Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, often lives in the shadow of its nearby neighbor, the University of Kansas. For those studying the intricacies of Native American history and Indigenous studies in North America, few higher learning institutions rival Haskell’s reputation. One crucial voice amongst the college’s many educators is Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Eric Anderson, a Nadeau family descendant.
Today, Anderson works in what he considers his hometown. Though he moved around a bit as a child, including stints in Oklahoma, he graduated from high school in Lawrence, Kansas.
The areas in and around Topeka, Kansas, share deep ties to Potawatomi history, with the then-Mission Band and Prairie Band eventually settling there in the middle of the 19th century. Anderson did not grow up in what some may consider a “traditional” household, even though he grew up near the two tribes’ historic jurisdictions.
“We knew we were Citizen Potawatomi, but the real connection came from my grandfather,” Anderson said.
His grandfather’s interest in the family’s Tribal past came as a result of his service in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
“Interactions with Indigenous cultures in the Pacific piqued his interest,” Anderson said. “He was a medical doctor but also read widely into anthropology, which may be where I get it from.”
Childhood visits south to Yukon, Oklahoma, to see his grandparents proved the building blocks for Anderson’s academic and professional path.
While he had opportunities to study outside of his home state of Kansas, including Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Anderson found the pull of being close to home a powerful draw. That, and the then-price of tuition at Harvard — approximately $16,000 per semester — was daunting.
“I can’t even imagine what it costs now,” Anderson said. “So, I stayed in Lawrence.”
At the University of Kansas, Anderson’s undergraduate studies focused on political science and philosophy. As graduation approached, he became increasingly drawn to the studies of a well-known professor Rita Napier, Ph.D.
Widely recognized for her expertise of the American West, Native American history and Kansas, Napier also established KU’s first program for Native American history.
Under her tutelage, Anderson undertook graduate and doctoral degrees, completing the latter in 2009. He focused on the relationships between the United States and the Indigenous societies it encountered. With his political science and philosophy background, Anderson enjoyed focusing on historical intersections of the federal and tribal governments in American history.
Upon completion of his MA, Anderson joined Haskell Indian Nations University as an adjunct professor. Today he is an instructor in the school’s Indigenous and American Indian Studies Department and is an expert on Haskell’s own long and complicated history. He oversees the work of students taking part in the KU-Haskell bridge program on Native American history in the state as well as an American Indian film studies course. Additionally he supervises internships in the Indigenous and American Indian Studies curriculum. Anderson is most passionate about the senior capstone project course he instructs.
“Seeing these seniors at the end of their time, how they’ve grown and put the knowledge they’ve gained to the test in the capstone, is something I really enjoy,” Anderson said.
Though his employer is a fraction of the size of KU, Anderson said the interest in teaching at Haskell was due in part to its unique position as a university for Native Americans.
“Every day, we learn about different tribal people, whether historical or contemporary aspects of their lives,” he said. “It is a small school, but the diversity here is staggering.”
First opened in 1884 as the U.S. Indian Industrial Training School, the institution brought Native Americans from across the U.S. to Lawrence. The first class boasted 22 students who were under the direction of government-appointed instructors. After arriving, students were “westernized” while being simultaneously removed from their tribal families, languages and cultures. Originally designed along the “kill the Indian … to save the man” ethos of Carlisle Indian Industrial School founder Richard Henry Pratt, the institution has evolved from its sobering past.
In 1970, the school moved away from its original educational directions, re-opening as a two-year junior college.
In a 2015 interview with the Kansas City Star, Anderson pointed out that milestone served as a turning point for the institution.
“That is when we finally began to bloom,” said Anderson. “It’s when Haskell began to move toward the level of education that the early generations of American Indians envisioned for their children.”
By 1993, it became a full four-year university. Today, Haskell treads a far more positive path in its original goal of educating Native Americans. Instruction is no longer only technical, agricultural and mechanically focused, and it now offers more traditional liberal arts curriculum. Another stark difference is that the faculty are — like the majority of students hailing from more than 140 federally recognized tribes — Native Americans. Anderson is one such faculty member, bringing his own experiences to his instruction.
With students and coworkers from tribes across North America, Anderson has experienced what many Citizen Potawatomi have on occasion: not fitting the Native American stereotype.
“I’ve run into it, but I use it and talk about it in my courses,” he said. “I tell them to ‘look around the room, and you’ll see every skin and eye color and body type imaginable.’”
Anderson’s goal is to help his students understand a critical component of education at an institution like Haskell.
“Our ability as tribal citizens to determine your own membership is an inherent right of sovereignty — no one gets to tell you who is or isn’t a part of your tribe,” Anderson said.
He is currently working on a book about the history of Haskell Institute and regularly gives presentations on it to groups around the state. In May, the professor stood before more than 50 Citizen Potawatomi members at the CPN Rossville Community Center, describing his employer’s inception and purpose in 19th century America.
“To have a CPN member present this to our Kansas Potawatomi was an honor,” said District 4 Legislator Jon Boursaw. “Professor Anderson is well known for his academic and historical work, so to have him visit here and tell this history was fantastic.”
In addition to his work on Haskell, Anderson is also working on an American Indian studies and Native American history textbook.
Learn more about enrollment and continuing education opportunities at Haskell by visiting haskell.edu.