Photo of Cary Waubanascum on the steps of Peters HallCary Waubanascum on the steps of Peters Hall, St. Paul campus

First steps

Innovative programs and initiatives in social work are drawing more Native American students

“We need Native students here,” says Cary Waubanascum, a doctoral student in social work. She’s an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, with ancestral roots in the Menominee, Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin.

Waubanascum admits she felt intimidated about applying to doctoral programs. Today she would like other prospective Native American social workers to realize that they can be competitive and succeed.

“Now that I am here, I don’t think any Native student should be intimidated to apply,” she says. “The work is possible. Walking away from your career for a while is possible.”

“We need social workers who understand our people, communities, culture, and history,” says Waubanascum.

Native perspectives and voices are necessary and powerful in higher education, she says, especially in social work, where social workers have a lot of influence on the lives of the people they work with in tribal communities. Coming to the University equipped with this knowledge was a major factor in her recognition of the need for Indigenous social work education so social workers can gain the ability to work with Native people in respectful and effective ways.

The number of Native American students enrolled in graduate programs in the School of Social Work has increased from 4 (1.3 percent) in 2010 to 15 (5.3 percent) in 2018, a significant portion of an increase in the college as a whole.

“As more and more individual students come in, and they see a connection in different places—whether that’s in our experiential program or opportunities to engage in tribally centered research—respect and trust start to develop,” says Korina Barry, MSW ’11, director of outreach for the school’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW). “It’s a domino effect. Native students and faculty talk to other people within the University about their perspectives and experiences, and that awareness and knowledge spreads. That representation matters.”

Connections with the community

The program Barry refers to is Critical Experiential Learning in the Native American community (CELNA). It started in 2012 in support of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare’s goal of providing educational resources to MSW students who are receiving federal Title IV-E funding. Those students, called child welfare fellows, are committed to pursuing careers in public or tribal child welfare.

Shortly after Katie Johnston-Goodstar joined the social work faculty, CASCW staff asked her to collaborate on an experiential learning curriculum about Native American child welfare, according to Elizabeth Snyder, the center’s director of professional education.

The percentage of children and families in Minnesota engaged with child protection who are Native and African American is extremely high, even though those groups make up a small minority of the state’s population. The state’s disparity is the highest in the nation.

In addition, most child welfare workers are white and unfamiliar with tribal philosophies or the particular lived experiences or history of trauma among the people they work with.

With extensive input from Native elders and social service providers, including partner organization Ain Dah Yung, Johnston-Goodstar developed a one-day curriculum for child welfare students, which soon expanded to two days. Barry, who received her MSW before CELNA started, learned about it when she joined the CASCW in 2015.

“I was really inspired and impressed by CELNA,” says Barry. “I thought, ‘We need more of this!’”

Johnston-Goodstar, now an associate professor, praises CASCW’s leadership in connecting with the Native American community.

“CASCW hasn’t been just talking about diversity and supporting the Native community,” she says. “They’ve been putting it into action in so many different ways.”

She notes that CASCW has been intricately collaborating with the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s School of Social Work for many years. In 2011, the Twin Cities began to support Title IV-E students to attend UMD’s Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare. CASCW pays for three Twin Cities MSW students and three to four bachelor of social work IV-E students form other schools to attend the institute, which gives a unique opportunity to meet with and learn from tribal child welfare workers and administrators. It is the only institute of its kind in the United States.

Ashley Jones, MSW ’17, says she was fortunate as a child welfare fellow to be able to experience both the CELNA program and the summer institute.

“You can only read so much about it—you have to go out into the community,” says Jones.

Her CELNA experience included a segment at Fort Snelling, the site of a historic mass incarceration where many Dakota people perished.

“It impacted me in a personal way,” Jones says. “I’m Native, and being there on Indigenous People’s Day was memorable.”

Connection to home

Adam Savariego, MEd ’18, is a member of the Dakota Upper Sioux Community and a graduate of the youth development leadership (YDL) program in the School of Social Work. He came to the University from Granite Falls, Minnesota, mainly because he wanted to take Dakota language classes.

“It’s weird,” he says with a laugh. “I had to leave my community to come to the University of Minnesota, that’s named after a Dakota place, on Dakota homeland, to learn my language.”

He also wanted to pursue a master’s degree program that would support his goal of working with youth. YDL appeared to be exactly what he wanted, and its evening classes allowed him to take Dakota language classes during the day. YDL exceeded his expectations.

“I think it was the first time in my 18 years of education that I felt it was actual education,” he says.

Two photos: Minnesota River Valley landscape + Adam Savariego talking on site to youth
During field experience for his master’s in youth development, Adam Savariego talked with youth at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park on a bluff overlooking the Minnesota River Valley about the importance of that place.

The MEd program in YDL added a new course, Ways of Knowing in Youth Development Leadership, as part of a recent curriculum revision. The course explicitly introduces students to four major epistemological traditions, including Indigenous epistemology. Throughout the course, students consider how these ways of knowing shape both how they understand issues and the practice interventions that are created to address them.

