Native Professors on Road to Tenure at University of Montana

Four Native American professors are on the tenure-track for the first time in 120 years at the University of Montana, a state with 12 tribes.

UPDATED, FEBRUARY 14: Correction made to the first paragraph.

Since its founding in 1893 the University of Montana hasn’t had a tenured Blackfeet professor, but soon it will. Rosalyn LaPier, the first Blackfeet tribal member to be hired to a tenure-track position, is joined by three other Native American professors on the road to tenure at the university. While these four aren’t the first tenured Native professors at the university, they are the latest in the university’s push to attract Native educators and students.

“We’re in the 21st century, so you’d think it would have happened a long time ago,” LaPier told the Missoulian. “Hopefully I’m not the last one here, but there just isn’t a large pool of Native professors out there.”

She says UM actively recruits American Indian candidates, but has a tough time competing with larger schools.

“It’s difficult for schools in the Montana University System to compete with other institutions,” LaPier told the Missoulian. “It’s extremely rare to have a state university go out and try to hire a number of Native faculty. UM has actually gone out to see who was available, and then worked to hire Native people.”

And LaPier doesn’t teach Native American studies. She is completing her doctorate at UM while teaching environmental studies. In fact, none of the tenure-track Native professors does, the others teach chemistry, journalism and pharmacy.

LaPier is surprised this hasn’t happened sooner since there are 12 recognized tribes and seven reservations in Montana, not to mention the fact that Native Americans make up about 10 percent of the population.

“There’s great diversity in Indian country,” Dave Beck, UM professor and chair of Native American studies. “There’s great diversity even in the state of Montana. To have some of that diversity reflected, in terms of the perspectives they bring to the classroom, is very valuable to us.”

Beck hopes having more American Indian faculty will bring in Native students. The university currently has 800 Native students, reported the Missoulian.

“Their interactions with faculty will give non-Native faculty members an opportunity to learn more about Native perspectives on campus,” Beck told the Missoulian. “It also gives students an opportunity to see people from their tribal communities in those kinds of faculty positions.”

In addition to LaPier, the new tenure-track professors include Jason Begay, a Navajo professor of journalism; Aaron Thomas, a Navajo professor of chemistry who will also run the Native American Research Lab; and Annie Belcourt-Dittloff, an assistant professor of pharmacy, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Blackfeet and Chippewa heritage.