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The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

Hidden Gem: Native American Studies Department

While the economics and political science departments may seem to loom large over Colgate University, there is a wealth of intriguing and important departments that students aren’t as well informed about. The Native American studies department, while small, provides a valuable student experience and an opportunity to examine the history of America, as well as their personal history, with new eyes. 

Next spring, Professor Chris Vecsey will be teaching another section of his American Indian religions course. Colgate students have enjoyed learning about the Navajo, Inuit, Haudenosaunee, Ojibwa, Hopi and more in the years he’s taught this course. When Professor Vecsey first started studying, however, the opportunity to explore Native American history seemed unlikely. 

“When I first expressed interest in studying this, I was told ‘there’s no such thing as American Indian history,’” Vecsey said.

In the 1980s, Vecsey and a small coalition of faculty members were able to start Colgate’s Native American Studies (NAST) program. In the years since, the NAST department has continued to elevate the native voices that get overlooked in American history. 

“Teaching about American Indians is like paying a debt that hasn’t been collected,” Vecsey said.

Decolonization plays a major part in Native American studies. The concept of decolonization can mean many things to different people; junior and NAST major Taylor Tobias expressed his perspective.

“Decolonization is reexamining how we view history because of European influence and including native voices in the story,” Tobias said.

NAST courses allow students to get a better understanding of the forces that shape the world that they live in. For example, the ideas of American hegemony and American democracy are examined with a critical eye. 

“In America, we view progress through the lens of hegemony, freedom and democracy. And we maintain that ‘progress is an uphill battle.’ But that is not always the case,” Tobias said. 

Further, the NAST department provides an avenue for native students to learn about themselves. Tobias, who is a native student and a NAST major, has gained a better understanding of himself and the historical moment in which he grew up. 

“This department has really given me an opportunity for me and other native students to know ourselves deeper and it has given us a voice to be heard,” Tobias said.

This fall, Tobias is participating in a study abroad program through the NAST department in Santa Fe, N.M. He’s living among the Pueblo people and gaining incredible hands-on experience. His internship includes taking classes, visiting historical and archaeological sites and serving as a teacher’s aide. 

“I come from a different tradition from the Pueblo, and I’m learning so much about my own biases and judgments,” Tobias said. 

The department has a long successful history of sending students to New Mexico to live with the Pueblo people. 

“The study abroad program has been a huge force for the department,” Vecsey said.

The program helps students put themselves in the context of people who came before them. It is also a meaningful experience for the people they stay with. 

“It is not uncommon for the host family for students to come to graduation. One family even came all the way to New York from New Mexico for a wedding of a student who had stayed with them many years ago,” Vecsey said. 

The Native American studies department at Colgate has been shedding light on untold stories in and out of the classroom for over 50 years. While most faculty in the department are also members of other departments like religion or anthropology, Colgate may be looking to expand the program soon and employ its first exclusive Native American studies professor. 

The NAST department offers a great opportunity to glean a different perspective on American history and self-understanding while also providing unique opportunities for students to experience different communities in real life.

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