In 2022, Fort Lewis College’s premier Native American & Indigenous Studies program received a critical academic boost. Helped in part by a generous gift from the Mellon Foundation, FLC hired four new NAIS faculty, quintupling the department's size. This expansion advances the institution’s commitment to reconciliation with its past as a federal Indian boarding school by building a community of Indigenous scholars.
The additional support for the NAIS program also aligns with FLC's Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institution status. It helps address the United States educational system's failure to provide adequate instruction on these topics in public schools. A study published in Theory & Research in Social Education found that 87 % of content taught about Indigenous peoples includes only the pre-1900 context. FLC’s NAIS program seeks to fill that gap for all its students.
The Mellon Foundation grant proposal, K’é, Community, and Connection: A New Framework for Indigenous Studies and Research, totaled $996,956. It was conceived by members of FLC administration, including former Vice President for Diversity Affairs Lee Bitsóí, Provost and Vice President Cheryl Nixon, and President Tom Stritikus—who recognized the need for a comprehensive NAIS program.
“We put together a team to brainstorm during the grant-writing process,” Nixon said. “In the beginning, we knew we wanted to build an innovative NAIS curriculum. So, we brought on our tenured, senior-most Indigenous faculty to help us.”
The team expanded to include Majel Boxer, chair and associate professor of the NIAS Department, and Deanne Grant, assistant professor of Sociology. Grant and Boxer shared their vision during the planning stages of the expansion.
“We are a Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institution, and so it makes sense for us to have a robust NAIS program,” said Grant, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. “Many of our Indigenous students are culturally grounded, but just because you’re born Indigenous doesn’t mean that you automatically understand Federal Indian policy. We now have more opportunities to further educate students about these issues.”
Boxer, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes, believes this grant will open the door for many Indigenous FLC students seeking hands-on instruction and representation.
“When the grant was funded, we knew we wanted to incorporate more experiential learning into the program; we wanted these new faculty to be out in the field more,” said Boxer. “So, we looked for scholars who had that applied experience. And it’s important, too, because when I was an undergrad, there was only one Indigenous professor wherever I went. I wanted to see more faces like mine in academia—more representation.”
Their search found faculty members with diverse skill sets and training. One of the new hires, Megan Alvarado-Saggese, assistant professor of NAIS, shared her enthusiasm about teaching at an institution like FLC.
“I primarily teach Latin American Indigenous Studies, but I wanted to teach at an institution where students are interested in that,” Alvarado-Saggese said. “More importantly, I wanted to teach where students identify with that content, so FLC was the perfect match.”
Alvarado-Saggese, who specializes in Indigenous film, takes a hemispheric approach to Indigenous studies. She looks at “intersections and resonances within Indigenous intellectual thought and strategies of resistance across the Americas.” Her students work with her to analyze and compare “classical” historical documents with pieces of Indigenous poetry, prose, or fiction. This process, she said, often reveals the absence of Indigenous narratives in westernized historical texts.
"And it’s important, too, because when I was an undergrad, there was only one Indigenous professor wherever I went. I wanted to see more faces like mine in academia—more representation."
The expansion also created a position for an Indigenous faculty member specializing in language revitalization, a key component of Indigenous intellectual freedom and scholarship. To fill this position, FLC hired Kevan Joe, a lecturer of NAIS. Joe oversees the “All Our Nations Revitalization Hub,” housed in Jones Hall, funded through a separate grant from the Mellon Foundation. He works with students to help them understand the various technical aspects of Indigenous languages and their importance.
“Many of my students come into my class and think it will be a study comparing and contrasting languages, like English or French,” Joe said. “But when I teach them the field of linguistics, they learn that language is how we connect with the world around us. Because you’re not just learning another language, you’re learning another culture, another way of being.”
Joe, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, incorporates his experience into his classroom curriculum, embracing Indigenous epistemologies and pedagogies. In doing so, he provides opportunities for his students to learn outside of the euro-centric perspectives commonly found in academia.
Joe and Alvarado-Saggese were joined last year by Ryan Rhadigan, assistant professor of NAIS, and Esther G. Belin, lecturer of NAIS. Rhadigan teaches critical theory, focusing on how Indigenous rhetoric informs our current political climate. Belin, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is an award-winning poet with two published collections of poetry: Of Cartography and From the Belly of My Beauty.
Together, the growing NAIS Department provides cutting-edge instruction for FLC students.
“It’s transformative,” Nixon said. “That’s the real impact: the curriculum and the academic experience will be strengthened and get livelier. These faculty infuse new ideas, energy, and vibrancy into the student experience.”