A “groundwork for future generations”: Native American graduate student group plans ahead

The group seeks to provide a safe space for Native American graduate students at the University of Minnesota to discuss shared experiences and culture.

Second year Ph.D. student Megan Red Shirt-Shaw studies Organizational Leadership and Policy.  Photo courtesy of Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and Jayme Halbritter (photographer).

Second year Ph.D. student Megan Red Shirt-Shaw studies Organizational Leadership and Policy.  Photo courtesy of Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and Jayme Halbritter (photographer).

by Katelyn Vue

A new student-led initiative aims to create a space for Native American graduate students to develop meaningful connections and pave the way for future generations.

This new University community initiative is still in its planning stages, but its creators hope to provide a community for Native American graduate students, develop mentorship opportunities, plan events and create a safe space for students to talk about their culture.

After hearing that many Native American graduate students were not connected and wanted to meet with one another, Cori Bazemore-James, director of Retention & Success in the Graduate School Diversity Office, decided to link students with one another. Bazemore-James started an email thread of Native American graduate students, which resulted in an overwhelming number of responses.

“When you’re studying in grad school, it’s a very isolating experience, especially if you’re not close to home for your ceremonies … the isolating nature of graduate school itself is already a double whammy for Native students when they have no connection to a Native community,” said Bazemore-James, who is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, Native Americans, which includes American Indians and Alaskan Natives, comprise less than 1% of the graduate school population in the U.S.

During the spring 2020 semester at the Twin Cities campus, less than 200 graduate students identified as American Indian.

“This is really tough, but we’re actually making it easier for one another in some way. What that looks like, at this point, I’m not sure – but I’m very excited to find out,” said Ashton Dunkley, a first-year graduate student in the American Studies Department. She is a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal nation. 

Third-year doctoral student Madison Anderson, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, a second-year Ph.D. student, sent a survey in the email thread to see how many people would be interested in starting a community initiative, and many people responded to contribute their own ideas, hopes and passions. 

Specifically, the email thread and the survey indicated a huge interest and necessity to create a group focused on the Native American graduate students on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus. The Circle of Indigenous Nations also provides resources and support to all Native American students on campus. 

On Wednesday, the initiative will hold its first meeting over Zoom to discuss next steps and goals for the future. 

“I think the intention was to serve as many different things for different people and other graduate students and what that might look like,” said Red Shirt-Shaw. “So, I think it has the potential to become really powerful.” She is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. 

The Native American graduate student initiative will hopefully serve to build long-lasting, meaningful connections, since some students said they have been the only Native American student in their classrooms.

“We’re all across different years, different programs and one of the really beautiful things is that we’ve found each other,” Red Shirt-Shaw said. “I’m just making it easier for other students to be able to find one another, like a really powerful thing that I hope this group is able to establish.”  

Red Shirt-Shaw said she hopes the initiative will last into the future.

“I just hope that we feel like we’ve laid the groundwork for future generations to come to Minnesota … and that’s what excites me the most about any of these organizations that we create, is that we make it a little bit easier for the next generation,” said Red Shirt-Shaw.