Published October 3, 2022
With a reflection on the past and a focus on the future, the new Department of Indigenous Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences celebrated 50 years of an extraordinary program at UB with a ceremony on Sept. 17 at the UB Anderson Gallery.
When it was founded in 1972, UB’s Native American Studies program was among the first of its kind.
“We are grateful to the families and communities who have continued to believe in and support the work and mission of Native American studies at UB. We would not have 50 years without our families and communities behind us, nor would we have our new department without them holding us up,” said Theresa McCarthy, a member of the Onondaga nation, Beaver clan citizen of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, and associate professor in Indigenous studies (and past chair) and associate dean for inclusive excellence, College of Arts and Sciences.
“We are excited to celebrate this occasion with some of the founders of that program, who are with us today and who we are going to hear from this afternoon. As we acknowledge the legacy and leadership that has brought us to this point, it is also important to honor all the students who have come through the program over these last five decades,” McCarthy said. “I’d also like to acknowledge the University at Buffalo and President Satish Tripathi, who have been important champions and supporters of our work in Indigenous studies,”
Indigenous studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that centers on the knowledges, priorities, aspirations and lived experiences of Indigenous peoples locally, nationally and internationally. The program has focused much of its scholarship on the culture of the lands upon which UB operates, and over the years, the program has received national recognition for its combination of community engagement, grass-roots activist scholarship and land-based learning.
“Our Department of Indigenous Studies marks a bold new chapter for this field at UB. It brings our work into direct conversation with the community,” Tripathi said. “It serves as a model of how to re-align humanities expertise with 21st-century challenges. And it ensures that all students understand how issues of indigeneity impact the quest for solutions.
“Importantly, this department builds on the work of the dedicated faculty and students who, 50 years ago, advocated for Indigenous scholarship at UB.”
Marilyn Schindler, Barry White, Oren Lyons and the late John Mohawk, all members of the Six Nations, are credited as founding members of the Native American Studies Program at UB.
“As many of you are aware, UB’s Native American Studies Program was among the first of its kind. It was a groundbreaking endeavor on many levels. Fifty years of Indigenous studies at UB is a milestone for this critical field of study,” Tripathi said.
The ceremony celebrating the launch of the new department featured keynote speaker Oren Lyons, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.
“Of course, any conversation about this subject would be incomplete without SUNY Distinguished Professor Oren Lyons, who was a UB faculty member for nearly 40 years. A professor of American Studies, he was a founder and director of UB’s Native Studies Program. As an author and activist, Professor Lyons has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Tripathi said.
Lyons, 92, was a leader of the Trail of Broken Treaties, the 1972 caravan to Washington, D.C., that aimed to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to honor federal treaties. Ten years later, he helped establish the United Nations’ Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
Lyons is a founder of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders, the grassroots council of the major Indian nations of North America. He has served on the executive committee of the U.N.’s Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, and earlier this year was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the country’s most prestigious honorary societies.
Lyons also is an accomplished artist, and had a piece in a recent exhibition at the UB Anderson Gallery.
“On behalf of all of us at UB, I want to thank Professor Lyons for everything he has contributed to UB during his distinguished career, and for the impact his scholarship has had on the many communities we serve,” Tripathi said.
During his speech, Lyons talked about his partnership with Mohawk at UB, and of their adventures in fighting for equal rights at home and abroad. While he spoke, a slideshow highlighting some of their accomplishments together played in the background.
“I think the importance of this program cannot be overstated,” Lyons said. “I thank UB for this opportunity, and for this program because it has taken us around the world. This program was ahead of its time — I mean, we took UB students with us to crash the UN! And while there are still struggles today, we have accomplished a lot together and I wish good luck to all of us.”
In the second half of the program, McCarthy shared some of the objectives the department has set for the future.
One of the ongoing goals is to increase the number of faculty focused on Indigenous research and scholarship. In 2020, the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) received a $3 million grant to establish the department, including the recruitment and retention of faculty and Native American students. The grant was awarded to establish the department over four years, but McCarthy wasted little time in getting programming and scholars in place.
So far, the department has added the following new members: Mishuana Goeman, research professor, chair and director(Tonawanda Band of Seneca); Montgomery Hill, assistant professor (Tuscarora Nation, Beaver Clan); Robert Caldwell Jr., assistant professor (Choctaw-Apache Community of Ebarb); Jason Corwin, clinical assistant professor (Seneca Nation, Deer Clan); Mia McKie, clinical assistant professor (Tuscarora Nation, Turtle Clan); Marilyn Schindler, adjunct professor (Seneca Nation, Snipe Clan); Amanda Casali, associate director of Indigenous academic engagement (Akwesasne/St. Regis Mohawk); Aaron VanEvery, community outreach and cultural programming coordinator (Six Nations Cayuga, Wolf Clan); and Jennifer Loft, assistant director (Six Nations Mohawk).
“We’ve had 50 years behind us, holding us up, and we’ve been celebrating that all year with our speaker series, and our graduate seminar, which we formed a whole class around,” McCarthy said. “Looking ahead, we are going to revive the long-running Storytellers Conference to center the impact of the work done in the program, but also to engage in conversations about the next 50 years and the impact on the larger Indigenous community.”
The Department of Indigenous Studies is both a home and a hub of Indigenous research and teaching at UB. According to McCarthy, the duality of this “home and hub” structure acknowledges Indigenous studies as an academic discipline, as well as a necessary component of all other areas of study. And the hub is meant to serve broader Indigenous inclusion efforts across the campus in the areas of research, teaching, student support and community outreach.
“I want to really thank Theresa McCarthy because without her, this would have not happened,” said Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Theresa is a scholar of — and an advocate for — Indigenous perspectives. She has kept this flame alive; she is responsible for attracting and growing scholars and scholarship in this program. She has put her all into this department.”
Schulze noted that only three new departments have been established in CAS in the past 20 years. “The importance of this department is obvious,” she said, “and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without all of you here, and we certainly couldn’t have done it without Theresa’s expertise and dedication.”