When 57-year-old former U.S. Army Col. Mike McFarland arrived at the University of South Dakota, he brought along with him the hopes of immersing himself as a student in the native studies department.
A wide variety of course choices, an array of speakers and the chance to experience Native American cultures first-hand is what McFarland had in mind when he joined the native studies department in 2012.
However, what McFarland found at USD was “not the program” he thought it was.
“I thought I would be immersed in this department,” McFarland said. “But, it just isn’t there.”
During the 2012-13 year, the USD Native Studies houses just one full-time professor, eight students majoring in Native Studies and two courses offered within the department.
As the department continues to struggle to gain a healthy standing on the USD campus, students and faculty alike have raised concerns over the state of a field near and dear to its scholars and South Dakotan heritage.
History of Native Studies at USD
Since its formation in 2006, the native studies department has had five different department chairs, three of which held interim positions.
During its seven-year existence, the department has sustained a faculty no larger than three, including the department chair.
One constant in the carousel that has been the native studies department is associate professor Elizabeth Castle.
A graduate of Cambridge University (Cambridge, England), Castle was the first hire within the newly-formed USD native studies.
Castle said from the beginning, she worked hard to expand the department’s reach.
“There were no more than 10 majors when I arrived in 2006,” Castle said. “It was the first year and though there was really only myself and the chair as the faculty, we worked very hard to build the majors.”
Over the next few years, Castle watched as the department frequently switched out chairs, struggling to gain a foothold at the university.
Aside from interim chairs Kurt Hackemer, Emily Haddad and Larry Bradley, all of which were already university employees, native studies has seen just two permanent department chairs.
Mark Daniels was hired as the department’s inaugural chair in 2006, but was removed after just one year on the job, while Edward Valandra, who was the only chair to return for a second year, held the position for two years before resigning in summer 2011.
For the majority of its existence, the department was located in the basement of Dakota Hall along with the Oral History Center.
Castle said the department’s location was a health hazard to its students and employees.
“There was mold clearly visible on the ceiling,” said Castle.
The department has since been relocated to the third floor of East Hall before the fall 2010 semester.
However, Castle said despite the change in climate, the unpredictability of the department, as well as the lack of staff has been difficult to deal with.
“To be successful, the department has to have significant buy-in at all levels,” Castle said. “And I never felt the department was entirely stable.”
In 2012, the Lakota language was taken out of the native studies department and transferred to linguistics, making the grand total of courses offered to just two, both of which are taught by Castle.
Effect on students
With such a limited staff over the past seven years, Castle said students have taken as many as seven classes with her.
“The students have always come first,” Castle said. “Sometimes even before my own work.”
However, the strain of handling a broad range of disciplinary classes has had an impact on students within the department.
First-year graduate student Morgan Catlett has been part of the native studies department since its inception in 2006.
Catlett said the lack of faculty and inconsistency within the department created a “abnormal” undergraduate experience for her and her fellow majors.
“Being a part of a department with a history like Native Studies has been a harrowing experience as a student,” Catlett lot of the things I’ve experienced as a student have been abnormal. It definitely says something on the university; there wasn’t anybody to defend our best intentions.”
Haddad, who served as interim chair for native studies during the 2011-12 academic year, said the answer behind the department’s struggles resides in its numbers.
“Besides the resignation of department chairs, a contributing factor in the department’s struggles is that there are very few students who are majoring in native studies,” said Haddad.
Currently, the department holds eight full-time students majoring in native studies. Students within the native studies take various courses offered by the native studies department, along with a handful of interdisciplinary courses offered in other departments, such as history and linguistics.
However, taking classes in this “Frankenstein model” is not what students like McFarland and Catlett had in mind when arriving at USD.
“That’s not what a native studies degree is about,” McFarland said. “None of those instructors within different departments are on the same page with what is being discussed.”
McFarland points to the Lakota language courses offered as an example in material lost within this interdisciplinary model.
“The language is so tied to the culture, and to be taking a language class outside the department where it can’t be tied back to the Lakota culture leaves a huge gap in overall learning experience,” McFarland said. “While the professors do a good job with what is given to them, it just further weakens the department.”
Haddad said the standing of the program comes before the status of the department.
“I think the department status is less important that the vibrancy of the program,” Haddad said. “I think students learn in classes, they learn by conversing, and that’s what is important.”
Cattlet said the things taught inside the native studies discipline entails much more than learning the culture.
“Everyone needs that knowledge of how to act around people of a different culture and being respectful,” Cattlet said. “It doesn’t matter who it is and where. It’s an important skill to have.”
Effects on diversity
With native studies named the Office of Diversity’s list Academic Diversity Offices & Programs, USD Associate Vice President for Diversity Jesus Trevino said it’s essential to sustain the Native Studies department at USD.
“It’s not acceptable to not have a native studies department here,” Trevino said.
McFarland said given USD being the flagship university in a state where Native American culture is so important, he came under the impression native studies would a highlight at USD.
“It is sad to me to see we are in the heart of some of the most historical events in Native relations, but for the emphasis given on the program, I may as well be in New Jersey at college,” said McFarland.
Trevino, who is wrapping up his first year in the USD Office of Diversity, said he is concerned about the well-being of the department and would like to take the next step.
“We need to open up a dialogue between the university and the community over what they would like to have done,” Trevino said. “We can’t be making decisions for other folks. There needs to be support for the department, but we need to find out how to proceed.”
As the 2012-13 academic year draws to a close, Castle and the remainder of her students remain unsure of the status of the department they have fought hard to stay afloat.
“Each year has felt like it could be the last,” Castle said.