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Penn's longtime coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies quietly retired, prompting concern from students about the future of the NAIS minor and Indigenous representation at the University.

Margaret Bruchac, a tenured anthropology professor whom Penn hired to found the NAIS program in 2014, was scheduled to teach two classes counting towards the minor this fall. Instead, she transitioned to professor emerita status in June — meaning that the University now has no tenured Indigenous professors and two Indigenous non-tenured professors out of a faculty of nearly 5,000, according to Bruchac and students involved with Natives at Penn. 

Students lamented Bruchac's retirement, describing her as the backbone of Indigenous studies at Penn. They previously credited her for running a “one-person department” during her tenure in which she worked closely with students completing the NAIS minor at the academic and administrative levels to ensure they finished the minor despite a lack of course offerings.

“NAIS at Penn has minimal funding,” Bruchac told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “It's running primarily on my own enthusiasm and willingness to overwork.”

Since April 2021, the NAIS website has contained a note that reads: "NAIS roster of courses is in a period of transition, since some faculty have retired and some courses are temporarily unavailable. In the interim, we encourage interested students to take other related courses, which can be accommodated as substitutions (contact the NAIS Coordinator with any questions)."

In response to the concerns raised over the future of the program, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Steven Fluharty and Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Brighid Dwyer wrote to the DP in a joint statement that "The School of Arts and Sciences takes great pride in the Native American and Indigenous Studies program founded by Professor Marge Bruchac." They added that the school is "committed to seeing [the program] thrive."

Without an active search announced for a permanent NAIS coordinator – and with no core classes for the minor taught since spring 2020 – Bruchac's departure has raised questions about Penn's commitment to its Indigenous studies program, nearly a decade since its inception.

Lack of communication from the University

Five students affiliated with Natives at Penn or the NAIS minor told the DP they received no communication from the University about Bruchac's retirement or the future of the minor. Instead, they said that they were informed by peers or Bruchac directly, and they have independently stayed in touch with Bruchac for advisement. 

“It was only after I took the initiative and reached out to [Bruchac] that I was able to be put in contact with Penn,” College junior and NAIS minor Safaya Smallwood said.

Bruchac said she will retain her office to informally advise NAIS minors, and continue to work with the graduate students she oversees until they complete their degrees. However, as professor emerita, Bruchac has no formal obligation to carry out these duties and is doing so on a voluntary basis. 

The Anthropology Department’s undergraduate chair Katherine Moore has temporarily taken over Bruchac’s on-campus administrative duties as the minor’s interim coordinator. In a statement, Moore wrote to the DP that she hopes to eventually give her role "to someone who can take it on long-term.”

Bruchac was slated to teach two courses this semester — ANTH 3420: "Dispossessions in the Americas: The Loss and Recovery of Indigenous Lands, Bodies, and Heritage" and ANTH 1490: "Introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies," a required core class. These classes were two of three NAIS classes that were originally scheduled to be offered this fall, according to an archived webpage from April.

Smallwood, who was enrolled in both classes that Bruchac was supposed to teach, told the DP she received no notification from Penn regarding the class cancellations. College junior Erin Marble — a NAIS minor who was also enrolled in one of Bruchac's now-canceled fall classes — said she had the same experience.

"We just noticed one day that it was not being offered anymore," Marble wrote in an email to the DP. "Later, we were told by [Bruchac] herself that they were being canceled due to her retirement."

The School of Arts and Sciences did not respond to a request for comment by publication about whether students were made aware of the faculty change before the semester began.

Limited course offerings

Bruchac's retirement has led to cascading effects on the list of NAIS course offerings, prompting many students interested in NAIS to rethink or drop the minor completely. 

While the NAIS website says the University offers about 30 courses that count toward the minor, only a few are actually taught each semester. No required core class has been taught since spring 2020, and every NAIS student since 2018 has needed to substitute courses to complete the minor, Bruchac said. 

“I don't really know what I'm going to do now," College junior and current DP staffer Mollie Benn, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said. "I would still love to, but it doesn't seem totally possible, and there's like no course offerings right now."

