A land full of rich Ojibwe culture and Dakota history that stretches back hundreds of years can go unnoticed to college students attending a northern Minnesota university in the thick of Indian Country.
A small steering committee of faculty and students at Bemidji State University has a solution on how to lift that history and culture to the front of the classroom: make an Indigenous studies course a requirement for all students.
It’s a step, supporters say, that would benefit the roughly 5,000-student body and the university’s commitment to serve the people of the state and region. It could happen, perhaps as soon as fall of 2021. And a goal for it to happen is to not increase student workload or require additional funding for more staff, said Erica Bailey-Johnson, Red Lake Nation. She is a leader of the committee working to implement the three-credit course requirement and Bemidji State’s Sustainability Director since 2008.
“We feel like we actually have the capabilities right now to make this happen with the courses and the instructors and programs that are already existing,” she said.
If successful, Bemidji State would be one of the first public, four-year institutions to implement the requirement in the country and likely the first in the lower 48 states.
It’s already happening on all campuses at the University of Alaska. Students are required to complete a minimum of three credit hours of Alaska Native-themed coursework as part of all baccalaureate, associate of arts and associate of science degrees.
First-year students in fall 2019 were the initial class to take on the new requirement as part of their curriculum. A faculty and staff-led group called the Alaska Native Studies Council worked with other faculty and university officials to make the requirement a reality.
Evon Peter, vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the implementation has been successful and has seen an increase in Alaska Native-related classes being taken. The Fairbanks campus already had an “robust portfolio” of Alaska Native-themed courses to pick from, he said.
“We wanted students to be able to go where they are most passionate, but still have that exposure to Alaska Native knowledge and worldview,” Peter said.
“This is needed at all universities because this is all Indigenous land in Turtle Island,” he added. “It’s a shame that U.S. citizens can grow up here and not really know anything about Indigenous peoples. It should be a part of required history that we learn about and understand. How else are we gonna move forward in a kind, respectful and just way? We are trying to do our part in Indigenizing the institution this way.”
Another initiative to strengthen a connection to Indigenous people is to implement a mandatory Alaska Native cultural awareness training for all university employees, Peter said.
Some universities in Canada have similar student requirements, including the University of Winnipeg, which was approved in 2015 and began in fall 2016.
“The University of Winnipeg is proud to be one of the first universities in Canada to mandate that all incoming undergraduate students learn about Indigenous peoples and be exposed to Indigenous perspectives and worldviews,” according to the university's website.
Is Bemidji State University next?
The university sits along the western shore of picturesque Lake Bemidji and in the heart of a community known for its outdoor recreational activities. The school formed in 1919 and became a university in 1975, six years after adding an Indigenous studies degree program. It used to be called Indian studies, a first in the state. It was also one of the first collegiate Ojibwe language programs. In 2003, it opened an American Indian Resource Center, a building dedicated to serving Native students. Before, an Indian Studies Center was located in a smaller shared academic space.
Bemidji is also a major hub for Native people who live nearby on three of the largest reservations in Minnesota in Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth. The name Bemidji comes from an Ojibwe word bemidjigamaag, “a lake with crossing waters.”
Although the town and university are formally named after an Ojibwe word, the Dakota people lived on the land before the Ojibwe migrated, forcing them west and south. The Ojibwe stayed but were pushed by white invaders onto reservations, which became the seven Ojibwe reservations known today. Where Bemidji is located, the land was once part of Leech Lake.
This is the type of history that is often overlooked by the masses, Bailey-Johnson said.
Bemidji State offers 56 undergraduate majors. Student to faculty ratio is about 20 to 1, according to the school’s online fact sheet. Nearly 85 percent of the student population self-identifies as white, while American Indian or Alaska Native students are two percent of the student population.
Bailey-Johnson said the Indigenous studies requirement would not increase the 120 semester credits needed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
The steering committee has support from the senate faculty, student senate and President Faith Hensrud, Bailey-Johnson said. One of the university’s strategic goals is to emphasize learning Native culture. The next steps are to coordinate with departments on how the new requirement will affect them. Some programs like the education and nursing already have an Indigenous studies course as part of a student track.
“Almost all of the Indigenous studies courses already either count for a program or account for liberal education requirements so that’s a bonus,” she said.
Another hurdle is gaining support from additional faculty and the community in Bemidji, Bailey-Johnson said.
The steering committee has been limited to online video meetings and phone calls more recently because of the COVID-19 restrictions. But that isn’t stopping any gained momentum.
For business administration Assistant Professor Veronica Veaux, the timing is right and it only makes sense considering the growing Native student population, opportunities for Native students and the university’s focus on adding Native faculty or staff.
Veaux, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is part of the steering committee. She has created Indigenous curriculum geared towards business students and hopes both classes will be available for students to take in the fall. One class is Indigenious business and the other is Indigenous entrepreneurship.
“I think this would be one way that we could attract students from an Indigenous business emphasis perspective, because if they are required to take an Indigenous studies course as a [Bemidji State University] student we have a class in business that would fulfill that,” Veaux said. “The business school is one of our biggest programs.”
Bemidji State senior Alicia Bowstring, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is getting ready to graduate in May with an Indigenous studies degree and a minor in Ojibwe language. She’s the Council of Indian Students president this school year and said she supports the initiative.
“I don’t think a lot of non-Indigenous students know anything about Ojibwe people or Indigenous people in general,” she said. “It would be really beneficial for them to have some type of Indigenous class so they could learn more about people. I think it’s really needed on campus because [campus] is on Native land.”
Another supporter and student, junior Serena Graves, Red Lake Nation, stressed the importance of the quality of Indigenous studies coursework available and Native experts at Bemidji State. Even though she attended a reservation high school, it wasn’t until her college coursework where she learned the details of her people’s history.
“Classes [here] really do change how you feel about history and how you understand how we got here, why reservations were created, what problems it imposes,” she said. “It’s such an important history, I don’t know why this isn’t widespread.”
Graves is also a teaching assistant and assisted with Ojibwe language and an introduction Indigenous history classes. She’s majoring in Indigenous studies with a minor in Ojibwe language.
Bemidji State Ojibwe language professor and author Anton Treuer wrote books on Ojibwe people. He’s been at the university for 20 years and spent much of his life in the area. He said because of the large Native population in and around Bemidji, most students will interact with Native peoples in some way.
“It’s a no brainer to me on why we should be doing this,” Treuer said. “Ultimately, the schools, universities that are most successful in equipping people for a world that will surely be multiracial and multicultural and will always have an Indigenous story, I think they are going to have the greatest success.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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