UW seeks tribes’ help to recruit, retain Native American students


David "Napos" Turney Sr., who serves a mentor to Native American students at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, talks Tuesday about the challenges of increasing UW System enrollment among young people from the state’s tribes. Photo Mark Hoffman

David “Napos” Turney Sr., who serves a mentor to Native American students at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, talks Tuesday about the challenges of increasing UW System enrollment among young people from the state’s tribes. Photo Mark Hoffman

By Karen Herzog, Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Green Bay — Students at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who want to learn about the state’s American Indian tribes don’t turn to books, but to tribal elders who live on nearby reservations and keep office hours in Wood Hall.

It’s a unique opportunity for any student on campus to sit face-to-face with a tribal member who is a repository of knowledge and wisdom passed on to him by his elders — everything from tribal beliefs and teachings to tribal culture, language and faith in the Great Spirit, the Creator.

Green Bay is within 100 miles of five Indian reservations for the: Oneida, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Stockbridge-Munsee and Mole Lake. The Oneida reservation is on the city’s outskirts.

It would be logical to assume UW-Green Bay draws a large number of Native American students with its proximity to tribal lands. But like the rest of the UW System, UW-Green Bay’s enrollment of Native students is flat, while the numbers of other underrepresented minorities are growing.

Last fall, only 98 of UW-Green Bay’s 6,667 students were Native American. Systemwide, 679 of the 154,446 undergraduates at campuses across the state identified themselves as Native Americans — 0.4% of the total enrollment.

In an effort to better understand why that is — and what can be done to help more Native American students in Wisconsin earn college degrees — the UW System Board of Regents invited leaders of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council to join them Friday at an unprecedented meeting in Stevens Point.

It may be the first time tribal leaders have sat down with leaders of the state’s system of higher education, UW officials said. UW Regent Ed Manydeeds and UW System President Ray Cross attended a Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council meeting in July to extend the invitation.

“The history that happened to these people didn’t happen that long ago,” said Manydeeds, the first Native American regent and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

“They’ve never been asked anything; they’ve just been directed,” Manydeeds said. “They are entitled to the same careful relationship-building as others. We owe it to these people, like everyone else, to have a chance to be educated. We want them to help us help their students be successful.”

Wisconsin’s Native American population is about 1% of the total population, but the numbers have increased 12.6% since the 2000 census.

The state has 11 federally recognized tribes. About 45% of the Native American population is in the state’s metropolitan areas; 13.7% (7,313 people) lived in Milwaukee County in 2008.

UW-Oshkosh last year had the UW System’s highest Native American enrollment (117), followed by UW-Milwaukee (114), UW-Madison (112) and UW-Green Bay (98).

The Wisconsin Technical College System has about twice as many Native American students as the UW System. The state’s two tribal colleges have about the same as the UW System.

Increasing Native American enrollment may require a shift in campus culture, according to tribal elders at UW-Green Bay. There’s a need for non-Native students to understand and respect Native American culture, and a need for Native students to feel like they fit in on college campuses.

UW-Green Bay has a First Nations Studies program that focuses on Wisconsin’s Native American tribes and bands, and is considered a model for building understanding and respect of tribal cultures. It reaches students who are interested in a First Nations Studies major or minor, students learning to be teachers, and students in general education classes such as history.

David Voelker, an associate professor of Humanistic Studies and History, set out several years ago to fuse First Nations content with his American history classes because he wanted to teach in a way that was relevant and respectful. He has learned from tribal elders and colleagues in the First Nations Studies program.

“Part of it is reminding everyone that First Nations still exist,” said Voelker, who grew up in Indiana and had only a rudimentary exposure to Native American history while working toward his master’s degree and doctorate in American history.

“Just having more knowledge and respect is important,” Voelker said. “It’s hard to be respectful if you’re ignorant.”

Tim Kaufman, chair of the Education Department, considers the elders in residence the heart and soul of the Education Center for First Nations Studies. Students learning to be teachers take courses in First Studies and meet with tribal elders to help them better understand Wisconsin’s tribes so they can teach specific content in K-12 schools, as required by Wisconsin Act 31.

“One of the real focuses on this center and the program is interdisciplinary connections,” Kaufman said.

The First Nations Studies program teaches history, sovereignty, laws and policies, and indigenous philosophy. Students also learn about the contemporary status of bands and nations, according to Lisa Poupart, associate professor of Humanistic Studies, First Nations Studies and Women’s Studies.

Poupart is chair and adviser for the First Nation Studies program, and is an enrolled member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Anishinabe (Ojibwe).

Menominee elders David “Napos” Turney Sr., and Richie Plass enjoy sitting down with students who stop by the First Nations Studies office in Wood Hall to ask questions. Many of the students are non-Native, and know nothing about Native culture.

They talk about everything from the degradation of school mascots to cultural stereotypes.

For example, “everybody thinks if you’re Native American and have a casino, you’re rich,” Plass said.

Plass, a published poet, was an Indian mascot in high school in 1968, and remembers traveling to another school where students threw banana peels, orange peels and paper cups at him. Then they spit on him.

“To me, there’s no honor in having people laugh at me, throw food on me and spit on me,” he said. Plass travels around the country with an exhibit he created on Native American imagery, showing both the “good” and culturally correct items from Native American culture and the “not so good” images, such as school mascots.

Turney said when he meets students, he asks who they are, where they are from and whether they have ever been around Native Americans. He is a Vietnam War veteran. He also works with students in Green Bay schools as a traditional elder in residence for the Title 7 cultural program.

Turney teaches Menominee at UW-Green Bay and in Green Bay public schools. Today, there are only five first-language Menominee speakers on the tribal rolls of 9,000 people, he said.

