Native American studies (also known as American Indian, Indigenous American, Aboriginal, Native, or First Nations studies) is an interdisciplinary academic field that examines the history, culture, politics, issues, and contemporary experience of Native peoples in North America, or, taking a hemispheric approach, the Americas. Increasingly, debate has focused on the differences rather than the similarities between other Ethnic studies disciplines such as African American studies, Asian American Studies, and Latino/a Studies. In particular, the political sovereignty of many indigenous nations marks substantive differences in historical experience from that of other racial and ethnic groups in the United States and Canada. Drawing from numerous disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, history, literature, political science, and gender studies, Native American studies scholars consider a variety of perspectives and employ diverse analytical and methodological tools in their work.
Two key concepts shape Native American studies, according to Crow Creek Lakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, indigenousness (as defined in culture, geography, and philosophy) and sovereignty (as legally and historically defined). Practitioners advocate for decolonization of indigenous peoples, political autonomy, and the establishment of a discipline dedicated to alleviating contemporary problems facing indigenous peoples.
The Native historical experience in the Americas is marked by forcible and sometimes willing attempts at assimilation into mainstream European American culture (Americanization). Beginning with missionaries and leading up to federally controlled schools, the aim was to educate American Indians so that they could go back to their communities and facilitate the assimilation process. As cited by David Beck in his article "American Indian Higher Education before 1974: From Colonization to Self-Determination," the schools were used as a tool for assimilation. Their main focus was not intellectual but to give training for industrial jobs or domestic jobs.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s contested mainstream methods of assimilationist indoctrination and the substance of what was being taught in K-12 schools and universities throughout the United States. American Indian students, coupled with sympathetic professors, assisted in creating new programs with new aims. Rather than being focused on Indians going back to their communities to educate along the lines of assimilation there was a move to educate for empowerment. Programs that did community outreach and focused on student retention in campuses have risen out of that movement. Furthermore, the programs in schools created a new interpretation for American Indian history, sociology, and politics.
During the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars in March 1970 at Princeton University, indigenous scholars drafted a plan to develop "Native American Studies as an Academic Disclipine," which would defend indigenous control of their lands and indigenous rights and would ultimately reform US Indian Policy. This discipline would be informed by traditional indigenous knowledge, especially oral history, and would "defend indigenous nationhood in America."
In direct opposition to Western anthropology, the knowledge base of Native American studies is endogenous, or emerging from within the indigenous communities. Developers of Native American studies widely dismissed the notion of scientific objectivity, since Western cultural biases have historically informed anthropology and other disciplines.