Building an Indigenous studies community at Princeton

Written by
Jessica Lambert, Class of 2022
Oct. 13, 2020

Students, faculty and staff at Princeton University are joining together around their shared interests to promote Indigenous scholarship and make the University more welcoming for Indigenous students.

In recent years, Natives at Princeton has built community and educated Princetonians about Native and Indigenous identity through campus events. The Princeton Indigenous Advocacy Coalition, supported by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, formed to bolster Indigenous life on campus through increased representation in academics, service opportunities and activities.

Salmon Boy (Tlingit statuette in wood with red and black paint)

Sheet’ká Kwáan (Sitka), Tlingit, Aak’wtaatseen (Salmon Boy), before 1882. Wood with red and black paint, 33.3 × 9.4 × 7.8 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum collection. PAIISWG has visited with museum curators to learn about Princeton’s work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

A graduate student-led group, the Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group (PAIISWG), has served as a hub for graduate students and faculty from Princeton and beyond who work on Native American and Indigenous studies topics.

This past summer, in response to growing interest in Indigenous scholarship and resources, Professor of English and American Studies Sarah Rivett spearheaded the creation of an Indigenous studies website, together with Jessica Lambert, Class of 2022 (Choctaw Nation), Keely Toledo, Class of 2022 (Navajo Nation), and Sarah Malone, communications and events manager for the Program in American Studies.

Working closely with the groups already active on campus, Rivett said she initiated the effort in the hope that “the site would respond to the problem that, for many years, research and events on campus pertaining to Indigenous peoples were scattered across departments and other units.”

“It was easy for professors and students interested in Indigenous studies to conclude that there were few others on campus who shared their interests,” Rivett said. “There was little sense of community among such individuals, partly because of the great difficulty of even identifying one another.”

Isabel Lockhart, coordinator for PAIISWG, said interest in Indigenous studies scholarship at Princeton has been growing rapidly for almost a decade. “A central website is so crucial for building community around a field that has always been very interdisciplinary.”

Indigenous research draws faculty from more than 20 academic units across the University. Faculty and student research spans six continents and countries including India, Mexico, Canada, Bolivia, Brazil, Japan and Mozambique.

Scholars are investigating industrial contamination in the Choctaw Nation, Maori fisheries in New Zealand, Udege communities and environmental governance in the Russian Far East, and Peruvians in New Jersey.

The new website provides the bios of more than 40 faculty, graduate students and undergraduates pursuing work in Indigenous studies. It includes past and current courses involving Indigenous studies, news articles and information about student and alumni organizations, and past and upcoming events.

This fall, Rivett is teaching “Introduction to Indigenous Literatures,” supported by the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) and a recipient of a Princeton Challenge grant. The course uses Indigenous literature to reflect on, critique and contest settler colonialism, as well as the dispossession of land and waters and the attempt to eliminate Indigenous people. Students engage in projects that impact Indigenous studies initiatives through dialogue with Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally.

Detail of circa. 1685 map of land now within mid-Atlantic states

Detail of Visscher, Nicolaes, Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliae: nec non partis Virginiae tabula multis in locis emendata (Amsterdam?, 1685), showing Indigenous peoples, land and waters between the settlements of Philadelphia and New Amsterdam.

This past summer, Ryo Morimoto, assistant professor of anthropology, launched “Nuclear Princeton: Indigenous Students’ Exploration of Princeton’s Nuclear Legacies,” working with six undergraduates: Lambert, Toledo, Brooke Kennedy, Class of 2023 (Walpole Island First Nation, Ojibwe), Katherine Mumm, Class of 2021 (Ojibwe), Hunter Worth, Class of 2022 (Native Hawai’ian) and Tommy Dayzie, Class of 2022 (Navajo Nation).

The project highlights the under-acknowledged impacts of nuclear science, technology and engineering on Native lands, communities and beyond. It locates the history of settler colonialism, environmental racism and racial injustice in the past and contemporary technoscientific research from the Manhattan Project to the present.

Independent concentrator in Indigenous studies Gab Duguay has closely followed the development of the website and other resources aimed at Indigenous students and scholars. “I am very glad to see the creation of this website,” he said. “This will serve as a hub to strengthen the community of scholars and students who work on issues pertaining to Indigenous peoples at Princeton University.”

Faculty, undergraduates and graduate students from any department working on or interested in Indigenous studies are welcome to submit their ideas and events or have their work featured on the Indigenous studies website. Contact Jessica Lambert at [email protected], Keely Toledo at [email protected], or Sarah Malone at [email protected] for more information.