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The University of Minnesota Duluth

BRIDGE - Winter 2006, Volume 23, #1


UMD and American Indian Programs

"Learning the language is the door to culture," said Amy Bergstrom, the cohort director of Gekinoo'imaagejig, "The Ones Who Teach," a joint program between the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and UMD. American Indian college students are trained to be elementary teachers in a program that connects the worlds of work, family, community and education.

Bergstrom says that unlike any other program in the United States, the program uses the native language, Ojibwe, as its central core. Recently, Bergstrom visited an Gekinoo'imaagejig student teacher at Duluth's Nettleton Elementary School. She said,"To anyone else, it would just look like the class was learning an Ojibwe song. It was so much more than that. The student teacher wasn't just teaching a song, she was keeping the Ojibwe language alive. She was teaching the lessons of language, grammar, culture, history, social studies and music. She was also serving as an American Indian role model for the Indian and non-Indian kids.".

Because Gekinoo'imaagejig students learn Ojibwe,their experiences are permeated with a distinct world view. Bergstrom said, "It's more wholistic; tangible objects lose importance, and dreams gain revelance. The creator reminds us we are humble people. The world appears more fluid, shifting and changing constantly."

Gekinoo'imaagejig "the ones who teach"
pronounced gay-canoe ee-MAA-gay-jig

Maawanji'idiwag "they come together"
pronounced mah-wan-jee EE-dee-wog

Teaching Teachers
Leading Change
Ruth Myers
Heritage and Health



The 2003 cohort (l-r). Front row: Amy Bergstrom (director),
Govinda Budrow, ReneeAnne Goodrich, Dawn LaPrairie, Winnie LaPrairie, Cheryl Boyd, Dixie Dorman, Jennifer Niemi (advisor).
Back Row: Dawn Dumes, Michelle Virginia, Warren Lees,
Harmony Lindner, Vicky YellowEarrings, Sonya Skoglund,
Tara Graves, Tamara Smith, Tara Gingras, Marilu Johnsen

Gekinoo'imaagejig began with a grant from the Office of Indian Education in the U.S. Department of Education in 2000. The pilot program was designed to prepare American Indian students to become elementary teachers. "Six years later, we are bringing a new generation of teachers into our classrooms," said Bergstrom. UMD's own faculty, along with additional faculty members, teach courses at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Most of the faculty are American Indian, and they make sure cultural content is the foundation of the program.

Faculty and students are aware of the grim statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nationally, American Indian students have a dropout rate of 35.5 percent, about twice the national average, and the highest dropout rate of any ethnic or racial group. "These are dismal conditions. This program allows American Indian people to take responsibility for making positive changes," said Bergstrom.

The objective overall is to train learner-sensitive teachers. The classes pay attention to the issues of empowerment, diversity, collaboration, technology and reflection. Understanding the present state of American Indians as well as their history is important. An overview of boarding schools, state and federal laws and acts is taught. Most important, an understanding of the family, tribal community and governments, cultural practices, and values are incorporated into teaching practices.

Gekinoo'imaagejig insists on this cultural sensitivity. The students study American Indian history and translate children's books into Ojibwe in their methods courses.

In 2003, the first Gekinoo'imaagejig cohort graduated 16 elementary school teachers, 14 of whom were Native American. In 2006, 11 more graduates. doing their student teaching in Cloquet, Esko, Fond du Lac, Brainerd, Hayward and even Ireland, will get their degrees.

Gekinoo'imaagejig, the elementary teacher model, is joined by a master's program. The "Tribal Cohort" program helps American Indian graduate students earn a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree. In May 2002, 26 American Indian candidates received M.Ed. degrees. Three faculty members in education, Tom Peacock, Mary Hermes, and Frank Guldbrandsen, team-taught throughout the two-year program. Half of the candidates were at UMD and the other half at Mahnomen near the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. The two groups were connected via interactive television. The content of this coursework, like the content of Gekinoo'imaagejig is based on indigenous epistemology.

The summer of 2005 saw the birth of a new Unified Early Childhood Head Start cohort called Maawanji'idiwag, "They Come Together." The program is designed for practicing Head Start and early Head Start teachers who have associate degrees completed or in progress. Jackie Millslagle, associate dean for the College of Education and Human Service Professions said, "Students from this first cohort are expected to earn their Bachelor of Science degrees in May 2008, just ahead of the new Federal legislation that requires 50 percent of Head Start teachers to have a B.A degree."

The program is so successful, other tribal colleges want to learn UMD's model. "Training teachers at UMD is only a start. It will have a ripple effect. This pilot project will change the face of Indian education," said Bergstrom.

Gekinoo'imaagejig 2003 alumna Dawn LaPrairie
and her class at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School



In the early 1970s, when George Himango returned to Duluth after a tour of Vietnam and a stint as an electric line diver, he found himself at UMD. "I sat in the office of Ruth Myers. She was an American Indian matriarch and an incredible person. We had a long conversation about what should be done at UMD to help American Indians. At that time, American Indian students were forgotten. They were on the fringes of society and the university." Myers told Himango that she had a vision that someone would rise as a leader and be a champion for American Indian students.

