built on the backs of Black people enslaved by the Jesuits and on land stolen from the Nacotchtank and Piscataway tribes. Indeed, this failure is just the latest in an unknowably long series of offenses committed by Catholic educational institutions against Indigenous people. Genocide, committed over centuries, has transformed into ethnocide in education. Indian boarding schools founded in the 1800s with the help of the Catholic Church and U.S. government “educated” young Indigenous people out of their own culture, stripping language and customs from future generations of Native leaders. And this is recent history. By the time the Indian Boarding school era ended in 1978 (though some schools still operate), most parents of current Georgetown students would have already been born.
Including the father of Jacobs. Jacobs, a former NHS dean who has worked at Georgetown since 2000, grew up hearing stories about her Cherokee father’s mission education years before she would attend Fresno State as the first in her family to go to college. Though Jacobs has worked as an executive at Honda and earned both her master’s and PhD, she recognizes that isn’t the case for most children of mission-educated Native Americans.
“I was able to take certain opportunities that took me out of what I grew up with,” she said of her own academic journey. Native American students attend college at only half the rate of the overall U.S. population, and graduate from public high schools at the lowest rate of any racial group, at 74 percent. “They were opportunities that no one I grew up with or my family would have had.”
When she joined Georgetown’s faculty, Jacobs agreed to work outside her job description to support Indigenous students at the university, serving as something akin to the point person for Native scholarship and recruitment. With just 1 percent of Georgetown students identifying as American Indian or Alaskan Native in 2017—though universities often undercount Indigenous students, especially those from abroad—Jacobs made an effort to visit reservations to boost Native enrollment. For a time, she introduced a program to bring Native high schoolers to campus for science education, including kids from one school whose science teacher was only qualified to teach physical education.
But it wasn’t until Jacobs picked up a book in the Georgetown bookstore by Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, a non-native faculty member, that the first steps toward Georgetown’s only official academic Indigenous community were taken. After reading the book, Jacobs emailed Balzer, a professor with the Berkley Center and Georgetown’s Anthropology Department, about her interest in Indigenous communities. Together, the women formed the Indigenous Studies Working Group.
“Our network was intended, once the internet became easily available to everyone, as a space to share and congregate,” Jacobs said.
The working group recommends classes based in Indigenous scholarship, compiles research on Indigeneity, hosts guest speakers, and connects Indigenous students and scholars. Through the group, Jacobs has helped host symposia on health care and justice for Indigenous communities, including one memorializing the nearly 6,000 Indigenous women lost in 2016 according to murder and inconclusive missing persons reports. All these efforts are done on a voluntary, ad hoc basis, according to Jacobs, and the group serves predominantly as an archive and collection space.
Professor Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner, who teaches the aforementioned Intro to Indigenous Philosophy, is a newer addition to the academy. Meissner came to Georgetown a year and a half ago, after graduating with her doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State. She is only the 19th Native American (Meissner is Luiseño and Cupeño) to receive a doctorate in philosophy and one of a small minority of academics studying Indigenous philosophy who are themselves Native.
Georgetown has not traditionally been a beacon for these scholars. “I knew full well coming into this position that there would be a lot a lot of work to do,” Meissner said. “I will do that work because it is important to me that Georgetown is a space that Native students can go, and that Native scholarship can go and flourish.”
Meissner has sought out Native students and faculty, something difficult to do at a university with few natural gathering spaces for those populations, and created spaces where none existed. Through the working group, she runs a discussion group and has strived to connect the university to tribes in and around D.C.
“One of the things I have been really, really, almost obsessed with is finding Native students and finding Native faculty, finding spaces where Native people are doing stuff at Georgetown and broadly in D.C.,” she said.
Jacobs knows how difficult finding these partners can be, pointing out she was only the eighth Native American to serve as a tenured full professor in the U.S., saying “I’m older, but I’m not that old to have been the eighth of something like that.”
While these efforts do create spaces for Indigenous scholarship and community on campus, they also place a burden on Georgetown’s only two Native professors on top of their full-time positions. Meissner is a junior faculty member, only in her fourth semester of teaching, yet what she manages is comparable to the work of a department director.
“That’s not the type of work in academia that is compensated,” she acknowledged. “That’s not the kind of work in academia that’s often even recognized.”
