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First Native American Studies graduate certificate online

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Montana State University is offering what is believed to be the first online Native American Studies graduate certificate program – an initial step toward the creation of a full Master of Arts in Native American Studies degree online.

“We believe that there are students across the globe interested in graduate courses in Native American studies and this innovative offering fills that need,” said Walter Fleming, head of the MSU Department of Native American Studies and an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas.

The program begins in January. Initial offerings for the spring 2010 semester include “Federal Indian Law and Policy” – a required course for both the undergraduate and graduate degrees in Native American Studies – and “Native America: Dispelling the Myths.” Future courses will include an American Indian art survey course.

Like on-campus courses, the online courses comprise units and readings that support the subject matter. There will be streamed lectures students will be able to access at any time, and discussions will take place on discussion boards and postings. Students will have individual contact with the instructors through e-mail.

This grouping of tipis is located on the site of the future Native American Student Center at Montana State University. The department has just started fundraising for the project and welcomes all contributions.

The program is not time-constrained, Fleming said. That means students won’t have to convene at a specific time, but can access the program any time, from anywhere.

MSU’s Native American Studies program dates back to 1974 and was one of the first undergraduate programs in the country. The university has offered an on-campus graduate degree in Native American Studies since 2000.

The new online graduate certificate program has been in the planning phase for a number of years, Fleming said.

“It had always been our interest to try to reach particularly tribal college faculty who might be able to send their communities to come and get a master’s degree in Native American Studies and some of the tribal colleges were encouraging us to do so, because they have to undergo certification from their certifying bodies and this is one way to address that, but it’s also a first step toward an actual online master’s program.”

The certificate program is 12 credits and the master’s program will be 30 or 31 credits. Fleming estimates it will take around five years to fully develop the online master’s program.

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Meanwhile, the hope is that the graduate certificate program, among other things, will help forward the state’s Indian Education for All law, which mandates the teaching of Native American history, culture and contemporary issues to K-12 students. While the education is required, there are no state-provided curricula. The certificate program will fill that gap by providing content and information for teachers who are developing their programs.

“The certificate program is not designed to do that, but we’re hoping teachers will find it so,” Fleming said. “One of the difficulties that we have in Montana is that Native American Studies is not a teaching area. It’s within a broad-based social studies endorsement so there’s no way for really certifying school teachers to be proficient in Native American Studies. We’re a little bit ahead of that by offering these courses and we’re hoping the State Board of Education will create a teaching certificate. That would be our goal – to have teachers, just as they do with chemistry, biology or math, have a curriculum content knowledge for the instruction of their curricula.”

The online program is also designed to tap into the vast interest in American Indian culture and history that is evident overseas in Europe and other parts of the world.

“We hope that it will attract an international following,” Fleming said.

MSU has more than 375 Native students – about 3.5 percent of the student body. About half the students in Native American Studies are Natives and half are non-Natives. More than half of the faculty in the program is Native.

Native students get “the usual kind of financial aid” from their nations, Fleming said, and the state has a tuition fee waiver based on income guidelines. The university also has a program called the Native Homelands Scholarship that provides needs-based tuition waivers for students whose tribal nations’ historic homelands were in Montana prior to European contact.

As for MSU’s certificate program being the first online, “You always hesitate to say anything like that because there’s going to be that lonely little college up in who-knows-where say, ‘We’ve been doing that for 10 years,’ but we researched it and found there are programs that have some specifics, such as a law program, but we believe this is the first general program that’s online and will have a certificate,” Fleming said.

The program has a rolling application, which means students can enroll at any time.

The MSU Department of Native American Studies recently received accreditation from the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, the first mainstream non-indigenous controlled institution in the world to receive the designation.

For more information about MSU’s new online graduate certificate in Native American Studies, visit or contact Jennifer Woodcock,, (406) 994-3881.