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Reckoning Over Racism Prompts University of Miami To Address A Gap: 'We Have No Indigenous Perspectives On Our Campus'

A flyer advertises the first course in the University of Miami's new indigenous studies program.
Courtesy of the University of Miami
A flyer advertises the first course in the University of Miami's new indigenous studies program.

A grant program designed to dismantle anti-Black racism has led to a new initiative: Native American studies.

Caroline LaPorte said she never met another Native American student when she was in law school at the University of Miami.

A descendant of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, LaPorte graduated in 2014 and now serves as a judicial advisor for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"You're situated in between, and on, the ancestral lands of two modern, federally-recognized tribes and you don't have student representation from either of them?" LaPorte said, referring to the Seminoles as well as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

"What is that saying, really?" she said.

Faculty and students at the private university have been raising the same question, especially against the backdrop of a national reckoning over racial injustice.

After the murder of George Floyd last May, the University of Miami, among others, pledged to support research and academic projects aimed at dismantling racism. While the grant funding was initially offered for projects addressing racism against Black Americans, it has led to a different initiative that professors and students argue is long overdue: a program in Native American and Indigenous studies.

People who are Indigenous to the U.S. mainland and Alaska make up only 0.1% of the student body at the school, according to the most recently available federal data. That’s slightly lower than the national average for private universities.

"If we truly want to make the University of Miami a diverse place where everybody feels welcome and everybody feels like they have a voice, … we have to accept the fact that we have no Indigenous perspectives on our campus, and we have to address it immediately," said Tracy Devine Guzmán, a professor who specializes in Indigenous history, culture and politics in Brazil and the Andes.

"The disparity in that regard is really shocking," she said.

Guzmán got a $78,000 grant from the university to launch the new Native American and Global Indigenous Studies program. Initially, the program consists of an introductory course and a speaker series featuring Indigenous scholars.

Guzmán is hoping to attract enough interest and funding to create a degree program, something only about 100 other colleges in the country offer.

She recruited LaPorte to teach the first course, which is virtual this semester.

LaPorte said her goals in teaching the course are to break down racist stereotypes about Native Americans and train the next generation of advocates.

For example, "when I talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, … I'm not talking about it from an academic perspective. My perspective on it is an urgent one," LaPorte said.

"We need people to care about these things," she said.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.