BEMIDJI -- An initiative led by students and faculty at Bemidji State to require all students to complete an indigenous studies course is underway, which if successful, may make BSU the first public, non-tribal university in the country to do so.

BSU Sustainability Director Erika Bailey-Johnson has been a force in organizing this movement. Bailey-Johnson is a newly enrolled Red Lake band member and much of what she does connects to her Ojibwe roots.

“BSU would be one of the first universities in the nation to adopt this kind of requirement, I think we could really lead that way,” she said.

'It just makes sense'

For BSU student Kim Shelton, experiences she has had with cultural misunderstandings in the region led her to advocate for this requirement.

“As a wildlife biology major, I am shocked at the lack of education around indigenous land and treaty rights when educating future managers of land and wildlife," Shelton said. "I think it’s ridiculous that there isn’t at least one course required of our students to learn about indigenous wildlife, especially in our local communities.

"Racism basically stems from willful ignorance of people up here.”

She also hopes it will help Bemidji State “walk the talk,” when it comes to being a destination university for Native American students.

“If you’re going to invite (Native American) people to your campus, you need to make it a welcoming community, and one of the ways you make it a welcoming community is by raising awareness and educating people,” she said.

“It’s really important to me to make this happen.”

BSU Ojibwe language professor Anton Treuer is also pro-requirement, believing it would better equip students to handle future professional situations and would make the university stand out.

“Bemidji State University should be holding up and pushing forward the things that give it a real competitive advantage, and I think that this is one of the things,” he said. “This is something really unique about our area.”

Treuer also noted that most of their students end up getting jobs in the northern Minnesota region after graduation. He continued saying that if someone works in fields such as business, criminal justice, education or healthcare, they will interact with a lot of Native American people.

“So it just makes sense that we would equip our students to navigate the world that they’ll actually live in, work in, and do business in," Treuer added. "To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Hold up what is distinctive about us and equip our students for the future that they’re actually going to be living in.”

BSU Business Administration Professor Veronica Veaux hopes this requirement will "open up some eyes."

“I’m from Leech Lake and I grew up around this area," Veaux said. "I think that there are a lot of people who might have some misunderstandings or not know the full history -- not to say that I’m an expert on the full history of American Indian people or anything like that, but without coming to learn about it on your own, there’s really not a whole lot of curriculum from what I’ve seen at the public school level or within many families, so bringing this as a requirement will perhaps open up some eyes and we'll see better partnerships within our communities as well.”

She also added that, "maybe if we understand each other more clearly, we will be able to be better allies with one another."

Bailey-Johnson said this requirement would align well with the university's current strategic plan, appealing to the sense of place in BSU’s mission.

She hopes that a course requirement like this will help fill in the gaps in their history education. The classes could help answer questions such as, what are treaties, and how do they work? When were there boarding schools and what did that do to Native people?

“It’s just not common knowledge and it should be,” she said.

Potential concerns

One concern BSU students may have is whether this requirement will cause them to need more time in order to graduate.

“It’s not really adding more courses to a student’s load per se, it just means that students might take it in one of their liberal education areas rather than taking another course,” Veaux explained.

Currently, BSU requires 42 credits of general liberal education courses to graduate. The tentative plan is to offer students a variety of classes under the umbrella of indigenous studies, which could be chosen based on the student’s academic interests. This could include options such as indigenous sustainability or indigenous business and entrepreneurship.

It would be a BSU-specific requirement, similar to the requirement for a participation and performance course, which is outside of the Minnesota State System's general education graduation requirements.

Bailey-Johnson mentioned concerns were also raised about whether there were enough faculty or courses to support such a requirement, but that wouldn't be an issue.

“We have enough classes, seats and teachers to support all of our students having to take this requirement,” she said.

Shelton said she heard some pushback from faculty, questioning why a course requirement would be made for indigenous studies and not for other minority courses, such as women’s studies or African American studies.

“That conversation has come up and it’s kind of tricky to navigate, but basically what we’ve come to is 'well because we are in northern Minnesota, on treaty land, the name of our university comes from an Ojibwe word, we are a destination school for Native people,' it’s basically a place-based requirement,” Shelton explained. “Here we are on Ojibwe land, surrounded by reservations, with an Ojibwe name for a school, let’s learn about it, let’s raise some awareness.”

Next steps

The first step toward bringing this idea to fruition was to run it by the indigenous studies and Ojibwe language faculty, Bailey-Johnson said. BSU President Faith Hensrud has also been approached for her thoughts on the matter.

Then, the idea was brought before the BSU Student Senate and BSU Faculty Senate. Both groups have voiced support of the movement, according to Bailey-Johnson.

Bailey-Johnson said she also hopes to garner community support and to begin planning an online delivery format.

“What we’ve been working on is getting support, and now that we know there’s support there, now we can start moving forward,” Veaux said. “Assuming that we get everything to the curriculum committee by July."

If all goes according to plan, the earliest the graduation requirement would go into effect is 2021, Veaux said.

“I don’t fully know how long something like this will take," Bailey-Johnson said. "But it seems like it’s the right time.”