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Saturday, September 30, 2023

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John Rouillard, center, served as the inaugural chair of the American Indian Studies department.

American Indian Inspiration

Alumni and others remember the beginning of SDSU’s American Indian Studies program, one of the first in the country.
By Lorena Nava Ruggero

With the largest number of reservations of any county in the U.S., it is perhaps no surprise that San Diego also boasts one of the first academic departments dedicated to the study of American Indian history and culture.

Now in its 35th year, the Department of American Indian Studies was founded during a decade in which San Diego State also established the women's studies and Chicana/Chicano studies departments. Administrators asked John Rouillard, a Santee Sioux and respected leader in the urban Indian community, to build its new academic program.

“There weren’t any such thing as American Indian studies classes back then,” said Kay Rouillard, John’s wife. “No colleges had them."

In the beginning

Linda Locklear, a former student of John Rouillard’s and a two-time alumnus of SDSU, recalled the political climate and the department’s development in the mid-‘70s.

“You’ve got students and community people, elders, people from the reservation all saying, ‘we’ve got a history; we’ve got a culture; why isn’t this part of the academy?’” Locklear recalled. “The American Indian movement and the political climate at the time in the United States with civil rights, it was paralleling what was going with the department’s founding.”

...[campus powows were] very powerful because
— for myself and many of my friends —
it was the first time setting foot on a university campus.

Locklear, a member of North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe, is now a professor of American Indian studies at Palomar College and a lecturer in the SDSU department. She acknowledged John Rouillard’s role in her life.

“He was an inspirational person, a great role model,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for John Rouillard, I know I would not be doing what I’m doing today. I really give him credit for being on the path that I am.”

Generation to generation

Today, the department and the community that John Rouillard started in the 1970s continue to inspire the newest generation of American Indian leaders, like recent alumnus Ral Christman.

“To know there was a native organization on campus where I could go and meet with people who maybe had a similar background to me was very, very powerful,” said Christman, a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. “And to know as a kid growing up that SDSU had events like powwows, it was very powerful because — for myself and many of my friends — it was the first time setting foot on a university campus.”

John Rouillard's grandaughter, Willow Rouillard, a 2010 graduate of the program, said her grandfather created a formula for success that has evolved through generations of Native American leaders.

"I'm proud of my grandfather and the course that he helped set," she said.