The program's new director, Ted Van Alst, says he was wrongly caught up in a lawsuit over disputed sexual assault claims.

COURTESY: TED VAN ALST - Portland State University's new director of Indigenous Nations and Native American Studies degree program Ted Van Alst. Portland State University will start offering a major in Indigenous Nations and Native American Studies this fall. It will be the first university in Oregon to do so.

The new director of the program, Ted Van Alst, is moving from the University of Montana, where he chaired the Native American Studies department.

Before that, he worked at Yale University. The student newspaper there reported earlier this year that the university reached a settlement with a "John Doe" student who claimed to have been expelled over false sexual assault allegations. According to the newspaper report, the lawsuit claimed the allegations were actually a tribal power play in Yale's Native American Cultural Center and resulted in Van Alst leaving in 2014.

Van Alst says that's not true.

"I am not nor have I ever been a party to any lawsuit, so I'm not sure why the Doe lawsuit speculates in that way. Perhaps to bolster their lawsuit?" he wrote via email. "I received and accepted an offer from the University of Montana in July 2014, so I left a Yale administrative position for the opportunity to return to research and teaching."

The lawsuit claimed Van Alst supported the man falsely accused of sexual assault.

"We don't comment on lawsuits," said university spokesman Kenny Ma in response to questions.

Teaching genocidal and colonized history

In the new indigenous studies major program, students will be able to take unusual classes like "Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability," "Native American Psychological Healing," and "Barrio Culture: Art and Literature."

Those electives are in addition to a core curriculum that includes: "Indigenous Women Leadership," "Contemporary Issues in Indian Country," and "Decolonizing Methodologies: Insurgent Research and Indigenous Education."

"One of the ways that we challenge the reality of a genocidal and colonized history with respect to Indigenous peoples is that, intellectually, we do whatever we need to do to honor the sophistication and complexities of those experiences," said Winston Grady-Willis, director of PSU's School of Gender, Race and Nations, in a news release.

To graduate with the major, a PSU student will need to pass 56 credits of such courses.

The process to create the major program began with a minor cobbled together from anthropology and other courses in 2002. But, say university officials, the intention was always to create a major.

Last summer, Indigenous Nations Studies Director Cornel Pewewardy retired, which kicked off a small movement to follow through on that promise of creating a major.

Hundreds of petitioners and survey respondents overwhelmingly called for the major program, according to university spokeswoman Cristina Rojas. The degree program cleared its last hurdle in June with a unanimous vote from the statewide Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The first degrees in the new program could be handed out as early as next year.

See Portland State University's website for more information.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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