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'Wherever they need me': Red Lake Nation College grad to head to BSU and back

Wesley Jourdain, 34, recently registered for classes at Bemidji State University. This got him thinking about his grandfather, John Buckanaga, who was among the first American Indian students to graduate from BSU. Jourdain graduates from Red Lake Nation College on Thursday, with plans to attend BSU in the fall to major in Indigenous Studies. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Wesley Jourdain was thinking about his grandfather when he registered for classes earlier this month.

Jourdain's grandfather is John Buckanaga, who was among the first American Indian students to graduate from Bemidji State College, now Bemidji State University. Jourdain, 34, is set to graduate from Red Lake Nation College on Thursday, then head to the university for a degree in Indigenous Studies with a minor in the Ojibwe language, plus a teaching certificate.

"My grandpa walked those hallways at Bemidji State, and it was almost 60 years to the day he graduated," Jourdain recalled thinking when he registered. "And here's me, trying to follow his footsteps."

Jourdain is one of about a dozen students expected to graduate from the Red Lake college with a two-year liberal arts degree. He's also set to walk an increasingly well-worn path from tribal colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin to the university, where staff aim to be a "destination" school for American Indian students. Bill Blackwell, Jr., who heads the university's American Indian Resource Center, said he's been recruiting Jourdain for about a year.

For now, Jourdain is an English literacy specialist at Red Lake Nation's Waasabiik Ojibwemotaadiwin language immersion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. He said he's somewhere between an intermediate and expert-level Ojibwemowin speaker.

With a four-year degree in hand, Jourdain said he plans to keep working in Red Lake, which could mean heading back to the Ojibwe band's immersion program or a nascent one at Red Lake School District.

"I'm hoping to come back to Red Lake and share the knowledge that I have to share," Jourdain said. "Wherever they need me."

But a degree wasn't always part of his plans. Jourdain was Red Lake High School's salutatorian in 2002, and made it about two weeks at Bemidji State University the following fall.

"I just wasn't as motivated. I didn't have anybody to motivate me," he said. Jourdain said he spent the next decade or so heading to powwows in the summer and working in community education jobs—drum teachings, drum making, and so on—the rest of the year.

Now he's got a new motivator: his son and daughter, who are in kindergarten and first grade, respectively. A single father, Jourdain said he found he had enough time to head back to school once he got them enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes. (A friend cajoled him to enroll, too, Jourdain said.)

"I wanted to show them that I could do it, too," Jourdain said of his kids. "This was a good place to start."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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