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Michael Munnell: Drum Keeper

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UMD Names Scholarship for Alumnus Michael Munnell


Michael Munnell was the first graduate to major in American Indian Studies at UMD. In fall 2012, UMD named an American Indian scholarship in his name. He is the drum keeper and lead singer of the MA’IIN’GAN Drum. The singers perform at dozens of events each year, including UMD’s commencement ceremony.

When Michael Munnell began studying at UMD, he was an older student, and UMD was a positive step. “It was a good place, a good transition,” he said. “I could finally spread my wings and fly after seven months as a resident of the Thunderbird Halfway House.” Rick Smith, the director of the American Indian Learning Resources Center, urged Munnell to take a class called Counseling American Indians taught by Larry Aitkin. It turned out to be a good move. “That class lit a fire underneath me to work in the field of chemical dependency counseling,” Munnell said.

Munnell, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa now works as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor at the Tagwii Recovery Center, at Fond du Lac Behavioral Health Services.

In fall 2012, UMD's American Indian Studies Department named their scholarship fund the Michael Munnell American Indian Scholarship.

Munnell found UMD helpful while he was working towards his degree. “The UMD Anishinabe Club was my anchor,” he said. “It was my social home away from home. The other students were supportive.” Munnell had a bond with his teachers, Jane Maddy, John Red Horse, Lola Hill, Joyce Kramer, Robert Powless, and others. “My teachers were gifted,” said Munnell.

UMD saw promise in Munnell as well. He was chosen as one of the student representatives on the American Indian Advisory Board. “We spoke to the board of regents about the 1854 Land Cession Treaty,” he said. “As a result, we were able to fund a UMD endowed chair of American Indian Education, by using the sale of Salt Land near Lake Vermilion.” Munnell also served as the student representative on the board of directors for the Human Development Center, a Duluth mental health services organization.

Munnell took almost every American Indian Studies class offered, and in 1995 he became the first person to graduate from UMD with a Bachelor of Arts with a major in American Indian Studies. He also worked toward his Bachelor of Applied Science with a major in Psychology.

One of Munnell’s paths took him into the center of his community. “I was chosen to be the keeper of my family’s drum,” he said. “It’s name is MA’IIN’GAN, wolf.” The drum came to Munnell from his cousin’s side of the family in Bad River, Wisconsin. “I took on the responsibility with the utmost respect,” he said. “It’s like I am trusted grandson to the grandfather drum. When people request the drum for a feast, funeral, or other ceremony, I make sure the drum gets there."

Munnell says the songs move people, "The drum is like a magnet. You can't see the force but you can feel its effects." The jingle dress songs are an example. During the jingle dress dance, metal cones sewn on a woman's dress make a powerful sound, similar to a waterfall. “A jingle dress song has a fast beat,” Munnell said. “When the women dance, the sound they make is strong. It’s healing.”  

Like other American Indian drum groups, the MA’IIN’GAN singers sing many of the old song so they won't be forgotten. They keep the songs and the culture alive. The group performs at dozens of events each year, including UMD’s commencement ceremony. It was one of the first drums to welcome women singers to sing behind the male singers at the drum.

Munnell is learning his native language as another way to keep his culture alive. He heard it as a child but didn't learn to speak it proficiently then. “My grandparents went to boarding school,” he said. There, they were forbidden to speak Ojibwe, their hair was cut short, and they weren't allowed to use their American Indian names. “Now, I’m a lifelong student of the Ojibwe language,” Munnell said. “We are seeing a cultural revival. We are getting our language back.”

Munnell said he is humbled by the recognition and feels he shouldn’t be singled out. “The honor of one is the honor of all,” he said. “It is an honor to have the American Indian Program scholarship named after me.”

Those Who Can, Duluth

by Cheryl Reitan with Jessica Noor, January 2013

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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