Benn said she was enrolled in a NAIS course that fit her schedule in spring 2023, but the course was canceled due to a lack of student interest.

Like Benn, Wharton junior and treasurer of Natives at Penn Ryly Ziese, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, said none of the NAIS course offerings fit her schedule due to conflicts with major-related classes.

“I'm just too far into my studies to try to play catch up at this point," she said. "I can't get my hopes up and think there's going to be multiple classes with [multiple] times."

College sophomore Carlyle Cornell, who is Indigenous, said that she is "stressed out" about her original plans to pursue the minor after putting "so much time into it" and now realizing that it might not be a possibility.

When asked about student concerns about completing the minor, Moore — the interim coordinator — wrote to the DP: “With careful planning and enough flexibility in their schedule, any College student should be able to make this work.”

In the past month, the NAIS website was updated with two new courses that would count towards the minor, making a total of three NAIS courses offered this fall. The number of offerings is down from seven in spring 2015.

Little Indigenous representation among faculty

All the students interviewed by the DP said that Bruchac's retirement as the University's sole tenured Indigenous professor has intensified their demands for Penn to hire more Indigenous professors – especially those who teach NAIS.

“What we're wanting to see is some sort of initiative,” Benn said.

The lack of Indigenous faculty has made some students apprehensive about completing the minor. For instance, one current course offering for the minor – ANTH 1410: "Public Policy, Museums & the Ethics of Cultural Heritage" – is taught by anthropology professor and NAIS faculty advisor Richard Leventhal, who is not Indigenous. 

While Marble praised Leventhal for doing “a really good job of being respectful towards a culture that is not his,” Smallwood said the lack of representation was a concern.  

“As a non-Native scholar, I feel really uncomfortable completing more than half of my degree from non-Native scholars as well,” Smallwood said. 

Leventhal agreed: “In teaching about Native American studies, one needs to hire Native Americans,” he said.

Bruchac said she was Penn's first targeted Native American hire meant to develop an interdisciplinary NAIS program across the University's many schools and departments. But as the program declined due to NAIS faculty dying, retiring, or moving to other schools, Penn administration made “no concerted effort" to hire more professors in the field, Bruchac said. 

"[The School of Arts and Sciences] employs inclusive hiring strategies to diversify its applicant pools for faculty in all fields, and also plans to engage faculty in discussions about ways to increase our expertise in Native American Studies," Fluharty and Dwyer wrote in their joint statement.

Ziese said there was an informal push within Natives at Penn last semester to get first years and sophomores to declare the NAIS minor early in order to demonstrate student interest and advocate for Penn to hire more Indigenous professors.  

When asked to comment on these demands, Moore wrote that “Faculty hiring is a [two to three] year process and will not happen in the short term.”

The future of the minor

Upon her retirement, Bruchac said there has been no response from administration and “virtually no action” to ensure NAIS remains a minor at Penn. NAIS currently has three faculty advisors, down from nine at the program's inception.

“There’s really no one directing the future of the program,” she said. 

Two NAIS courses are scheduled to be offered in spring 2024, one of which will be taught by Tina Pierce Fragoso, a senior advisor to the Dean for Equity and Belongingand a former recruiter for Native American applicants for Penn Admissions. Fragoso, who is not tenured, is a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation.

“Teaching this course offers me an opportunity to support the communities I love and to share my academic and lived experience as a Native American,” Fragoso wrote to the DP in an email. “It is my goal to help assure that the Native American and Indigenous Studies program at Penn not only grows but thrives.”

Despite the projected continuance of the minor, students still feel that Penn can do more to support Indigenous students and those who want to pursue the NAIS minor. 

“Nobody really knows about [the minor] except for the people I’ve talked to at Natives at Penn," Benn said.

Smallwood, whose choice to apply to Penn was partially motivated by the University's NAIS offerings, feels similarly. 

"I don’t trust [Penn] to preserve the NAIS minor at this point,” Smallwood said. “They’ve shown they’re completely unwilling to invest in this minor.”