No matter how hard these two women work, how far beyond their job description or working hours they venture, they will still be limited by the infrastructure and institutions they have at their disposal. While the working group can help build collaborative scholarship, it was never intended as the sole place for Indigenous students and faculty to be in community. It cannot offer courses or hire professors, meaning its members have limited control over what or how much Georgetown students learn about Indigenous people.
“The Indigenous Studies Working Group is not a program, it’s not a department, it’s not a space where anybody is being compensated for putting Indigenous communities in contact with one another,” Meissner said. “It’s really just kind of a loosely organized group of people who have similar academic interests.”
Even as the working group attempts to keep up, the absence of a university-funded program weighs heavily. “It doesn’t really feel like Georgetown even knows that it’s missing that,” Meissner said.
But that institutional support is undoubtedly missing. Even as a white person whose experience in Indigenous Studies has largely been limited to what I learned in my Oklahoma high school, once I arrived at Georgetown I started seeing holes everywhere, and minimal attempts to patch them. A program would do more than just be a symbolic gesture that Georgetown takes Indigenous academia seriously, but a substantive investment in future students’ ability to do so.
Jarrad Packard (NHS ’09) studied healthcare management at Georgetown 15 years ago and, as part of the curriculum, was tasked with choosing a healthcare organization case study. Packard, a Native student who rarely encountered material about Indigenous people in his classes, chose the Indian Health Service, where he would intern and later work for two years.
“Georgetown didn’t have anything that was organized; you kinda had to make your own way,” Packard said.
But he should not have had to do this alone. With an Indigenous Studies Program, students would have greater academic resources to draw on when they want to integrate Indigenous studies into their classes. Professors could utilize those same resources to weave Indigenous history and culture into their syllabi. As Packard argued, Indigenous students should have the same right to study their ancestors that other students do.
“Everything that I’ve ever done has been focused on being Indigenous,” Packard said. “It’s not about every single Indigenous student who must study Indigenous studies but if they want to, they should be able to.”
Kurt Jordan is the head of such a program. He describes the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) at Cornell University as its own small college, complete with graduate and undergraduate minors, courses, student support services, outreach to Native communities, and staff tasked with recruiting and retaining Native students. They also run a residence called Akwe:kon—“all of us,” in the Mohawk language—that houses 35 students.
In this same vein, while Black and Latinx students have cultural homes on Georgetown’s campus, a similar house does not exist for Indigenous students.
In fact, while Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA) technically supports all students of color on campus, there are no programs specifically for Indigenous students or advisors dedicated to recruiting and supporting them.
“We do not see as much of that for Native students specifically,” Meissner said of targeted support for Indigenous students. “That is, I honestly believe, because Georgetown has not committed the resources and the time and the infrastructure to recruiting Native students and then retaining them.”
Those aren’t the only resources Georgetown lacks. While other universities make a concentrated effort to recruit Native students, Georgetown has no comparable approach, according to Jacobs. The fact that many prospective Indigenous students attend Catholic high schools on or near reservations means the university could easily create regional relationships that follow its Jesuit ethos, making this omission especially egregious. A program or department could help run that outreach, encouraging recruiters to look outside of traditional feeder schools and coastal areas.
Once students are on campus, the department could run more targeted programming, taking the burden off of the Native American Student Council and the working group to provide community-building events. While the university normally hosts an annual powwow, this is just one event and is only culturally significant to members of certain Plains tribes; a funded program could provide so much more.
“One of the most important factors in the recruitment and retention of students of color broadly is having that kind of institutional support for cultural programming, institutional support for social programming, institutional support for activism,” Meissner said. It is no wonder Indigenous students report feeling unsupported by Georgetown—not only does that support not currently exist, there is no institution to provide it.
At status quo, we are leaving some of our most vulnerable first-generation, low-income students to fend for themselves. We are telling Native students who wish to study their own history that their people are not important enough to deserve scholarship. We are ignoring our own colonial legacy and contemporary structural racism. We are sitting on land stolen from Indigenous people and pretending we owe them nothing.
Supporting Native students and scholarship is, on face, a moral good. But at Georgetown it is more than a good—it is an absolute necessity.
Moreover, an Indigenous Studies Program could enable what Meissner called “an intersectional reckoning with our own history.” While students may know Georgetown sits on land stolen from Native tribes, few know their names, and even fewer realize that Father Andrew White, half the namesake of White Gravenor, founded the first Indian boarding school in the U.S.
