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What started as a simple phone call has evolved into a four-year program with a nation-wide reach.
|LeRoy Fairbanks, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe district representative|
|Tadd Johnson, MTAG director|
|Bill Rudnicki, tribal administrator of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community|
|Jill Doerfler, Head of UMD's American Indian Studies Department|
LeRoy Fairbanks and Tadd Johnson's paths crossed while Tadd was hosting consultations with tribal organizations for UMD's Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) program. LeRoy is a district representative for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a strong supporter of Tadd's efforts. MTAG was something he could see himself doing, per the none too subtle recommendation of tribal elders, "They said, 'You might be an intelligent person, but people might not value you because you don't have a formal education.'
It's not as if LeRoy doesn't value education. He proves how important this is with his pocketbook, donating 12.5% of his paycheck to Leech Lake scholarships. He just never had a chance to attend college. "My situation is similar to a lot of people living on reservations. Maybe we started a family early, or maybe our path to a career didn't follow societal norms."
LeRoy thought he'd give Tadd a call and ask about offering MTAG as a certificate program for people who didn't have a bachelor's degree. They ended up talking for more than an hour and, by the time they hung up, the Tribal Administration and Governance seed was planted.
Tadd got to work, collaborating with his colleagues in the American Indian Studies department to shape the Tribal Administration and Governance (TAG) bachelor of art's degree. Echoing the roots of the master's program, the specifics of TAG were determined off-campus, "The ideas came from Indian Country after talking to many students, like LeRoy, with the status of having some college but not being able to finish it," says Tadd. "Every good idea came from them and every move we make is done with tribal consultation."
The big move, presenting TAG to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents for approval, happened this month. Receiving their go ahead, it will be offered at UMD starting in the fall of 2015, making it the only program of its kind in the nation.
The major combines fundamental business classes with the specific study of tribal governance and will be offered completely online, making it accessible to students everywhere.
“TAG offers an outline of what people might run into in their careers,” says Tadd. “We wanted to develop a resource for running a reservation and help tribes develop best practices.”
Bill Rudnicki, tribal administrator of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, concurs that this meets a need in Indian Country, “So many people start college and then get busy with careers or families and have to stop. This gives them an option that’s directly applicable to tribal government.”
Tadd experienced the need for this program throughout his career. While working as a tribal lawyer he found himself often at the mercy of the coworker down the hall, with mixed results. "The way I learned was the way everyone else did. You ask the guy who was there for 25 years. It was the school of hard knocks."
Jill Doerfler, associate professor and department head for American Indian Studies, says that TAG is one part of UMD’s efforts to fulfill a promise to Native communities, “The strategic plan includes a pledge that UMD will ‘serve the educational needs of indigenous peoples, their economic growth, their culture, and the sovereignty of the American Indian nations of the region, the state, and North America.’
While TAG's features were driven by tribal consultation, the curriculum was crafted by current events. The governing and administrative structures of Native nations is growing, says Jill. "Tribes are the primary employer in several areas of the state. They are looking for well-trained people who understand tribal sovereignty and federal Indian law as well as have a grasp on financial management and economics." Jill believes that students who graduate with a TAG major will have that knowledge and those skills.
LeRoy hopes to someday be among the graduates of the program he sparked. Beyond appeasing the elders who advised him to get a formal education, he wants to walk the walk for his family.
The father of four sometimes brings his oldest two to tribal meetings. He says they might get bored, but they usually at least remember the topics which gives them a better understanding of their government. Completing college would take this to another level, "I want to show my kids the importance of education. Without it, people can hold you back. With it, you can create your own path."
Story by Lori C. Melton, September 2014
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