In YDL, faculty and staff members encouraged Savariego to be “real,” and the acceptance he felt, once he was able to share his thoughts and feelings, helped him overcome the shame he had felt growing up in a small town in Minnesota.

“In [youth development leadership], I didn’t become something,” Savariego explains. “I was allowed to be something I always have been.”

Savariego is now is a part-time community cultural liaison at Granite Falls High School. The job is one he created. He describes it as helping the teachers better understand Dakota Upper Sioux culture and students, and helping those students navigate a Eurocentric school system by motivating, empowering, and just being a friend to them.

He is also working on a grant project with Johnston-Goodstar and thinking about eventually entering a PhD program so he can “grow and expand myself and maintain my connection to home—because that’s where the work is for me.”

Drawn to leading research and teaching

PhD student Waubanascum chose the University’s social work program based on three factors: flexibility in research assistantships based on her interests, working with a Native faculty member, and location close to her home and family  in Wisconsin.

Although she left her reservation home in Oneida, Wisconsin, to move to Minnesota, she feels connected to her roots.

“This isn’t my ancestral homeland,” says Waubanascum, “but it’s Dakota land, and they are my relatives.”

Coming into a PhD program can feel isolating at times, she says, but she remembers her grandfather’s advice to “never forget where you came from.”

Remaining close and connected to home and family is a key ingredient to her overall success in the program. She also loves and feels connected to the Native community in the Twin Cities.

She arrived at the University with a few ideas for a dissertation.

Her interest in Native youth suicide prevention began when she worked as a suicide prevention coordinator at the College of Menominee Nation in 2010, where the community saw a need. In the social work program, she is also working with professor Wendy Haight, UMD professor Priscilla Day, and UMD, examining how UMD has integrated Indigenous knowledge and practice into its social work program through the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare. Waubanascum’s role in the project has piqued her interest in Indigenous social work education.

In addition to the Eurocentric ways of knowing, predominant in University coursework, Wabanascum is learning decolonizing theories and methods from her mentors and fellow students.

“These are the most appropriate lenses with which to practice, research, theorize, and design policy with our people,” she says.

She knew she would gain relevant teachings from her adviser, Johnston-Goodstar, who envisions Indigenous knowledge woven into the social work program. It’s a signature offering that could distinguish the University, support the recruitment and retention of Indigenous students and faculty, and improve social work practice in Native communities.

Johnston-Goodstar has helped Waubanascum make connections to other Indigenous researchers and to Minnesota tribal communities. She also secured funding for Waubanascum to attend the 2017 national conference of the Society for Social Work and Research, which was offering an Indigenous research track for the first time. A keynote speaker at the conference was Linda Tuhiwai Smith, PhD, from New Zealand, a Maori scholar-activist and author of Decolonizing Methodologies. A grand entry celebration for Smith gave Waubanascum a unique opportunity to intersect her scholarly and Native American identities.

“I wore a ribbon skirt that I borrowed from my Dakota friend, and my moccasins, and I participated in the grand entry alongside another Menominee PhD student,” she says with pride. “Dancing in a grand entry felt natural because it’s how I grew up.”

A long way to go

The graduate programs in the School of Social Work have taken several steps on the road to becoming more welcoming for Native American students and more responsive to the surrounding Native communities.

“I’m really proud that we do CELNA every year,” says Johnston-Goodstar. “It gets a lot of positive feedback from the community and among the students. It seems to be adding something to the social workers that we are producing.”

But CELNA is limited to child welfare students. She would like to see Indigenous content not just in the MEd program in youth development leadership but across the school’s curriculum, expanding to all students, graduate and undergraduate. She would also like to see initiatives that support students across departments and colleges—for example, language revitalization and college support for students to minor in Dakota and Ojibwe language programs offered in the College of Liberal Arts.

Initiatives like that, she says, could increase not only the number of Native students in the college but also the number of critically aware students of other backgrounds.

“We could produce graduates who not only work in Native communities but are simultaneously engaged in the language and cultural revitalization efforts of those communities,” says Johnston-Goodstar.

Hiring and retaining more Native Americans in professional and tenure-line positions remains a large hurdle.

Part of the reason, CASCW’s Snyder points out, is that Indigenous research and scholarship can be very different from prevailing methods. To be a true research institution, she adds, the University needs to include it.

“That,” says Johnston-Goodstar, “means understanding what research methodology and dissemination would look like in a world in which we are not comparing them to a white, male, positivist science standard.”

The good work that has been done to increase Native graduate students in the school is awesome, according to Johnston-Goodstar.

“It’s a good start,” she says, “but we have a long way to go.”

Learn more about programs in the School of Social Work and the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.

Read more about leaders in indigenous language revitalization in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and the rise in Native student enrollment across CEHD, in Language is alive. Read about a new faculty member in the Department of Organizational Laedership, Policy, and Development in Exploring indigenous knowledge systems.

Story by Jacqueline Colby | Photos by Tj Turner and courtesy of Adam Savariego | Winter 2019