George Himango

After the conversation with Myers, Himango drove to his parents' house in Duluth, just a few minutes from UMD. When he got to the door, his mother met him and handed him a note. Myers had called. The note said, "You are the one in my vision, and you are the person who is going to create change." Himango was amazed, "I wasn't even sure I would attend UMD. I hadn't thought of myself as being a person who could make changes at UMD."

Himango did enroll. "Ruth's vision kept haunting me," he said. Working with about a dozen other American Indian students at UMD, they came up with a list of things that they wanted to accomplish. Over the next four years the small group of students developed three programs on campus. They helped start the American Indian and Minority Project, which was developed and housed in the social work program then known as the School of Social Development.

They helped create the American Indian Studies academic program in the College of Liberal Arts. It offers coursework to promote understanding of tribal cultures. Its curriculum studies traditional cultural values, tribal language, tribal social structures as well as social and intellectual relations.

The third goal of the group was to start a student organization, the Anishinabe Club. Himango became its first president.

Thirty years later, the Anishinabe Student Organization is thriving. It organizes the largest single diversity event held at UMD, an annual traditional powwow. The powwow features drums and singers, dancers in regalia and up to 1,000 people enjoy the feast.

Himango is still a leader at UMD. He serves on the UMD Alumni Board and was part of a recent effort to establish a $25,000 endowed scholarship for American Indian/Alaskan Native students. They held a fundraising auction and dinner in February and raised over $10,000 in one night alone.

Himango is proud of the role UMD has taken in training American Indian students. "In my position with the Duluth Public Schools, I work with desegregation programs and cross-cultural integration. Because I was raised on the Fond du Lac Reservation, it's my tradition to see the similarities in our relationships, not the differences. In a traditional manner, I continue to view the world as being related through mystical bloodlines and spiritual history. We are all human. We are all here together. This was instilled in me from when I was quite young. That is the philosophy I'm trying to share and it's the view UMD is taking."

All of the programs at UMD honor American Indian traditions and values. In addition to American Indian Studies, the three American Indian education programs and the many different programs offered through CAIMH, the Center for American Indian and Minority Health, there are two additional academic projects of note.  

The Department of Social Work American Indian Project enhances the contemporary social work skills of American Indian students while providing an opportunity to participate in cultural activities to enhance cultural knowledge.

American Indian Science & Engineering Society, AISES, promotes excellence, leadership and and professional development for American Indians and Alaska Natives studying science and engineering.

In addition, an assistance center for students, now called the American Indian Learning Resource Center, provides academic, financial, and individual support.  

UMD's programs and projects are significant, but perhaps more distinctive is UMD's commitment to hiring American Indian faculty and staff.

Ed Brown, former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and director of the American Indian Studies Program at Arizona State University, has been studying American Indian university programs across the country. He puts UMD up against colleges with high Native populations in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma and Washington State. UMD stands out as having the highest ratio of American Indian faculty and staff.

Ruth Myers was right. UMD did change. It not only helped students by providing a supportive atmosphere, it helped them by providing successful American Indians as role models.



Ruth Myers

Ruth A. Myers, (1926-2001) has been credited with starting 16 of the 17 UMD programs for American Indian students. Myers used to tell a story about how she got to UMD. In 1973, she saw a notice in the newspaper that the UMD medical school was developing a program for American Indian students and they were organizing a committee of community members. She knocked on the office door of the dean of the medical school and asked, "What Indians do you have on that committee?" Shortly thereafter, she joined the committee and was hired as a student advisor.

Her last position at UMD before retirement was co-director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health in the UMD School of Medicine. Myers was an enrolled member of Minnesota's Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians. She was elected to the Board of Education of the Duluth Public Schools. She served on the Minnesota State Board of Education, including a term as president.

UMD named the Ruth Myers Endowed Chair in American Indian Education and in 1994, she received the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, during the UMD commencement ceremonies. The Fond du Lac Community College library was named after her and she received numerous awards, including: Minnesota Indian Education Association Elder of the Year; Marvelous Minnesota Woman Award; Marge Wilkins Award 1994; UMD Chancellor's Distinguished Civil Service Award; and University of Minnesota President Hasselmo's Diversity Award.


Joy (Joycelyn) Dorscher, one of the three American Indian medical doctors employed at UMD, is the director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health (CAIMH), a program that helps American Indian students from kindergarten through college explore health professions. Dorscher worked for nine years as a medical technologist before she applied to the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth. At first she thought she would never get to medical school. Even after being accepted and enrolling, she thought every semester would be her last. She said, "Because I didn't have a vision of how my life as an American Indian could merge with a life as a medical doctor, I was unconsciously sabotaging my studies."

