Dept Banner
Dept Banner

Bringing a Native American Perspective to American Studies

New Rutgers faculty member Jimmy Sweet is Lakota and Dakota

Jimmy Sweet

Jameson “Jimmy” Sweet, the first Native American professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University, had initially set out to become an architect.

“That was my dream when I was in high school,” says Sweet, who joined the School of Arts and Sciences faculty in 2018. “It didn’t occur to me at that age that I could make history or American studies or anything like that into a career.”

But he was always passionate about researching his family’s roots in the Dakota and Lakota tribes of the upper Midwest. He learned how his maternal grandmother had grown up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, speaking Lakota as a first language. The family, which made its living running cattle, left the reservation for Traverse City, Mich. during the Great Depression after grasshoppers had laid waste to the grazing lands.

Jimmy Sweet feather artifact “I’d trace back my family’s history and see ‘oh, they were involved in this, or they were influenced by that,’’’ says Sweet, who spent most of his childhood in Michigan. “That was how I got into history.”

By the time Sweet was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, he concluded that architecture was not his calling. So he began taking history courses and quickly realized he had found his path.

“I loved history,” he said. “I was excited to be doing something I loved and had a personal connection with.”

He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Minnesota, the first university in the nation to establish a Department of American Indian Studies. His dissertation focused on how Native Americans of mixed race were treated differently by the tribal communities as well as by federal authorities, exploring the legal, political, and social ramifications of those disparities.

At Rutgers, Sweet joins an American studies department renowned for its teaching and research on a range of topics, from law and politics to race, gender, and sexuality; and from pop culture and folklore to technology. Louis Masur, department chair, says Sweet brings a critical element to the mix.

“You can’t tell the story of American culture without telling the story of Native Americans,” Masur says. “Jimmy is at the forefront of our efforts to build Native American studies at Rutgers.”

Masur noted that many Big Ten schools have programs in Native American and indigenous studies. He added that the department has another new faculty member, Carla Cevasco, whose research includes examining cross-cultural interactions among Native, European, and African peoples in colonial America.

“I think we’re reaching a critical mass where we can offer students subject matter that’s very eye-opening and that they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the region,” Masur says.

At Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Sweet is one of a number of faculty members who have made Native American studies a significant part of their scholarship. They include Camilla Townsend and Peter Silver of the Department of History and Brad Evans and Chris Iannini of the Department of English.

Sweet wants to collaborate with faculty and graduate students across Arts and Sciences with an eye toward building a core group of scholars interested in the study of indigenous peoples.

Jimmy Sweets “There are people here who are doing this work but they’re spread out and may not really know each other,” he said. “I’d love to build up some kind of a working group so we can get together, share information, and share courses.”

In his first year, Sweet taught courses such as “Native American Civil Rights Movement” and “Native American Autobiographies.” This year he’s teaching the “Native American Experience,” which investigates thousands of years of history and cultural production and is part of the SAS Core Curriculum. He’s also teaching “Indigenous America,” exploring issues facing American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and American Pacific Islanders.

Sweet says that student coming into his classes have little knowledge of Native Americans but are eager to learn.

“Many students don’t realize that Native Americans are still around, and that, in fact, they exist right here in New Jersey,” Sweet says. “They perceive that Native American history ended some 200 years ago.”

In fact, Native Americans in the Garden State have been at the center of major news stories over the last decade, including filing a federal lawsuit to have their official state recognition restored and seeking to hold the Ford Motor Company responsible for dumping toxic materials in areas of Ringwood where many Ramapough Indians live.

Sweet is thinking about ways to engage with the Native American communities in New Jersey, where there are three state-recognized tribes: the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, the Powhatan Renape Nation, and the Ramapough Lunaape Nation. Sweet met some of the state’s tribal leaders at the New Jersey Folk Festival, and they shared their desire for a course on Native Americans in New Jersey.

“I think it would be great for us to become a resource for the community, and to draw more Native American students,” he said.