New student-led class looks at U.S. federal Indian policy

This semester, thanks to student efforts, a new course joined the handful of student-led classes available to those who wish to push the limits of the course catalog. The new class, entitled “U.S. Federal Indian Policy,” focuses on the legal relationship between tribal nations and the American federal government. Each week, the seven students in the course meet for three hours, without a professor, and discuss a different seminal court case or key piece of legislation, following an almost completely student-designed syllabus.

The class began to take form this fall, when Sage Wagner ’15, a member of the Native American Student Association, approached Daniel Orr ’16, the president of the club, about the possibility of creating the course.

“I got the idea in September mostly because NASA was always looking for ways to promote Native Studies on campus,” Wagner explained. Her own interest in U.S. federal Indian policy arose from her Native American heritage and from her mother, a lawyer who specializes in Native law.

Wagner’s mother suggested a list of readings for the class, and Wagner and Orr worked throughout the fall to develop the syllabus. Orr wrote a few suggested syllabi based on his own directed readings in the field and on two classes in Native Studies he took at the University of Pennsylvania, and added his reading suggestions.

Wagner and Orr then brought their suggested syllabus to Chair and Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, who has an interest in Native law. In the past, Nackenoff has written about late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Reformers, Native policies, and the court. She continues to work in the area: a chapter of her forthcoming book will look at Native Americans and performative aspects of citizenship in the Dawes Act Era of 1887 to 1934, and she is currently writing about efforts to shape the Native American family in the name of “civilizing.”

After adding a few more readings to Orr and Wagner’s list, Nackenoff submitted the syllabus to the Provost with the recommendation that the class be approved for credit in political science.

So far, the class has covered a series of court cases and examined how the body of law has developed through common law as well as through court decisions, according to Orr.

Wagner looks forward most to hearing from classmates about their own thoughts on Native law.

“I’ve never heard such a thing before, since most people don’t know enough about it to form an opinion,” Wagner said.

Orr is personally most looking forward to reading and discussing the Dawes Act of 1887.

“This is just really huge for me, because I live in Oklahoma and my family have basically lived in the same area since they were allotted their land,” he said.

Orr has always been interested in Native studies, but his motivation for taking the current class began as something more personal.

“Federal Indian policy impacts a lot of people that I know and am kin to, and it sort of becomes an interest just from living with them,” Orr explained.

Orr is currently attempting to change his major from education and linguistics to a special major in Native education, in which he hopes to apply Native Studies specifically within an educational discipline.

“In the same way that Indian law is a separate entire discipline of law, Native education is not only legally a separate branch of education, but it’s pedagogically and structurally an entirely separate part of education,” Orr said.

He is unsure if the college would allow him to make this change, as his credits for the major would consist mostly of directed readings and classes at Penn, given that Swarthmore does not currently have a Native Studies program.

Orr also connected his interest in the class to his broader hopes for NASA and the eventual beginning of this type of program at Swarthmore. He is currently taking an introductory Native Studies course at Penn, and hopes a similar program might arise at the college.

“One of the things that NASA’s really looking forward to is eventually starting something like that, if it could happen,” Orr said. He hopes that this course and future student-led courses could serve as the starting point for this program.

“We would be able to say, ‘Here are specific courses we’ve put together, and they’ve worked, and we’ve done them,’ so people can go and turn them into regular classes and a regular program,” Orr said.

Other student-led courses currently taking place at the college include a class on Southeast Asia in world politics, in which seven students are now enrolled, thanks to the efforts of the Southeast Asian Students Association. Additionally, five students, including Orr, are currently studying the Son Jarocho style of music, which emerged from Veracruz, Mexico during colonial times and combined African, indigenous, and lower-class European musical traditions into a new sound, according to Sarah Gonzales ’15, who is enrolled in the class. The class is also examining the ways in which Son Jarocho resisted dominant power structures at the time and continues to function in this fashion as Chicanos and Latinos in the United States identify with its history, message, and music.

One thought on “New student-led class looks at U.S. federal Indian policy

  • February 18, 2015 at 3:58 pm
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    This sounds like a great course, but am I reading correctly that Orr is taking two student-led courses and one class at Penn this semester? A semester at Swarthmore is an awfully expensive way to take only one faculty-led class!

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