That all changed when UMD sent Dorscher to the Association of American Indian Physicians conference in Seattle, Washington. At the conference Dorscher sat at the table with other American Indian physicians and discussed social and medical issues. In the evening, the same doctors who wore suits during the day arrived at the social gathering dressed in their American Indian regalia. "When we danced together," Dorscher said, "I realized I could merge two parts of my life. I knew I would finish my degree and my residency. That night, I saw how I could be both an American Indian and a medical doctor."

Joy Dorscher, M.D. and medical student Jean Howell give American
Indian elder, Warner Wirta, a check-up. Howell, a member of the
Cherokee Nation, is originally from California. Wirta is a
UMD Master of Social Work alumnus and retired social worker.

Dorscher, a Chippewa from Turtle Mountain, says that it is important to her to encourage and empower other American Indians to pursue careers in medicine. She said, "Our world is getting smaller all the time. We are interconnected. American Indian doctors will improve the health of the American Indian people, and that will improve the health of all people."

In the early 1970s, UMD's medical school started a program to encourage American Indians to enter medicine. In 1987, it established CAIMH (Center of American Indian and Minority Health) to increase and improve its efforts. CAIMH is one of only three Native American Centers of Excellence designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By nurturing the interest and skills of American Indian children from kindergarten through graduate school, it has made a lasting mark; it is increasing the representation of American Indians in health care fields.

American Indians and Alaskan Natives make up 2.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 census. But only 0.3 percent of students in the nation's medical schools in the year 2000 were American Indians.

CAIMH runs several different programs all with the same goal: getting American Indians into medical fields.

CAIMH works with kindergarten through eighth grade students at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School to provide community-based math and science enrichment programs.

Students in grades nine through 12 can take part in a problem-based learning summer program, SuperStars. They also can get involved in Explorations, a program of monthly sessions to help students learn more about health professions and increase preparedness for health professions schools.

Once students reach college age, the NAM program, Native Americans Into Medicine, assists undergraduate American Indian and minority students. NAM helps students develop advanced math, science, and writing skills. All activities, including a summer program, offer students the opportunity to learn about health issues in relation to American Indian communities.

The center of CAIMH is the Indian Health Pathway. Medical students receive one-on-one academic advising, faculty mentorship, cultural support and the opportunity to attend national and regional events relevant to Indian health. Program leaders get guidance from a council of community elders, providing a connection to American Indian communities. Dorscher said that this connection is vital. "Young people need to visualize themselves as physicians. They need to find a way to find that vision and at the same time respect their cultural heritage."

Kathleen Annette, M.D., the Bemidji Area Director for the Indian Health Service, took part in some of the first Indian-directed science programs in the early 1970s. "As a high school student, my sisters and I went to the NAM enhanced science summer program at UMD." Later, Annette enrolled at UMD as an undergraduate student and went on to the medical school. "UMD provided the foundation for the rest of my career," she said. "The scientific reasoning I was forced to use in my classes stays with me. I use it now in all the areas of my life.

Kathleen Annette, M.D. reviews hospital records with Jenny Jenkins, CEO of the Cass Lake PHS Indian Health Service. The hospital is one of more than 30 that Annette oversees. Annette was one of the first students to go through the UMD Native Americans in Medicine program in the 1970s. She was also the first woman in the Minnesota Ojibwe Nation to become a physician.

"These programs are magnets for both undergraduates and graduates," she said. "Students go through these programs and they bond. A support system develops so they can succeed in science, math and medicine."

CAIMH is working. In the years before CAIMH was established, an average of less than three percent of the entering medical school class at UMD was American Indian. Since then, that number has more than tripled. The school graduated 16 American Indians during the 1970s and again during the 1980s. It graduated 70 during the 1990s. Already since 2000, 43 American Indians have either graduated or are attending the school. More will enroll next year.            
Dorscher also encourages American Indians with medical degrees to consider academic medicine as a career. Currently, 101 medical school faculty members in the United States are American Indian. "Three of them are at UMD!" said Dorscher. "We need American Indian faculty at medical schools to be role models. In order to improve the health of the American Indian people, we need to bring their health issues to the forefront, and one of the ways to do that is through research."

Research is desperately needed. American Indians die at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average for people their age, according to the U.S. Indian Health Service. There are many reasons for the deaths -- accidents, suicides, chronic diseases, poverty and a lack of adequate and culturally sensitive medical care.

"I came here for this medical school. It is known for its commitment to American Indian health, and that's the direction I was going in,'' said first-year medical student Jean Howell. Howell plans to become a family practice doctor in an American Indian community.

"I think all of us have had moments where we need support, and then we are often called upon to support other people,'' he said.

Encouraging American Indians to become doctors is also key to enriching medical care in a broader sense. Of America's more than 800,000 practicing physicians, only 1,175 are American Indian.

"I can tell you from my work in the Indian Health Service, rural areas across the country need more Indian physicians,'' Annette said. "The UMD medical school is known for helping American Indian students to attend and encouraging all students to go on into rural practice. It's a good combination."  

       -- Cheryl Reitan and Clint Agar


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