Inside the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College (LCOOCC) library in Hayward, WI, tribal elder Jerry Smith gazes through the ceiling window at the bright spring sky, the shining white pines, and the sparkling birches splashed with black thunderbird shapes. In front of the storyteller a semi-circle of 17 University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire faculty members and students sits listening to the tribal college’s elder in residence pass on traditional stories.
Earlier in the week, Smith had told me, “Sometimes there are many people to pass on the stories, and sometimes there is only a handful. But as long as there is at least one dreamer, we have the power to dream our culture back.”
When I hear poetic passages and captivating stories such as his, it only solidifies why we bring our university students to tribal colleges for cultural immersion. During the past two spring breaks, some faculty and students from the UWEC College of Education and Human Sciences have made the trip to the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation near Hayward, WI.
Throughout the week we visit the local sugar bushes or watch the nationally recognized Ojibwe drum group, The Badger Singers, practice in the evenings. Dr. Larry Solberg, Dr. Christin DePouw, and I have placed our students in the LCO Tribal School, the Waadookodaading Immersion Charter School, as well as the local Head Start.
Such encounters form the foundation for those undergraduate scholars from the UWEC’s College of Education and Health Sciences, whose areas of study have included teacher education, communication and sciences disorders, kinesiology, athletic training, and social work.
Journeying up Highway 53 to the reservation, we experience phenomena we of the dominant society could never imagine. We leave the rigid academic paradigms of our linear non-Indigenous university and enter another universe that is holistic, collective, and charged with feelings and beauty. How could we possibly pass this up?
“Those that know… know they don’t know,” the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said. And when it comes to knowing about Native American culture, I admit that I certainly do not know.
How ironic. These days, many who had relatives on the “telling end” of the old boarding and public school model are being taught by descendants on “the receiving end” of the same institutions. Now that I am teaching future educators at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, some of us non-Natives are beginning to appreciate other viewpoints. For example, when students come to me for ideas on teaching a lesson that involves American Indians, my first words to them are, “Well, let’s go to the Natives themselves.”
And that is exactly what we have been doing with our cultural immersions each spring. The grand finale of our last trip was attending a session on Ojibwe language taught by Thelma Nayquonabe and another class on Wisconsin Native History led by Tish Keahna and Dave Bisonette. We then said megwitch (thank you) to all of our gracious hosts and headed south back to our home in Eau Claire.
Through these journeys, we hope to build enduring, lasting, and meaningful relationships that will someday influence others from the dominant culture to move toward more social understanding. Each time the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe welcome us, we become more excited to return.
Our ultimate dream is that our students will someday return to LCO to say boozhoo (hello) and continue the significant personal and professional bonds that have sprouted during their last visits.
Perhaps it will happen… maybe non- Native students will begin to make both personal and professional trips northward of their own choice, of their own free will. And possibly they will develop more meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples—just like we did with the visionary Jerry Smith. That is our dream.
Jerry Worley, Ed.D., is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire and a frequent contributor to Tribal College Journal.