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Indigenous Peoples’ claims for retributive justice are leading to debates over restitution and the legal, political and moral consequences of the acknowledgment of past wrongs. What are the ramifications of the right to self-determination for Indigenous Peoples in a contemporary world? Collective and individual identities and human rights may be in tension with each other. How are these to be reconciled? Gender and generational differentiations may underscore not just individual rifts, but the potentially broader conflict within groups themselves. What could be a human rights response to such conflicts? Economic interests of majorities are put forward to justify displacement, dispossession and other violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. And the hunger for the world’s still unexplored natural resources that reside on Indigenous Peoples’ lands motivates major decisions of governments and the private sector, with unclear commitment to benefit sharing and even the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.  How are conflicting claims and rights between Indigenous Peoples and the dominant society to be resolved? What should be the role of the state in these conflicts? Is the dichotomy between western knowledge and indigenous knowledge a true dichotomy? Can one think “scientifically” and yet be open to an indigenous worldview? Does the adoption of Western epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies really entail the wholesale rejection of their indigenous counterparts and vice-versa? What is the role of expressive culture and aesthetics in these inquiries? How do they reveal and help us think through indigenous sovereignty or its pursuit, indigenous epistemologies, inter- and intra-community conflict over definitions of identity, social roles, relationships to the physical world and political organization and action?

The University Seminar on Indigenous Studies at Columbia provides the opportunity for sharing research on these many critical issues, which are challenging and unsettling scholars, researchers, and practitioners in and around this field. Discussions revolve around contentious and emerging issues in the field of indigenous studies and research and contribute to the advancement of the field.

Professor Pamela Calla

Professor Elsa Stamatopoulou

Romina Quezada Morales

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.


Meeting Schedule

10/07/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Southeastern Experiences Beyond Removal: Remembering, Forgetting and Mythologizing Louisiana's Petite Nations
Elizabeth Ellis, New York University


The discussion will focus on the final chapter of Professor Ellis' current manuscript project. This project, which is tentatively titled “Power on the Margins: The Petites Nations and the Transformations of the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1650-1800,” investigates the histories of Louisiana’s small Native American polities during the eighteenth century. This work analyzes the ways these nations shaped European colonization efforts and influenced the lives of all of the inhabitants of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Furthermore, it aims to tell an alternative Southeastern Indian history by focusing on small Native polities that mostly aim to avoid coalescing into nation states, and whose descendants mostly avoid removal. To talk collectively about these small Native polities, the author uses the terminology that French settlers first developed to talk about the many small Native polities that had homelands in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Broadly, she characterizes these petites nations as any group of Native people with a population of fewer than 2,000 people. Most of Professor Ellis' manuscript focuses on how these smaller Native groups are able to exercise power, and the majority of the narrative focuses on emphasizing the substantive influence that these small polities had on the variety of “failed” colonial efforts in the region. This chapter then is a divergence from this pattern, and seeks to emphasize how petites nations people navigate losses of power at the turn of the nineteenth century. The chapter that immediately precedes this one, examines how increasingly pressure from Choctaws and Euro-Americans begins to destabilize the petites nations’ diplomatic networks and land claims in the 1770s and 1780s. This chapter then takes this story a step further to look at the combined processes of dispossession and erasure, and the immense resilience of these small polities in the wake of this violence.

11/06/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Desecration, profit and the protection of Indigenous sacred sites in Australia’s Northern Territory
Benedict Scambary, Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority of Australia's Northern Territory


A beneficial framework for the protection of Indigenous sacred sites has existed in Australia’s Northern Territory for nearly 40 years. Drawing on a contested history of frontier development and the preservation of Indigenous cultural values and landscapes, this presentation will highlight the extents and limitations of cultural recognition afforded to Indigenous peoples by the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. Examples of mining within this context starkly highlight the contested space of cultural value in Australia, and illustrate the inequitable frameworks of recognition that exist for Australia’s First Nations people more broadly.

12/04/2019 Faculty House, Columbia University
6:00 PM
Appropriating Trauma and Trademarking Aloha: Culinary Neocolonialism in Oceania
Hi'ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, Columbia University


In the summer of 2017, the Illinois-based fast casual restaurant chain Aloha Poke claimed trademark over “Aloha” and “Aloha Poke,” sending out cease and desist letters to similar businesses around the country, including several owned by Kanaka Maoli. Two years later, in the summer of 2019, a Texas-based microbrewery named Manhattan Project Beer Co. re-released their “Bikini Atoll” brew, much to the dismay of the Republic of the Marshall Islands – and the outrage of many others – for their insensitive treatment of the irreparable devastation caused by American nuclear testing in World War II. Bringing these two events into the same frame of analysis, I identify the actions of Aloha Poke and Manhattan Project Beer as a phenomenon that scholars have variously termed gastrocolonialism or culinary imperialism, in which “unequal power relationships in economic, political, racial, or other terms” are expressed through the repurposing, appropriating, or domineering of the cuisine of subaltern peoples. In these cases, Pacific possession becomes enacted through the commoditization of Indigenous language, food, and history, in such a way that produces Pacific Islanders as at once hypervisible and obscured. My analysis posits that, when food associated with the Pacific transits, and is translated, across the broad stolen territories of America, it tells us much about the limited and restricted ways that places like Hawaiʻi and Bikini – their people, land, and culture – are valued within the frameworks of ongoing American imperialism.

Respondent: Aaron A. Fox, Columbia University

02/04/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
The Culturalization of Bedouin Indigeneity
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Columbia University

Respondent: Elsa Stamatopoulou, Columbia University

03/03/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Outposts: Fort Laramie, Indigenous Identity, and the Crossroads of History
Tiffany Hale, Barnard College, Columbia University

Respondent: Sedelta Oosahwee, National Education Association

03/09/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
meeting cancelled

04/01/2020 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
meeting cancelled