Teach-In Held at UMN Morris

Sue Dieter

The University of Minnesota Morris held a Teach-In on Saturday, November 6, on the topic of Impacts and History of Native American Boarding Schools. Approximately 95 students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members participated, both in person and via Zoom.

University of Minnesota Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs Karen Diver, joined UMN Morris Acting Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen in welcoming participants to the event.

Ericksen opened with an acknowledgement that the campus is situated on land that was cared for and called home by the Dakota people, and later the Ojibwe people and other Native peoples from time immemorial. It housed an American Indian boarding school operated first by the Sisters of Mercy and then by the U.S. government from 1887 to 1909. UMN Morris upholds the federal- and state-mandated tuition waiver tied to the transfer of the campus from the federal government to the State of Minnesota, admitting eligible American Indian students tuition-free.

Diver credited the Morris campus for being very honest and consistent in acknowledging their history. “It predates [UMN Morris], but they are stewards now of this place, where so many have such history. This teach-in is part of shining the light on those experiences, shining a light on that ongoing and regular trauma that contemporary people feel on behalf of our ancestors and what that meant to our families. The way that they act with tribal leaders, community leaders, their advisory board, about how they caretake, on a regular basis. For that I am extraordinarily grateful. If, on a regular basis, we did that on ... other sites, it might be easier to teach the people around us what this history means to all of us but also allow us to continue to heal.”

A variety of speakers discussed different aspects of Native American boarding schools, including, "The Morris Indian School in the Bigger Picture: Boarding Schools in the United States”; “Contexts and Methodologies for Understanding American Indian Burials”; “Impact & Trauma of Boarding Schools on Our Youth Today”; and “Finding the Children: Tekakwitha and Carlisle.” The speakers were UMN Morris alumni, and several indicated that their relatives attended boarding schools.

Matthew Villeneuve gave the keynote presentation, on “The Seven Generations of Indigenous Education at Morris.” Villeneuve is an Assistant Professor of History and Native American and Indigenous Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison and of Turtle Mountain Chippewa descent. His presentation mixed an account of the origins of the Morris campus with an emotional retelling of his own family history, including that his great-grandfather and other relatives attended the Indian Industrial Boarding School in Morris. 

Villeneuve was unaware of this part of his ancestry until he was researching his Ph.D. thesis and  discovered letters his great-great-grandfather wrote seeking to remove his children from the school in Morris. That history means that Villeneuve’s personal connection to the Morris campus is complicated: “Reckoning with history requires telling the truth about the past, listening and learning from one another about how this informs our shared present and then acting together to do something about realizing a better collective future.”

He pointed out that of the 26 industrial off-reservation boarding schools built in the United States between 1879 and 1932, most have been demolished or abandoned, while seven are still open today. But Morris is the only one of these institutions that still uses one of the original buildings to support contemporary Native American wellbeing. Additionally, Morris is the only institution associated with a world-class research university and remains a place where young Native people have chosen to continue to come to learn and make community with not only other Native people but non-Native people as well.

Villenueve concluded with a challenge to the UMN Morris students, faculty, and administration to lead the national reckoning with the United States history of boarding schools.

“Together we can use the best traditions of a liberal arts education to bring to bear on reckoning with this school and this nation’s boarding school history.”

Today, UMN Morris is the only federally recognized four-year Native American-Serving Nontribal Institution (NASNTI) in the Upper Midwest, with a growing number of American Indian students. Native American student enrollment at UMN Morris has doubled since 2008, with Native students comprising 27% of the student body this year. More than half of the American Indian students attending UMN Morris are from the regions' Ojibwe Tribal Nations, with another 25% from area Dakota/ Lakota/ Nakota Communities. Overall, 70 American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages are represented on campus. Learn more.

A recent KARE 11 story provides additional information about the impacts of Native American boarding schools.