Jessie Conaway outside Bascom Hall at UW-Madison.

In 2015, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a centennial summit with Native American nations, the first event of its kind since the tribes had been invited to campus in 1914. Jessie Conaway, who at the time was a graduate student on the planning committee, saw an exciting opportunity for the university to take its conversations with tribal colleagues a step further.

Conaway and professor Patty Loew became co-chairs of the Native Nations_UW Strategic Working Group, an ongoing collaboration between the university and Wisconsin tribes. After listening sessions with the 12 tribes — Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes and the Brothertown Indian Nation — the working group moved into a series of feedback loops to finalize a strategic plan of priorities and action items.

Four years later, Conaway remains a working group co-chair with professor Annie Jones. She is also the faculty associate for Native Nations partnerships with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, where she received her doctorate, and the indigenous arts and sciences lead researcher with Earth Partnership.

Tell me a bit about how you became involved with the working group from its inception in 2016.

(The centennial summit) was a great opportunity for us as a campus to host the tribes and learn from tribal leadership, doing breakout sessions to educate ourselves and take a pulse of what the nations Wisconsin are prioritizing and potential areas we could partner. So it was a really exciting time where it was a debut for this effort. We realized we can capitalize on these meetings; instead of just being like “Hi, bye,” we can use this information to make a strategy.

We wanted to do this in a good and collaborative way with the nations. Universities tend to have a tumultuous relationship with Native nations because of research histories, researchers having more of an extractive models in tribes and problems with data sovereignty. Also, just because education was a tool of assimilation, there’s a lot of really difficult histories there. Obviously there are many individuals within UW-Madison who have been working successfully with tribes for many years, so we wanted to build on their work but also renew a commitment.

Were tribes skeptical of developing these relationships at first? How have you worked to overcome that and improve trust over time?

In my role as someone who’s non-tribal and as a university person I really focus on my process in terms of visiting the nations and building those relationships and that trust. That is extremely important and the ways personally that I’ve been successful is being a good listener. Having humility and having heart. We’ve got to have that heart piece in there. I’m trying to focus on the humanity of that partnership.

Have you seen those changes from the tribes’ perspective as they warm up to the idea of partnerships like these?

Definitely. We’ve demonstrated that we’ve taken a step forward. Is there ongoing skepticism? Yes. There have been hundreds of years of assimilation, warfare. There’s a premise that nothing we do can ever be enough. It will never undo what’s been done to Native people, and we can continue to work with our leadership to achieve broader, higher goals in terms of respect, reciprocity, reconciliation. I’m really proud of our work because we have a lot of people who are working on the ground with the Nations up to our level to bring (institutional) leadership together with people who are working on the ground to take these steps forward.

What are some successes the working group has seen so far that you’re particularly excited about or proud of?

We worked on a project — with Ho-Chunk Nation, Red Cliff Chippewa, Oneida, UW Extension and Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts — called Native Ways for Climate Adaptation, also known as Tribes Adapt. It was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The impetus of that work was to bring tribal and UW expertise together around urgent issues having to do with climate adaptation and resiliency, including community and environmental pieces, and we're implementing those trainings with tribal professionals now.

I’m also excited about a couple ways we have rallied about being culturally responsive. Through the Elders-in-Residence program that started fall 2018, we host two elders on campus per academic year. It’s an educational exchange in which the elder works in a mentoring role with students. We’ve also hosted cultural responsiveness training as professional development opportunities for faculty, staff and leadership. One of the ways we have sought to improve as a campus is to educate ourselves about Indian country, Indian people and tribal priorities, so that we can be better neighbors and serve Native students more effectively. The first year (November 2018) we had 40 people from campus, the second year (November 2019) we doubled our attendance. We have tribal leaders and educators come and do the actual instruction, and it’s been very successful.

On that note, beyond work at the Nelson Institute or the working group, what are some changes you’ve seen the university make on an institutional level to address Native relations? Conversely, what are improvements that you think still need to be made?

We have to do better to serve our Native students. We’re working with housing on the prospect of a residential and learning community for Native students. What we’re hearing and experiencing is that Native students have Native-specific needs, so with diversity efforts, that needs to be honored. We want to continue to improve in terms of advising, emotional health support. Having more people on campus and more faculty-staff leadership helps with that. Space is also a big piece, having a safe space for students to do their cultural practices and have each other.

You mention that the working group is entering a second phase now. What are the projects you’re most excited for looking forward?

I really love teaching, so one of the projects I work on on a yearly basis is an environmental studies capstone that’ community- and project-based. I’ve done that for five years for environmental studies students at the Nelson Institute as a culminating experience for the undergraduate major. It’s an international experience right here in Wisconsin. We work in conservation and education projects that the students complete for the nations (Bad River Chippewa, Menominee, Ho-Chunk Nation and the city of Monona, and Lac du Flambeau Chippewa) It’s a powerful experience for the students to be able to visit reservations and tribal lands and learn from leadership in their place and in their way, and for the nations to host us and be part of that exchange. I’ve had a few students who have changed their career path based on that experience working with the Native Nations of Wisconsin.

We’re at a good place as a university. Since that summit in 2015, we’ve taken a step forward, and I think that in some ways we’re further along than I even thought we would be, but also acknowledging that we need to do more. It’s an exciting time, because now we’ve looped back in with the nations about the strategic plan and we’re renewing our efforts.

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