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New Native American studies program begins at University of Miami

This drawing by Seminole descendant Chelsey Ford is being used as the cover of the course syllabus. (Courtesy image)

The University of Miami introduced its new Native American and Global Indigenous Studies (NAGIS) program with the spring semester Jan. 25. The first course, “Introduction to Native and Indigenous Peoples and Perspectives,” will provide students with a critical overview of the experience of Indigenous people in the U.S. and globally.

The NAGIS program evolved from a realization there was a lack of Indigenous perspectives on campus. It is part of a social equity grant in response to the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter activism.
“This is the first time Indigenous studies has been taught at UM,” said Caroline LaPorte, who is teaching the course. “I hope it generates some really needed conversation on campus.”

Caroline LaPorte is the instructor for the NAGIS program’s first class, “Introduction to Native and Indigenous Peoples and Perspectives.” (Courtesy photo)

LaPorte, an immediate descendant of the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians (Bear Clan) of Manistee, Michigan, earned her law degree at the UM School of Law. She is a judicial advisor for the Seminole Tribal Court. One of her goals for the class is to get students to scrutinize some of the false narratives in history.

“It’s about truth telling,” she said. “I want them to understand what it means to be Indigenous to a place. We will talk about colonization and genocide. It isn’t only in the past, it is continuing. I want students to examine their own biases and assumptions.”

The class will delve into a variety of issues including missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Indian boarding schools, the Indian Child Welfare Act, identity policies such as enrollment and blood quantum, cultural appropriation and the environment. UM, located in Coral Gables, is on ancestral lands of the Seminole, Miccosukee, Tequesta and Calusa Indians.

“This is a class the university had a responsibility to do,” LaPorte said. “There was no Indigenous representation on campus, given how close it is to the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes. That’s strange to me since it is literally between their reservations.”

The program will focus on U.S. tribes and issues that are a result of colonization, but it will also stay true to global Indigenous topics. Guest lecturers and experts on global issues will speak to the class from time to time.

LaPorte wants to invalidate the perception that Native Americans are part of the past and not living in the present day. She said there is an invisibility factor around Native Americans and Indigenous people.

“People don’t think of us a being here still,” she said. “That makes it easy to dehumanize you and ignore the issues. I feel that Indigenous issues are human rights issues and the more advocates you can make, the better. I just want the conversation to get started at UM.”

The first guest speaker was Miccosukee environmentalist and educator Betty Osceola, who spoke at a virtual event in December about Native Americans’ spiritual connection to their homelands.

Seminole Trial Court Associate Judge Tina Osceola was a guest lecturer for a new Native American studies class at the University of Miami. (STOF photo)

The hybrid class is held in the evenings twice a week. Some students are virtual, others attend class in person. Tina Osceola, an associate judge in the Seminole Tribe’s Trial Court, was a guest lecturer in the class and spoke over Zoom about land acknowledgements.

The next guest speaker will be Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle on March 11.

NAGIS isn’t a fully funded program yet. It is part of a social equity grant from the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrated Knowledge, or U-Link initiative.

For more information about NAGIS contact nagis@miami.edu.

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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