Turney and Plass sat deep in thought when asked why there aren’t more Native American students on UW campuses.

Part of it is the devastation of addiction on reservations, they said. “There’s some very smart Indian kids who didn’t graduate from high school because they were cutting the rug,” Plass said.

Tribal colleges on tribal lands have helped raise the numbers of college educated American Indians, he said.

Some Native Americans don’t realize they need a college degree until they are adults, Turney said. He didn’t earn his bachelor’s degree until he was 50.

Why did it take him so long?

“I didn’t think I was ready for it and I didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “When I was young, I also was worried they would change my way of thinking or who I was if I went to college. I was really proud of who I was.”

It also can be hard for Native American youths to fit in on college campuses because there are so few students like them, Turney and Plass said.

Plass said many youths just don’t want to leave the reservation — sovereign land where they can hunt and fish whenever they want.

And then there’s racism. “That’s a very uncomfortable subject to come out,” Plass said.

Turney recalled that the Inter-tribal Student Council on campus several years ago met resistance from the non-Native student government when they sought funding to serve Native food at a powwow. The Native students were angry and chose not to have the powwow as a friendly boycott.

They brought the powwow back two years ago, when UW-Green Bay was recognized among the top schools in the U.S. for Native American students, said Turney, who was the group’s adviser.

Native students look at the tribal elders in residence as campus allies. “We have to help non-Native students learn about us,” Turney said Native students tell him.

Turney said he doesn’t preach going to college, but believes the key to success for Native American students is knowing who they are and taking pride in their culture.

“If your roots are strong, there’s no wind that can blow you over,” he said.

Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock Casting a Big Shadow in Wisconsin

Hard Rock, Wisconsin, a conceptual drawing
Hard Rock, Wisconsin, a conceptual drawing

By Nancy Smith, Sunshine State News

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has proposed a partnership between its Hard Rock International casinos and the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, a deal that could channel millions of dollars in profits from the Badger State back to Florida.

The proposal to open an $808 million casino complex at a now-shuttered, off-reservation dog track in Kenosha is in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker. The Menominee say they need a cash partner or they can’t get their casino off the ground.

Talks between the Seminoles and Menominee have been going on for more than a year. Frank Fantini, CEO of the Fantini Gaming Report, called Hard Rock “a very big brand, known internationally. The brand has a great reputation … it would give immediate visibility to the casino in Kenosha.”

Even though the Wisconsin Menominee are among the poorest Native American people in the country, winning approval from Gov. Walker is still viewed as dicey. The governor has said he would approve the Kenosha casino only if each of the state’s other 10 tribes blessed the proposition — effectively giving each tribe veto power over the proposal. He also has said a tribe must show that an off-reservation casino would result in “no new net gaming.”

Two of the 11 tribes, both with casinos — the Forest County Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk — so far have refused to endorse the project, saying the Hard Rock will siphon off too large a share of their profits.

Wisconsin Indian gaming is a $1 billion industry, with $50 million going to the state.

Amy Marsh, an aide at the Wisconsin Capitol, told Sunshine State News, “Gov. Walker has until Feb. 19 to make a decision, but meanwhile the tribes have to work out their differences.”

The Seminoles-Menominee partnership would mark the first time for any out-of-state tribe to manage a casino in Wisconsin.

Hard Rock International CEO Jim Allen claims the site would be a regional draw.

“We believe there are a tremendous amount of people in the state of Wisconsin today who are going to casinos in Illinois,” Allen says. “We think a facility so close to the Illinois border will bring those people back to the state of Wisconsin and bring back those jobs and revenues to the state of Wisconsin.”

Allen says there have been talks with the dissenting tribes about revenue-sharing, the talks have gone well and he’s hopeful his team can get everybody on board.

The agreement between the Menominee and Hard Rock — including the percentage of profits the Florida Seminoles tribe would receive — has been kept under wraps.

“The question is, do we really want that revenue from the casino … being sent to Florida?” asked Richard Monette, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor. “That percentage becomes key, and those factors should be public.”

He predicts Hard Rock would expect to receive 30-to-35 percent of the Kenosha casino’s total revenue, and as much as 40 percent. Monette is also director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center.

Not all stakeholders are impressed with the Seminoles or think they should be anywhere near the Wisconsin tribal gaming industry.

The Milwaukee media have given a lot of exposure to public filings from the National Indian Gaming Commission, showing the Seminole Tribe has paid more than $12 million in fines handed down by the federal government since 1997 — more than any other tribe in the nation.

It has, for example, left George Ermert, spokesman for the Potawatomi, expressing “serious concerns” about the Seminoles being involved in Wisconsin’s tribal gaming industry.

“There are some serious issues with leadership,” Ermert told Shereen Siewert of the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team. “We’re talking about FBI investigations, leaders who have been indicted on charges of conspiracy, embezzlement, money laundering. (Seminole Tribe Chairman) James Billie himself was tossed from office because of the things he did.”

The Seminole Tribe of Florida acquired the Hard Rock corporation for nearly $1 billion in 2007. Hard Rock has 174 venues in 54 countries, including 138 cafes, 17 hotels and seven casinos, according to the company.

The Seminoles operate six casinos in Florida, two of which use the Hard Rock name. Combined, the Florida casinos have about 12,500 slot machines and 340 table games.

The 11 Wisconsin tribes share a percentage of their casino profits. These per capita payments — dispensed evenly to enrolled tribal members — are among the perks of successful Indian gaming ventures.

But of all 11 tribes, the Menominee give the least to individuals — about $75 a year in 2012, for example. The Potawatomi, by comparison, paid each tribal member $80,000 in 2012.

Gannett reports that the Menominee have pledged to spend gaming revenue on human and social services — including college scholarships — if their Kenosha proposal is approved.