Episode 68: From celebration to structural support: new CEHD program aims to support Tribal College transfers

At the first Indigenous Culture Week hosted by the Circle of Indigenous Nations at the University of Minnesota, celebrations and issues impacting the American Indian community were at the forefront of panel discussions. Speakers said that to fully feel supported at the University of Minnesota, American Indian students need tailored support and resources, much like a new program that is in the works within CEHD.

Yoko Vue and Megan Germnudson

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INTRO MUSIC

YOKO VUE: Hello everyone, I’m Yoko Vue, and you’re listening to “In The Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. 

VUE: Last week the Circle of Indigenous Nations, or COIN, partnered with other University departments to hold its first ever Indigenous Culture Week. COIN’s mission is to help students thrive at the university by creating a community, providing resources and promoting cultural values. The week-long celebration started on Oct. 12 with a cultural dance, a drum group and Miss Indian World. Each day following had a different focus from arts and film to social justice ending on Friday with a comedy night. 

Despite being blocks away from Little Earth of United Tribes, the American Indian population at the University is less than 2%, even after doubling in recent years. So, for today’s episode we talked about representation on campus with Raul Aguilar Jr., who helped organize the week-long event.

We also spoke with Michael Rodriguez, Interim Dean for the College of Education and Human Development, and professor Mary Hermes, to learn about how they are planning to make their programs more accessible to American Indian students throughout the state.  

NAT SOUND: TRANSITIONAL GUITAR – FADE UP AND OUT UNDER TRACK

VUE: Raul Aguilar Jr. is the senior coordinator for the Circle of Indigenous Nations and started the idea for Indigenous Culture Week.

RAUL AGUILAR JR: I was like, we should really take a chance to really celebrate our indigenous heritage, everything, people, the work, the community members and just really bring recognition that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is really focused on. Fighting that we’re still present, taking the name away from Christopher Columbus day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As a flagship institution and the state’s largest school, we should be able to showcase our folks that are doing great work within the community who are still fighting to showcase that indigenous folks are still here; and so when we create this random idea, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s do this,’ and we fully went into the process of planning it. 

VUE: Aguilar said this event was vital in creating community amongst students and hopes to continue Indigenous Culture Week.

AGUILAR: We had a huge turnout of students and staff. I mean, we were able to give swag items to students, give away items. And my practice, my focus is always to be community centric and student centered and to see students just connect with other indigenous students across campus. Even our first-year students who were like, we still haven’t seen other Native students because we’re still in a zoom area, you know? To have them have community together, even in a virtual area was actually really wonderful to see.

VUE: And why is it important to have this week of celebration?

AGUILAR: Honestly, it’s because we’re still fighting to showcase. Not every state has Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you know. We’re very fortunate enough to have a state that recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but when you’re the smallest percentage on a big, predominantly white institution, it is important to educate. Our community, our Twin Cities community, we’re 1% of the University student population, and even less with that, with faculty and staff. In a virtual world you’re even farther away and so to create a program that was still to highlight Indigenous people across our state, you know, and to showcase the work that we do, that we’re still here. We still are to celebrate our culture, people and history, the first Indigenous peoples of the land, of the state institutions land. 

VUE: On a predominantly white campus, community and representation for students of color can be an important part of their college experience and success. 

AGUILAR: What I think, you know, in higher education in general is to have more folks look like them and work with them and understand their lived experiences, right, and validate their lived experiences because tribal communities are different than rural communities and urban communities. 

 My position is to really bridge the gaps between them. We have some students who just know that they’re American Indian, but have absolutely no clue of their heritage, culture, anything of a sort. Then there are students who grew up in ceremonies, grew up in their culture, their history, that have familial practices within their culture. And my job is to really bridge that gap in between them, but then also survive at predominantly white institutions and big universities and not make them feel like they have this imposter syndrome or have them feel like they’re here all by themselves to navigating these higher education venues that are really not designed to support cultural practices. 

VUE: Aguilar said that hiring more folks is important but investing in one-on-one education is also a part of improving.

AGUILAR: [Be]cause investing really is bringing in staff members, community members, programmatic elements that will help them feel as if they’re at home.

VUE: COIN is not the only one bringing together the American Indian community in the state of Minnesota.   

NAT SOUND: TRANSITIONAL GUITAR – FADE UP AND OUT UNDER TRACK

VUE: Michael Rodriguez, the Interim Dean of the College of Education and Human Development, or CEHD, spoke with me about their plan to help transfer American Indian students at the tribal colleges to the University of Minnesota. This partnership will begin a program with potential student and professor exchanges, distance education courses and scholarships to help students complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. 

RODRIGUEZ: What we’re thinking is, especially in the area of early childhood education, if we can create pathways for students that are in the early childhood education programs in the tribal colleges to transfer to CEHD in order to complete a four year program.

VUE: Rodriguez said that one of the options in the early childhood education program allows students to take some courses in a second language. He calls these options “pathways.”

