She has been called the Native American Maya Angelou, and at a time when most people who are decades younger have retired or cut back on their activities, Henrietta Mann is still crisscrossing the United States teaching, speaking and advocating for Native American education.
Even though Mann left Bozeman eight years ago for a job with her Southern Cheyenne Tribe in Oklahoma, she still refers to Montana as home and remains affiliated with Montana State University in several ways.
“I continue to do the work that (MSU) President Cruzado wants me to do,” Mann said. The founding recipient of the Endowed Chair in Native American Studies at MSU, Mann is MSU professor emeritus of Native American Studies and remains a founding and active member of MSU’s Council of Elders.
Mann said she now lives close to the town in Oklahoma where she grew up. Family lore has it that when Mann was born there, deep into the era of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the poverty of the Great Depression, her family formed a tight circle outside. Her great-grandmother White Buffalo Woman, a Cheyenne prayer woman, held Mann as she would a sacred pipe, holding her up in the four directions while praying for Mann’s long life and successful future.
It appears White Buffalo Woman’s prayers were heard because Mann, now 82, has become an influential Native American academic. Mann has also become a Cheyenne prayer women as well as a spiritual mentor. That responsibility has taken her around the world offering prayers. For instance, she has prayed on the grounds of the World Trade Center shortly after 9/11. She has also prayed at Stonehenge and New Zealand and Cape Canaveral at the launch of the first Native American astronaut. And, she has prayed many times at MSU, where she taught for eight years until she left in 2008 to become the founding president of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal College. The school was located on the campus of Mann’s alma mater, Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma. The fledgling college became a victim to the recent recession, Mann said, but she remains active in tribal activities.
Recently, Mann represented MSU as well as her tribe as the 2016 Elder in Residence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, American Indian Center. During the week-long residency, Mann taught, spoke, and advised the administration on building an Indian student center, boosting Native enrollment and advising about curriculum, among other things.
“MSU has increased its Native student enrollment and has a great reputation in that area, so (UNC) was interested in how we have done that,” Mann said.
Mann said she loved the days filled with mentoring, meeting and advising. But, as someone who has been involved in education for more than 46 years, she particularly loved being back in the classroom.
“I love teaching. It was like riding a bicycle,” said Mann, who in 1991 was chosen as one of the country’s 10 best professors by Rolling Stone magazine. Mann added that at UNC she lectured “to the very last second” of each 60-minute class.
She said UNC, like MSU, is working to find funding to build an Indian student center on campus. She said she believes the effort to build a center at MSU may become a reality soon.
“(The MSU Indian student center) is still a priority, and I think we’re getting closer in terms of funding it,” Mann said. “We need it. Even though there are more Indian students at MSU, the Indian student center in the basement of Wilson Hall has remained the same size, which means that it seems like it is actually getting smaller.
“The MSU Indian students love the center, but they are crowded like sardines in the can. And, young Indian people need an academic home and a place to go to study.”
Still a powerful speaker, Mann received a standing ovation for her keynote speech in Chapel Hill. Following her week in residence, Mann then got on a plane and flew to Arcata, California, where she was elected by consensus as chair of the board of the Seven Generations Fund, a non-profit for Indigenous Peoples.
Recently, Mann spoke to a meeting of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, about the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Mann told the group that there was still “healing work to be done” as a result of the historic massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians near what is now eastern Colorado, by a militia under the direction of Colonel John Chivington, who was a Methodist minister at the time. Mann said both of her great-grandmothers survived the massacre.
In March, Mann became one of the first American Indian educators to be inducted into the National Academy of Education. The Native American Student Advocacy Institutes offers a leadership award named for Mann.
And, she remains an active scholar. Mann recently put the finishing touches on the foreword to a scholarly anthology on the blood quantum issue to be released in 2017. The American Indian blood quantum is the percentage of tribal blood required to be an enrolled member of an American Indian tribe. The blood quantum varies from tribe to tribe, Mann said, and is often a sensitive issue. Mann is a member of her own tribe’s enrollment committee where the issue is discussed. She was recently inducted into the National Academy of Education.
MSU President Waded Cruzado said that Mann’s ability to stand easily in both the Native and the academic worlds have allowed Mann an unprecedented impact in promoting respect and understanding across the world of Native American culture, history and spirituality.
“I once heard her called the ‘Native Maya Angelou,’ and for good reason,” Cruzado said. “To hear Dr. Mann speak is to never forget her grace and power.”
Mann said she is pleased that her calendar continues to be busy. And, she is looking forward to a return trip to Bozeman in October for the twice-yearly meetings of MSU’s Council of Elders. She has served on the council for 10 years.
“I continue to do the work,” Mann said of her connection with MSU. “I’m still one of MSU’s best ambassadors. And, that’s nice.”