Call it a turning point.
One hundred years ago, more than 50 prominent Native Americans from across the country and Wisconsin gathered at UW-Madison for a weeklong conference. The fourth annual meeting of the Society of American Indians (SAI) in October 1914 was organized around legal issues that affected every Native American.
But as it happened, the meeting also marked a shift in how the university viewed its responsibilities toward the state’s indigenous communities.
“The SAI conference started a relationship between the university and the tribes of Wisconsin,” says Larry Nesper, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology and American Indian studies. “The university began to reach out to the American Indian communities in the state, sending researchers and other personnel.”
Nesper, a Nelson Institute affiliate who has studied the SAI meeting and its impacts, says the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences was one of the first campus entities to engage the nations, establishing the Indian Farm
Institutes in 1915 to help develop agriculture in tribal communities in the state. Other projects would follow.
“So the Indian people, by coming here, seem to have motivated us and reminded us that we’re on Indian land in a certain sense,” says Nesper. “None of this would have been said this way at the time, but it seems to me the original motivation.”
Collaboration between the university and native nations, however, was not actually on the SAI meeting agenda. Instead, enormous legal issues anchored the national gathering.
A RIGHTS AGENDA
The Society of American Indians was the first secular, native-led rights association that sought to impact federal policy, according to Nesper. He says the organization was made up mostly of Native American professionals, such as educators, doctors, lawyers and members of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The 1914 SAI conference focused primarily on critical legal issues, including U.S. citizenship for Native Americans, who were considered wards of the federal government in a reservation system that appeared to be failing.
Prominent Native Americans from across the country and Wisconsin gather in front of Lathrop Hall on the UW-Madison campus in 1914, visiting Madison for the fourth annual meeting of the Society of American Indians.
“Indian people were generally poor, they were undereducated, they were losing vast quantities of land, their tribal economies were in bad shape, and there was a feeling around the country that it was time for a change in Indian policy,” says Nesper. Also on the agenda for the weeklong meeting was the handling of legal claims against the U.S. government related to treaty violations, land confiscation and other longstanding issues.
“There was a 100-year backlog of grievances,” says Nesper.
The 1914 meeting produced a document, called a “memorial,” which was presented to President Woodrow Wilson. Nesper says Native American rights were far from a national priority at the time. Ten more years would pass before Native Americans won U.S. citizenship, and adjudication of treaty issues would come even later.
The university acted more quickly in response to what it heard at the 1914 meeting, where an Ohio State University sociologist and SAI co-founder, Fayette McKenzie, issued a call for universities to reach out to the tribes. Nesper says some at UW-Madison clearly heard the message and felt that the Wisconsin Idea – the principle that the university should improve peoples’ lives beyond the classroom – should apply to everyone in the state, including its native inhabitants.
But while some of the early research and outreach efforts were well-meaning and mutually beneficial, academics had already established a sour reputation in some native communities, according to Patty Loew, a UW-Madison professor of life sciences communication. A Nelson affiliate and member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Loew says the university had been pushing agricultural development in the northern part of the state without regard for native cultural dependence on forests, wildlife, wetlands and other natural resources.
In addition, she says, some early research projects were seen as “extractive” by Native Americans.
“A number of researchers went into native communities, published their research and earned tenure, which has economic value,” says Loew. “But a lot of that research was never shared with native people.”
Loew stresses that things have been changing as the academic community has come to understand and embrace principles of community-based research.
“We should be talking to communities about what they need and how the process should work, right from the start,” she explains. “All of that should go into the kind of research that gets done.”
Loew says UW-Madison researchers are increasingly engaging with native communities in ways that honor their needs, their culture and their local knowledge. She points to the work of Nelson Institute graduate student Jessie Conaway, among others.
Nesper agrees, and he’s been working with the Nelson Institute and Wisconsin native communities to build on these successful models.
“I think it’s time we look back on that 100-year history and look forward to the next 100 years of this relationship,” he says.
This story was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of In Common magazine.