RODRIGUEZ: What we hope to do is to introduce an Ojibwe language pathway so that students that may graduate from the tribal colleges, which also have Ojibwe and indigenous language courses on their campus, would transfer to CEHD complete the four year degree program and have that flexibility to add and do more continued work in Ojibwe language. This is an important component of many of the tribal nations in Minnesota with respect to indigenous language revitalization and it’s an important component in early childhood education.

VUE: This would create classrooms where the student teachers are teaching in Ojibwe, helping children speak and write in the language early on. Last Friday, educators from CEHD and the tribal colleges met to discuss the early childhood education programs at each college and how the partnership can meet the needs of the community. 

One of the people at this meeting was Mary Hermes. Hermes is a longtime Ojibwe language activist and scholar. In 2000, she helped start an Ojibwe language immersion school in Hayward, Wisconsin and served as the first director. She is currently a professor within CEHD and helping create this partnership. 

MARY HERMES: Yeah, it was super exciting. We were scheduled for an hour and we talked for like two because people were just really excited about the possibility. 

Now is really the right time to look at the colonial structures in education and to think about how we can do better and what we’ve done. So those things are sort of guiding principles. It’s the right time, right place and the right people and like I said, you know, Leech Lake alone has 24 tribal head start. So we’re talking about a big workforce of people who would really- it can really make a difference in a movement that I’ve seen tremendous growth in over the past 25 years. 

VUE: Hermes said that the faculty and staff at the Institute of Child Development and early childhood education are excited to help.

HERMES: They want to help. They know that it’s time. The university has more native students, that we do something for the communities we live in. So they’re very open. I think, you know, trading off teaching, looking at their courses, indigenizing the curriculum — which is all so exciting.

VUE: You had mentioned indigenizing the curriculum. What specifically would this look like? Or what would this include?

HERMES: We’re talking about basing classes on something we don’t have, which is a childhood development model of indigenous people. And I think it looks quite different because traditionally it was about extended family and learning and hands-on learning and oral literacy as opposed to written literacy. 

VUE: So, how might CEHD and the tribal colleges make sure that community is, you know, still valued throughout this planning process while creating what this program will look like?

HERMES: It’s interesting because we’re starting with the people doing the work on the ground. We’re not starting with college presidents or tribal government boards. We’re starting with the people in the design of it even and getting their ideas and hearing what their needs are and who are the people they work with and what do they need. So, I think, rather than coming in with a plan and saying here, ‘Would you like to sign up for this?’ We’re asking them to be part of the design process and that’s quite different. 

VUE: Hermes also said that having a dean in support is important to the partnership. 

HERMES: We have Michael Rodriguez behind it, which is huge because we’ve never had a dean sort of saying I’m going to figure out how to financially support this and administratively support this and make it happen. 

He wants to establish something permanently, not based on grant money. So that role is huge. I mean, that’s really just dawning on me what that could mean.

VUE: Rodriguez said that some scholarship donations have already been pledged and he hopes to create an endowed scholarship. Options for how these courses might be taught are still being explored such as distance education or hybrid courses but as community is an important value, these options may be a good pathway. 

RODRIGUEZ: You know, we’re all learning so much about delivering courses online these days, let’s take advantage of what we’re learning. And maybe we can continue that and make even more opportunities accessible.

VUE: This next year will focus on planning what the Ojibwe early childhood education degree will look like. Rodriguez also said that the goals of this partnership are philosophical and kind of lofty, but they stem from the University’s responsibility as a land grant institution.

RODRIGUEZ: At the same time, the tribal colleges are land grant institutions. We often hear that the university of Minnesota is the land grant institution as though there’s only one, but there are actually five and we share that in common. We have that common commandment to the state of Minnesota. And I want us to bridge that commandment and work together.

VUE: As community is an important value for American Indian students, moving away from their family can be a hard decision. 

RODRIGUEZ: We don’t want students to think that if they come to the Twin Cities, they have to give up their community.

VUE: Rodriguez said that he hopes this partnership can inspire similar projects across the campus, because it’s likely that other colleges at the U, just like CEHD, value diversity. And he wants to model that. 

RODRIGUEZ: I think every college that we have on our campus and across the system has something to contribute. The real question is the way that we’ve created programming and degrees on our campus, meaningful and appropriate for tribal nations in Minnesota. That’s where the partnership has to come in, in order to think about one, can we increase accessibility, but two is it access to programs that are meaningful and then meet the needs and preferences of Minnesota tribal nations. 

VUE:  Rodriguez hopes to welcome the first class of students in this program by fall of 2022. Though there are still many moving parts, it’s something that those involved are really excited about. 

HERMES: If the university is willing, the need is there and I think people are really hopeful about it.

FADE UP & UNDER OUTRO MUSIC

PALMER: In other University of Minnesota news: due to a notable increase in COVID-19 cases across the state, the University will remain in Phase 3 of its Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan; a partnership with the Department of Defense will bolster the University’s six year capital plan and add sustainable fuel and agriculture improvements to St. Paul campus; and a new Minnesota Daily series is documenting the history of women’s suffrage on campus. We’ll see you next week.

VUE: The transitional music in today’s episode was provided by Lucky Little Raven and FreeSound.org