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Education Special: Consortium paves the way for the future

CHICAGO - A partnership between 13 Midwestern universities and a nationally-recognized research library will change the face of American Indian Studies scholarship and pave the way for small departments in every field, educators say.

Almost through its first official year, members agree the Committee on Institutional Cooperation American Indian Studies Consortium has already proven itself to be a transformative force in American Indian Studies.

"To my way of thinking, this program is tremendously valuable," said Brian Hosmer, who was installed as the consortium's first director last fall. "By combining the resources of the 13 institutions with the Newberry Library's collections and the D'Arcy McNickle Center's 30 year history of promoting quality scholarship and outreach to Indian communities, we have created the largest 'program' in American Indian studies anywhere."

Hosmer, formerly history department chair at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, is also the director of the D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History, located at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

The consortium's primary goal is to facilitate the development and training of graduate students researching the cultures and experiences of American Indians by offering workshops, conferences, seminars, and fellowships to CIC graduate students and faculty. But leaders say they also want the consortium to have practical benefits for all Indian people.

"There is a here-and-now social and cultural component to what we do," Hosmer said. "A lot of what we do is not just research. We want to have it be a positive force in people's lives - and that can be defined in the way communities want to define it."

Beginnings

The American Indian Studies consortium isx the brainchild of Frederick Hoxie, former director of the McNickle center and current Swanlund Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

When he started teaching American Indian Studies at the university in 1998, Hoxie said he realized how the small program size can negatively affect graduate students. Often they have access to one or two professors on campus, and find themselves the only people studying American Indians in their departments.

"It occurred to me many of the people teaching at the 'Big 10' schools were former [McNickle] fellows," Hoxie said. "Just informally, I began taking to some of them about the idea - not really with a consortium in mind - but to see if there might be a way we could hook up and support each other. A network that would be useful."

Hoxie called a meeting at the Newberry Library. Approximately a dozen faculty from all over the Midwest showed up. Those that came had very different resources, he said. But they also had some things in common - almost all had tiny, interdisciplinary American Indian studies certificate programs with few faculty members and only two or three graduate students in each department.

"The idea was if we could form an association and get people together they would be much stronger," Hoxie said.

To kick off the partnership, University of Iowa Assistant Professor of History Jackie Thompson Rand, enrolled Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, organized a graduate student conference which was held in Iowa City, Spring 2000.

At that first conference, 36 graduate students presented papers from history, American Studies, anthropology, literature and other disciplines. Twenty-five faculty members came from all over the Midwest to show their support for the students, Rand said.

"It was so successful and so fun," said Rand, a current member of the American Indian Studies consortium executive committee. "We just listened to every single paper. We just sat back and listened to the students."

After the conference, Hoxie approached the Newberry Library and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation - a consortium of the "Big 10" schools and the University of Chicago - for their support. His formal proposal was approved in 2001, when the deans of arts and sciences at each university agreed to divide the costs of supporting the American Indian Studies consortium for at least three years. At $11,000 each per year, it's a great bargain, said CIC Director Barbara Allen.

"For this relatively modest amount of money, your institution dramatically increases your students' access to scholars, to a system of fellowships," Allen said. "You get a lot."

How it works

The CIC is a consortium of 12 research universities serving 500,000 students in eight states. It was started in 1958 by university presidents with the idea that by working together, they could advance and experiment with new ideas in education. They share library technology, infrastructures and program ideas.

Participating schools are: University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Ultimately our goal always is to provide more opportunities for the students we serve, to provide more opportunities for them as scholars," Allen said.

The American Indian Studies consortium is the first departmental project conducted under the CIC umbrella. It is the only large-scale, comprehensive program of academic cooperation between universities that Allen is aware of. Usually, schools compete with each other to attract students.

"But here is a case of cooperation really transforming these programs, making them stronger," Allen said. "We're seeing it as a model to follow."

Allen said this consortium approach could be useful for other interdisciplinary programs like Chicano or women's studies, or for small academic departments like Classics and some foreign languages.

"My view is there would be no limits - that a collaboration would be successful no matter how large or small a program," Allen said. "The trick would be operating in a way that everyone sees a benefit."

Students

Being a graduate student is difficult for anyone, but it is especially so for American Indian graduate students, Hoxie said. Since American Indian Studies students are in all disciplines - history, English, anthropology, etc. - often times, a student will be the only one in their program in American Indian Studies.

"Graduate students in English, anthropology, communications, first of all are being asked to become scholars and develop their own voice in writing, and often they're doing this in a very lonely way," Hoxie said. "It's a difficult process and then Native American graduate students are typically outnumbered by non-Indians so there's even less of a chance to hook up with other students."

The consortium helps students feel less isolated, Hoxie said. It also multiplies their opportunities in an unprecedented way.

"It's not just like you're getting one set of professors at one institution, you're getting professors at 12 institutions," said University of Iowa doctoral student Cath Denial.

When Denial came to the University of Iowa in 1998, she was the only graduate student studying American Indian History. She designed her own course, because there were no classes for her to take.

With the consortium, Denial's options skyrocketed. She can take a seminar taught by a faculty member who is an expert on the subject, with like-minded students from all over the Midwest. She can take courses at other universities, or present papers at conferences sponsored by the consortium.

"It's made an enormous difference," Denial said "It's been invaluable to me to have this community of people doing Native studies that I've been able to access."

Future

Leaders of the American Indian Studies consortium have wasted no time in making use of their new partnership. They have held two regional seminars for graduate students taught by experts on the topics discussed. Their fourth-annual graduate student conference was held last April in Chicago, and a book of the best papers from the first three conferences will be published soon. In 2004 they are scheduled to host the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory - the most important gathering in the field.

Consortium board members say they only see the program growing from here. They'd like to further develop educational symposiums and fellowships for students. They are also committed to developing the idea of responsible scholarship and respect for Indian communities among scholars.

"One of the things we're trying to do is we try to have some sort of applied side," Rand said. "Are there things within Indian communities we can work with together?"

Recently, consortium member Jeanine Pease-Pretty on Top, former head of Crow College, along with other members, held a forum to discuss ways the consortium can work with tribal colleges. It's only the beginning, leaders said.

"My view of it is that this CIC American Indian Studies Consortium holds tremendous potential - If one looks at the array of resources at our disposal there is nothing that compares with it," Hosmer said.

"It's just forming this very strong regional identity for the programs," Rand said. "Our collective identity is much stronger than we are individually, and hopefully we can push the bounds of what American Indian Studies has been."

A Graduate Student Workshop will be held Sept. 10 - 12. The Conference: "Decolonizing American Indian Studies" will be held Sept. 19 - 20. For more information, contact the McNickle Center at (312) 255-3564, mcnickle@newberry.org or www.newberry.org.