Duke Professor Advances Native American Studies

Dr. Courtney Lewis cultivates cultural bridges with Native American Studies Initiative

-By Charles Givens

August 16, 2023

Dr. Courtney Lewis, the Crandall Family Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, is on a mission to reshape the academic landscape by bolstering the University’s commitment to Native American studies. Inspired by her pioneering father, who was the first American Indian to earn a Ph.D in social work and played a pivotal role in passing the Indian Child Welfare Act, Dr. Lewis has dedicated her career to promoting cultural understanding and economic self-sufficiency within Native communities.

Portrait photo of Dr. Courtney Lewis (photo courtesy of Scholars@Duke).
Portrait photo of Dr. Courtney Lewis (photo courtesy of Scholars@Duke).

Dr. Lewis’ arrival in Durham is related to the tireless efforts of Duke’s Native student population. In a petition to Duke’s senior leadership, students petitioned more Native American representation among the faculty, which directly led to the hiring of Dr. Lewis. Dr. Lewis saw the opportunity to shape Native American studies program at Duke. The first step in this undertaking is the creation of the Native American Studies Initiative (NASI). With assistance from the Office of Global Affairs, Trinity College and the Partnership for Less Commonly Taught Languages, Dr. Lewis has quickly stood up a central hub for all Native American studies.

The NASI wordmark. The logo for NASI is based on a symbol from ancient Native American historic carvings and drawings.

Dr. Lewis sees three key pillars that will guide NASI: visibility and acknowledgment, accountability and cohesiveness. “Visibility and acknowledgement are the biggest things I hope to accomplish,” said Dr. Lewis. “The acknowledgment of both the Native history on campus and of Native peoples, but also their contemporary place today.” To enhance visibility, she plans to host speakers, collaborate with Duke Campus Farm to develop and grow historic Native plants and foster research initiatives that prioritize Indigenous perspectives.


The concept of accountability has driven her to collaborate with the university on an agreement that will go beyond notoriously ineffective land acknowledgements and to facilitate increased representation of Native American staff and faculty. Lastly, Dr. Lewis aims to nurture a sense of community among Native American individuals at Duke, forging connections between various departments to foster an inclusive campus environment.

“[NASI] should enable a cohesiveness and a unity regarding the Native presence on campus,” said Dr. Lewis. “One of the reasons there wasn’t this cohesiveness [before] is because there was no central point for people to go when they had, or were looking for, an NAS event, speaker, or research opportunity. By having NASI as a central focus point for Native American studies, my hope is that it will help other departments at Duke.”


Having only arrived at Duke in 2022, Dr. Lewis is already boldly thinking short-term and long-term with plans for the Native American Studies Initiative. “I am already working on a Native American studies minor,” said Dr. Lewis. “That is my first step. I have a rough draft of the minor in place, but it’s very rough right now.”

Long-term, Dr. Lewis envisions Duke becoming a national leader in Native American studies. “My vision is much bigger, however. I want Duke to have an entire American Indian Center, and Duke is in a prime place to make that happen,” said Dr. Lewis. “We have a lot to work with in terms of state-recognized Native nations, and of course the history of Native peoples is deeply complex here.” Dr. Lewis is referring to the existence of a Trinity Industrial College boarding school for Native boys in the late 1800s.

Dr. Lewis’ efforts to establish the Native American Studies Initiative at Duke reflect her aspiration to dispel stereotypes, increase cultural awareness and create an inclusive environment that honors the vibrant and resilient Native American communities of North Carolina and beyond.