Group may advocate for Am. Indians

An advisory board would include a member from each state American Indian tribe.

by Brian Edwards

To improve relationships with American Indian tribes and students at the University of Minnesota, the Board of Regents is considering reviving an advisory body made up of state tribal leaders.
The group would include a representative from each of the 11 tribes in Minnesota, as well as University representatives. Leaders say the council would help attract American Indian students and faculty members to the school while bettering services to current indigenous students at the University. 
Although American Indian representatives say the idea is well-intentioned, some are worried about how the University would carry out the plan. 
The new group would include representation from each of the tribes in the state, similar to Minnesota’s Indian Affairs Council and University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Tribal Sovereignty Institute.
The proposal comes almost two years after Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order for state agencies to strengthen ties with American Indian communities.
While board discussions around the proposal are in the early stages, Regent Thomas Devine said regents are always looking for new ways to increase financial aid and provide opportunities for American Indian students at the University.
Devine said the partnership would especially benefit students on the University of Minnesota-Morris campus, where about 20 percent of students identify as American Indian.
American Indian students at Morris have tuition waived as long as they are at least 25 percent American Indian and are a direct descendent of a federally recognized tribe. 
In a letter to regents, Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the University’s efforts are commendable. But she raised concerns about its execution because similar efforts in the past  have failed.
Professors and researchers sometimes think they know what is best for American Indians without consulting tribal leaders, said Emily Johnson, strategic initiatives coordinator for Benjamin.
“There are quite a few examples out there of situations where institutions of higher education have steam-rolled things through without engaging in conversation,” she said.
Johnson said those tactics tend to make tribal leaders wary of working with members of academia.
The University has yet to engage in these types of conversations with tribal leaders, she said.
“If the University of Minnesota tried to get a resolution through the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council right now in favor of [the new board], I think it’s very doubtful that it would pass,” Johnson said.
Effectively crafting policies requires broad and repeated consultation with indigenous groups, said Tadd Johnson, director of the Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who also consulted with the University on the proposal. 
Tadd Johnson said tribal leaders ultimately want respect when dealing with policies regarding American Indians. But the amount of work required to maintain good 
relationships with tribal leaders can be difficult, he said.
Still, in a statement, Regent Linda Cohen said she believes the University’s plan will eventually be approved and help create a more inclusive environment for tribes in the state.