In 1968–69, American Indian students on campus met with then-Chancellor Young to consider what the University could do to better serve the Indian community. A task force was established to examine existing American Indian programs throughout the nation. Following a year of fact-finding, a series of recommendations was submitted, including the establishment of a faculty advisory committee that served as a search and screen committee for the hiring of a program coordinator.
In 1972, the Native American Studies Program was established on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The primary purpose of the program was to coordinate the development of Native American Studies courses and recruitment of American Indian faculty. The program also served as the primary link between American Indian students and other university departments and administration.
John Niemisto, a newly graduated law student, was hired as the first Native American Studies Program coordinator in 1973. In 1975, Truman Lowe was hired to succeed Mr. Niemisto. Due to a limited pool of qualified Native American scholars and program budget, program goals and objectives were shifted in 1976. The major change was the shift of efforts in recruitment to the development of programs that bring more attention to and a greater awareness of American Indian culture and related contemporary issues to the campus community. It was also in 1976 the Program office was moved from the UW-Madison Law School to the School of Education in the Educational Sciences Building.
Ada Deer, the American Indian Studies Program Director until 2007, was hired in 1977 as a half-time lecturer with responsibilities for curriculum development and faculty recruitment. She had been employed at the School of Social Work since 1975.
During the 1987–88 school year, the name of the Native American Studies Program was changed to the American Indian Studies Program. Also during 1988, the American Indian Studies Program was elevated in status and was permanently transferred from the School of Education to the College of Letters and Sciences. With this also came a physical move to Ingraham Hall, where the Program office currently resides.
In 1995, the American Indian Studies Program proposed to establish a Certificate in American Indian Studies. The decision to submit the proposal was approved by a unanimous vote of the faculty affiliated with the program. The certificate was first offered in 1997. The faculty has expanded in recent decades to include associate and full-time members in the departments of Anthropology, English, Art History, Linguistics, Law, Life Sciences Communication, Art, and Journalism and Mass Communication.
The American Indian Studies Program functions in tandem with the greater University community to provide academic, cultural, research, and organizational support for students, staff, and faculty who are interested in American Indians.