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Mastering Tribal Governance

The University of Minnesota Duluth now offers a Master of Tribal Administration and Governance degree, which will help anyone wanting to work for or with Native American tribal governments.
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Tadd Johnson

Think of it as GPS for those working in or for tribal government.

After all, teaching students to navigate the logistical, financial, legal and ethical challenges of such jobs is the goal of the new Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program offered at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The two-year MTAG program launched this fall with its first 25 students.

“It was something that was seen by the community as a need,” said Tadd Johnson, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, MTAG director and head of UMD’s American Indian Studies Department.

The program grew from a UMD group exploring how to partner with tribes. Johnson, then tribal attorney for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, attended. “I just kind of opened my mouth and said, ‘Well, here’s what you could do to help Indian tribes…ask them what they want.’” When asked, what tribal leaders wanted were trained managers who could prepare mission, budget and personnel needs for any project.

MTAG courses teach about tribal operations and budgets in context with federal, state and local governments, define sovereignty as it exists today, and emphasize ethics. They also cover “this whole alphabet soup of laws that apply on the reservation,” Johnson said. “We look at ‘What are the best practices being used on other reservations?’…There are 565 [federally recognized] tribes, so there are 565 approaches to doing things.”

In developing MTAG, Johnson consulted with Alan Parker, the Chippewa Cree director of the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. For a decade, Evergreen has offered a two-year Master of Public Administration with a tribal governance concentration started by Parker and Linda Moon Stumpff, San Carlos Apache, who teaches tribal governance and related courses at Evergreen.

The programs’ goals are similar.

“We’re trying to create a program for students that either plan to work for their tribes or work with an agency that does business with tribes,” Parker said. “My students are looking for a professional degree.”

Students in the Evergreen program do coursework online and meet every two to three weekends for classes on campus. Similarly, MTAG is mainly online with on-campus courses every third weekend. In this way both meet the needs of long-distance students.

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Dr. Diane J Rauschenfels, an associate professor of education, teaches MTAG classes. “We have covered ethics from Plato to Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes to Kant to Lao Tzu to Greenleaf. The students discuss when a leader changes to gain only for self and when leaders continue to look out for the good of the people as a whole… There will also be a panel of elders to speak to the students about their lives and challenges.”

The program showcases interdepartmental cooperation, said Dr. Brian McInnes, Wasauksing First Nation, director of UMD’s Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Language Revitalization.

“I really see this program as a good way that UMD has been responsive to the community and inclusive of our collective institutional knowledge and capacity,” said McInnes, who also teaches ethics for MTAG. “It can be a role model.”

Students at both UMD and Evergreen are engaged and outspoken.

“They aspire to play more of a leadership role. These are highly motivated students,” said Parker. “It can be very challenging, but at the same time it’s very rewarding. They have a mission in mind. They want to go out and help their tribes.”

MTAG’s first students range in age from 20s to 50s. “I think the students are learning a lot from each other,” Johnson said. “The people who are in the program are no shrinking violets. I’m sure they will help shape the program, too.”

Bret Ann Evered

Bret Ann Evered

Not all MTAG students plan to work in tribal government.

“I actually want to try to teach at a college level, but in more of a law program,” said Bret Ann Evered, 24. “I wanted to understand more about Indian policy on reservations and what tribes need to deal with.”

The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, are storied about in dozens of cultures across the millennia.

Tiger Brown Bull

Tiger Brown Bull, 25, Oglala Lakota, intends to enter law school at Michigan State University, but feels MTAG courses will provide a solid foundation in tribal law and government. As a students and an Oglala Sioux Tribe Education Agency liaison on restructuring of the tribal education system, he sees formal training as critical for a strong future.

“As we transition from that traditional mindset into this new generation of leaders,” Brown Bull said, “education is a key component we as Indian people must possess to maintain and improve the progression of our sovereign tribal nations.”