“We know that Georgetown is on stolen land, we know that D.C. is on stolen land, it was originally the home territory of the Piscataway and Nacotchtank people which means that they have an ethical responsibility to those communities,” Meissner said. To her knowledge, no students from either tribe are currently enrolled at Georgetown.
Georgetown also faces a unique obligation as a Catholic institution. Catholic Indigenous schools have historically trafficked disinformation about Native culture, and such practices have barred Indigenous students from attending prestigious academies run by those same priests. Packard, whose grandparents were in Indigenous boarding schools and who himself grew up witnessing Catholic Indian schools’ impacts in South Dakota, feels Georgetown must reckon with this legacy. ”They owe it to us to also give us an education,” he insisted.
As part of an American educational system that often paints Indigenous communities as a thing of the past and gives more textbook pages to the first Thanksgiving than to the genocide of eight million people, Georgetown cannot allow its students to graduate without educating them in those egregious fallacies.
“All of these institutions are built on Indigenous land and we are benefitting from that fact, and Native people are suffering because of the theft or forced taking of land,” Jordan, who is himself white, said. “People don’t want to hear it or think about how they are implicated personally in a lot of these things, but it is important.”
Despite gaps in knowledge at Georgetown, Mesissner believes that when Georgetown provides a bridge, Hoyas are happy to walk across. “My students come into my classroom very excited to learn something they have never learned about before,” she said, adding that nearly all of her professor evaluations over three semesters expressed excitement about the subject matter. With the class currently full, the demand is clearly there.
As Jacobs pointed out, a program could host a wide variety of classes, meaning it could broaden its scholarship from genocide—a topic Indigenous students are all too well educated in—to include the preservation of rapidly evaporating Native culture. Courses could uplift Native voices in all fields, study current events relevant to Indigenous communities, and take a global approach to the concept of Indigeneity.
“While students have been committed to promoting Indigenous culture and academia on campus, they also cycle out every year,” Jacobs pointed out, adding, “For a longer term program it requires some structural commitments.”
Cornell, whose endowment was originally formed from money raised by the sale of nearly one million acres of Indigenous land, has hosted some form of Indigenous Studies program since the 1920s, when their Indian Extension Program brought in Native communities to learn how to farm efficiently. Though the program was incredibly paternalistic, it also created an infrastructure that would be revived in 1971 when the only two Indigenous students on campus—and the entire membership of the Native American Student Association—called for increased recognition of and resources for Indigenous students. Nearly all of their demands were met, and the new academic program would evolve into its current format.
Replicating the results of 100 years of Cornell’s checkered history would certainly be no small task. Georgetown lacks the faculty, infrastructure, and institutional support to easily paper over the gaping hole in its academic programming. It is not just that our university does not have an Indigenous Studies Program—it is that we are likely years away from being able to host one.
The first thing Georgetown would need, Jordan said, is a curriculum for the program—classes to fill a major or minor, core requirements. We would also need faculty who regularly teach about Indigenous issues and staff to run programming. As both Meissner and Jordan pointed out, a significant proportion of those employees should be Indigenous themselves.
“This work is not really work that can be done by people who are not Native; this work needs to be fully on the shoulders of people who are Native and then others can advocate for us,” Meissner said.
Those faculty also need to be at all levels of the university—not just junior faculty like Meissner, but senior professors and department heads.The program could also handle outreach to tribes Indigenous to the area, which Meissner is currently leading individually.
This burgeoning community, which has until now existed mainly in online academia and connections, would also need a designated space to gather with offices, as well as additional institutional funding. Administration investment into a program would be crucial here, something the working group has lacked.
“There does need to be some commitment from the administration, you’re going to need space, you’re going to need staff, there might be some faculty lines as well, and then you’re going to need a program budget,” Jordan outlined.
This is of course the paradox of the Indigenous Studies Program—its existence relies on the very institution defined by broken promises to Indigenous populations. It is not useful to pretend implementing such a program will not be a fight.
The “academy,” as we call it, is unapproachable. It is white stone buildings with rows upon rows of stone columns, tuxedoed white men in mahogany rooms filled with books whose fundamental theses have been disproven ten times over. It was built with all the faults of America and resists evolution.
But we know that when those looming pillars crack, it only makes the structure stronger. When the books are thrown off the shelves there is room for more, written by Black, brown, Indigenous authors. When we throw open the doors, Indigenous academia will be there to take the place that always should have been theirs.
Make room, Georgetown. Indigenous studies needs a place in the academy.
By Annemarie Cuccia
February 20, 2021