Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

About the NAIS Initiative at Penn

Native American and Indigenous Studies

The Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Initiative at Penn focuses on the cultures and histories of Native Americans, First Nations, and other Indigenous peoples. Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have devised a wide variety of courses and opportunities for academic study, collaborative research, and field work projects that engage with Indigenous communities and knowledges from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Students can explore a diverse range of topics, including: cross-cultural historical encounters, heritage landscapes, language recovery, cultural performance, law and sovereignty, museum anthropology, archaeology, decolonizing methods, and more. Many NAIS courses are cross-listed in more than one department (e.g., Anthropology, History, Religion). Cultural, political, epistemological, and methodological insights gained in NAIS courses can help students better understand cross-cultural and trans-national histories. NAIS Faculty often use comparative case studies of Indigenous communities in different world settings, past and present, to illuminate current issues, locally and globally, using methods and theories drawn among and between different disciplines.

Diverse Cultures and Nations: The field of NAIS, by definition, is culturally, ethnically, and intellectually diverse. In the northern and southern hemispheres of the Americas, there are more than 600 Indigenous nations (also called Indians, American Indians, and First Nations), each with distinct tribal identities and kinship relations, modes of preserving and transmitting traditional knowledges, relationships with local ecosystems, and social and political alliances with other groups. Globally, NAIS scholarship includes research with and among Indigenous communities in diverse worldwide locales (e.g., Australian Aboriginals, New Zealand Maoris, Caribbean peoples, etc.). 

Inter-disciplinary Research: Graduate and undergraduate students in NAIS can pursue research projects that involve cultural, historical, sociological, literary, archeological, and other methods of analysis, using a wide variety of approaches. Legal questions, for example, are important to the field of NAIS, in light of human rights assertions, land claims, political resistance, and other complex negotiations of power and agency among Indigenous nations vis-à-vis modern nation states. Indigenous scholars have been particularly influential in designing innovative projects that encourage community and collaborative fieldwork and incorporate traditional knowledges into both scientific and humanistic research. Academic journals and publications in the field of NAIS often highlight unexpected linkages among seemingly disparate academic disciplines.

Studies in NAIS often cross-cut disciplines, or engage both scientific and humanistic approaches. Some examples include the following:

  • Projects in cultural recovery, language restoration, and/or digital repatriation may combine performing and visual arts, or link anthropological, linguistic, and comparative literature studies. pedagogies
  • Issues of heritage preservation and traditional landscapes may be explored through historical research that considers evidence from archaeological digs, architectural studies, and museum collections.
  • Research into political formations in tribal communities must consider the impacts of settler colonialism and law on questions of contemporary sovereignty, autonomy, governance, and economy.
  • The new sub-field of Indigenous archaeologies encourages the use of Indigenous epistemologies, collaborative research, and decolonizing methodologies in examining ancient site use and interpretation.
  • The identification and revitalization of Indigenous traditions and cultural patrimony may be facilitated through collaboration among Indigenous knowledge-keepers, museum curators, and academic scholars.
  • Creative links have been forged among such diverse topics as oral traditions, ethnographic study, heritage recovery, education, healing modalities, and artistic representation.

Special Events: The NAIS Initiative at Penn and the members of the NAIS Faculty Working Group also host a variety of special events and guest speakers---such as the recent NAIS Conference "Indigenous Knowledge in the Academy"---with broad support from Penn faculty, departments, and administrators. These events are designed to offer Penn students and faculty the chance to engage with respected knowledge-bearers in the field of NAIS across multiple academic disciplines, and to inspire innovative collaborations with Indigenous communities, college programs, and research institutions. 

Cross-cultural Partnerships: Penn's NAIS faculty have forged unique knowledge-sharing partnerships with a wide variety of First Nations communities, academic institutions, and cultural heritage organizations. Examples include: the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Ohsweken, Six Nations Ontario; the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, at Syracuse University, New York; and the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture, a coalition of Native American and First Nations communities and academic institutions in the US and Canada.

NAIS faculty are also learning from, and interacting with, the directors and founders of Native American Studies Programs elsewhere (Dartmouth, Cornell, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Syracuse, etc.), so that they can benefit from the knowledge of experts in the field, and thereby provide excellent educational and research opportunities for Penn students.

For information on the new Native American & Indigenous Studies Minor at Penn, see NAIS Courses.

For assistance in developing unique study programs and research projects, contact the NAIS Faculty.

For additional inspiration, review the examples of current projects listed in NAIS Research.

For funding opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at Penn, see NAIS Opportunities.