Keith James began his stint as the new head of the University of Arizona Department of American Indian Studies this fall, and he is already working to expand the department’s curriculum and program offerings to better prepare students to meet the needs of tribal communities. With a focus on tribal health and indigenous entrepreneurship, James is aiming to build on existing strengths at the UA that complement workforce development priorities of Native Nations.
“I am delighted that Dr. James has joined the UA and is going to be establishing a much stronger foundation for American Indian Studies,” said Karen Francis-Begay, the UA assistant vice president for tribal relations.
For James, coming to the UA is a homecoming of sorts, bringing him back to the university where he received his Ph.D. in social psychology and organizational behavior in 1986. In fact, James credits his time at the UA, where he encountered many Native students and faculty, with increasing his interest in working with Native groups.
“My goal is to visit all 22 Arizona tribes before the end of the academic year,” James said.
James joined the UA from Portland State University where he was a professor of industrial/organizational psychology and Indigenous Nations Studies. His research is focused on Native community sustainability and Native Americans’ perceptions of science and technology. He also researches creativity and innovation in the workplace; organizational diversity; and organizational cybersecurity.
Of Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois Confederacy") descent, James has worked with indigenous communities all over the world on topics that include community and economic development; educational programming; and environmental sustainability. James led the start-up of a statewide Alaska Native/Native American psychology program for the University of Alaska. He was also program officer with the National Science Foundation where one of his duties was working with tribal colleges.
The UA AIS department, which joined the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2014, is on the cusp of expansion. Just this summer it added a B.A. in American Indian Studies, making the UA the first and only university in Arizona to offer a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in the discipline, and the only university in the Southwest to offer the three degrees and a joint M.A./J.D. degree.
James is working to ramp up the B.A. program by adding new classes and revising graduate courses so undergraduates can also enroll.
“I want to see the strengths of the graduate program duplicated at the undergraduate level and new strengths at the undergraduate level that filter up to the graduate program,” James said.
James also envisions adding several new concentrations. For instance, in response to feedback from tribal communities, one of James’s priorities is to create a B.S. program with concentrations in tribal health and indigenous entrepreneurship.
“Tribes may have a hard time seeing how a very general B.A. will address their priorities, so I’m emphasizing concentrations that will provide skills that the tribes see as priorities,” James said. “I want them to see AIS as a good unit to partner with, send students to, and collaborate with on research and applied projects.”
The tribal health concentration will provide a much-needed work force prepared to tackle health issues, such as diabetes, that affect indigenous populations.
James is working with the UA Native American Research and Training Center and the Arizona Health Sciences Center on the tribal health concentration, looking for opportunities to collaborate on courses. He sees the concentration as creating a pipeline of students for graduate programs in health sciences.
The indigenous entrepreneurship concentration, a collaboration with the Eller College of Management, is needed to address the stilted economic development often found in tribal areas.
“The tribes have historically tended to do more top-down economic development and that hasn’t created enough opportunities to meet the needs of members,” James said. “There is a lot of interest in doing more bottom-up business development.”
To help build that program, on October 13, John Paul Jones III, dean of the College of SBS, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Michael Hawes, the executive director from the Canadian Fulbright Foundation, to have a Canadian Indigenous Entrepreneurship Faculty Fellow join the AIS department for each of the next five years. As part of a joint hire with the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship in the Eller College of Management, AIS will also be adding a faculty member who will focus on Indian/indigenous entrepreneurship.
Frances-Begay is excited that James is forging internal partnerships and building on existing strengths at the UA to help tribal communities. She says the indigenous entrepreneurship concentration “goes to a critical need that many of these communities have.”
James is also trying to expand collaborations with the tribal colleges and separately met with representatives from Tohono O’odham Community College and Diné College—the latter is a community college run by the Navajo Nation.
“He’s getting out in the field and really developing a new vision for the department,” said Frances-Begay, who has accompanied James on some of these trips. “I see so much amazing work he’s already doing.”
By: Lori Harwood, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences