Battle Creek

Tribal Governance focus of new graduate certificate at Western Michigan University

A collaboration between leaders of Native American Tribes in Southwest Michigan and Western Michigan University resulted in a Graduate Certificate in Tribal Governance that will be offered beginning this Fall at WMU.
The new certificate program was announced Thursday during a “We Talk gathering featuring remarks from Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Newland discussed how the traditional Seven Grandfathers teaching has guided his work in public service and helped him to engage across diverse communities. 
Offered through the College of Arts and Sciences School of Public Affairs and Administration, the certificate program is designed to provide a “comprehensive understanding of the legal and cultural history of the treaty tribes, tribal peoples, communities, business entities, and governments and how they relate to local, state and federal governments,” according to information provided by WMU.
“It’s very important to have a Tribal Governance course like this to educate Indigenous people because many of them have been far removed from their communities because of what they’ve dealt with in the past and their family structure,” says Jamie Stuck, Tribal Council Chairperson for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, one of three area tribes that worked with WMU to make the new Graduate Certificate a reality.  “Citizens within tribes in the state of Michigan may not have had the opportunity to live on a Reservation.”
The new WMU Graduate Certificate in Tribal Leadership was announced at an April This created gaps in Tribal members' knowledge of the history, culture, customs, and language unique to their respective Tribes, Stuck says.
There are 12 sovereign and federally recognized Tribes in Michigan, all of which are members of the United Tribes of Michigan. The organization provides a forum to address issues of common concern and is committed to advancing, protecting, preserving, and enhancing the mutual interests, treaty rights, sovereignty, and cultural way of life of the Michigan Tribes.
Stuck, who was elected in October to serve a two-year term as President of the United Tribes of Michigan, says the Tribes all work together but differ in how they govern and operate.
“The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, commonly referred to as the Gun Lake Tribe and our Tribe have two different sets of rules, and the codes and regulations we adopt are different,” he says. “You have Tribes that have different ways of impacting policy. One of the topics covered through the Tribal Governance certificate program will be how policy impacts our Indigenous communities.”
The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the Gun Lake Tribe and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi all were collaborators on the new certificate offering.
They, along with every Tribe within the United States, operate as sovereign nations. That means they have power over themselves; their government is under their control, rather than under the control of an outside authority. The intricacies of this form of governance will be taught in Tribal Sovereignty through Self-Determination, one of two required courses within the certificate program. The second is the Foundation of Federal Indian Policies.
Jamie Stuck, Tribal Council Chairperson for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, speaks at the program announcement.“In its most basic sense, tribal sovereignty — the inherent authority of tribes to govern themselves — allows tribes to honor and preserve their cultures and traditional ways of life. Tribal sovereignty also is a political status recognized by the federal government, protected by the U.S. Constitution and treaties made generations ago, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court,” says an article on the Journalist’s Resource website.
“We have a different understanding with the Federal government than any other ethnic group in the United States. It requires them to see us as a standing sovereign nation,” Stuck says. “No other ethnic group has the establishment of what Indigenous people have when it comes to taking care of their people. We’ve just got to speak for ourselves and get it done for ourselves.
One of the things that came out almost immediately during conversations about the Tribal Governance certificate was a strong desire to have some credentialing and opportunities around issues related to sovereign nations and tribal governments, says Dr. Carla Koretsky, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Building this knowledge base is not only for tribal members who seek positions in their governments, but also for non-Natives in the broader community who may be engaged in business and economic development with Tribes, but aren’t well-versed in dealings with Tribal government, she says.
Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe) who served as their Tribal President from 2017 to 2021, says, “There isn’t really a blueprint for how to work for tribal government. You learn as you’re doing it. Tribal government is every bit as complex as working for the state or federal government.”
Rebecca Richards, chairperson of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi (Pokegnek Bodewadmik), says she began working for her Tribe in 1995, one year after it was federally restored, and never received any formal training.
The new WMU Graduate Certificate in Tribal Leadership was a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Native American Tribes at the university.“It was on-the-job training,” she says. “I ended up working for 25 years with our government before taking a Tribal Council role.”
Ben Brenner, a member of the Gun Lake Tribal Council, says he could have benefitted from the learning opportunities offered through the Tribal Governance certificate program. Brenner worked as a Tribal Administrator for two years until his election to the Tribal Council. He is a graduate of WMU’s Cooley Law School and says it feels right for him to have graduated from a school that’s implementing an “important program like this.”
“This program is not only for Native citizens but also for people who don’t have any affiliation with Tribal Communities,” Brenner says. “I hope it will be the spark that guides people back home to their Tribes. Tribes don’t operate in a bubble. There’s a good chance that somebody somewhere will have a relationship or partnership to do business with a tribe. Anything that helps them will benefit us all.”
Before the advent of the new graduate certificate program, Stuck says new Tribal leaders were able to access a one-day training offered by the United Tribes of Michigan through a partnership with Michigan State University Extension called Building Stronger Sovereign Nations. He says the Tribal Governance course will be a good start for members of the Native American community who may be interested in eventually serving on a Tribal Council, but there’s a lot more involved.
“There’s absorption, on-the-job training, and failures that come with this, and no course is going to prepare you for that. If there was something available to me in my younger years, I would have taken it,” he says.
Filling a leadership pipeline
Richards and Stuck say that there is a need to prepare their younger counterparts to become leaders in their communities.
“I’m looking towards retirement in the next few years and we need to educate the next generation of tribal leaders,” Richards says. “They will take this coursework and the education back to their communities and be future leaders.”
Ben Brenner, a member of the Gun Lake Tribal Council, says he could have benefitted from the learning opportunities offered through the Tribal Governance certificate program.While reinforcing the importance of succession planning for Tribes, Stuck says Native American communities are making up for lost time when it comes to educational opportunities for their young people. In the 1970s the state of Michigan enacted the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver (MITW) after Michigan’s state-funded universities and state government sought to enhance college access for economically disadvantaged populations which included Native Americans. The MITW provides Michigan residents who are at least one-quarter Native American blood quantum and are enrolled members of a United States tribe free tuition at all of the state’s 15 public universities and 28 community colleges.
“For decades, the State of Michigan did not honor its obligations to fund these students, leaving universities and community colleges to absorb large losses from enrolling these students who do not pay tuition. Thankfully, in 2019, lawmakers invested in the program to allow for full reimbursement to universities for actual MITW costs incurred,” says an article on the Michigan Association of State Universities website.
Three years before this investment, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi was able to begin providing tuition assistance to its Tribal members focused on post-secondary education or trade school, says Stuck, the first member of his family to graduate from college. For those who are eligible, costs such as books, lab fees, transportation, and rent are covered.
“Our tribal members know if there’s anything unmet as far as needs when it comes to education we provide that to our students,” Stuck says. “It’s up to us as sovereign nations to make sure our people are prepared. We want to pique their interest in their Tribal nations and help provide a foundation for building success for our tribal members. We’re starting to see some of those first classes come through of students that are graduating and have utilized the program.”
Despite this, the numbers remain small for Native American students attending higher education institutions, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Information on their website says that 19% of 18-24-year-old Native American students are enrolled in college compared to 41% of the overall U.S. population.
The new WMU Graduate Certificate in Tribal Leadership was announced at an April “Because Native Americans (both American Indians and Alaska Natives) comprise only 1% of the U.S. undergraduate population and less than 1% of the graduate population, these students are often left out of postsecondary research and data reporting due to the small sample size. What data is available indicates that only 16% of Native Americans attain a bachelor’s degree or higher and only 9% attain associate degrees, making the case for a system that is more responsive to the specific needs of these students,” according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
Matthew Mingus, Professor and Graduate Programs Director of the School of Public Affairs and Administration, says it’s challenging to get an accurate count on the number of Native American students attending WMU because “so many Native American students don’t want to be identified as Native American. Having worked at Western for 25 years, I’ve had a number of students who have told me this. There’s this perception that they’re all getting a free education, but if they can’t prove their connection to a Tribe, they may not be able to get any help at all. They don’t want to be seen as ‘takers.’”
Anecdotally, he says he thinks Native Americans represent a “small percentage” of WMU’s total student population.
“I’m hoping this Tribal Governance certificate will change that. We’re hoping to eventually have something like this available at the undergraduate level as well,” Mingus says.
Having a program available that will educate non-indigenous people about Tribes’ traditions, values, and language will make WMU’s Indigenous students feel proud, Stuck says.
The new WMU Graduate Certificate in Tribal Leadership was a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Native American Tribes at the university.The curriculum for the graduate certificate was created by Sam Morseau, Tribal Council Secretary for the Pokagon Band and graduate certificate program instructor; Udaya Wagle, Director of WMU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration; and Mingus. Mingus says Morseau learned a lot from those directing a similar program at Evergreen State College based in Olympia, Wash.
“There aren’t a lot of programs in the country that are even close to this,” Mingus says of what’s being offered at WMU. “There’s nothing like it in our region. The University of Minnesota would be the closest to us.”
Courses within the certificate program will be taught by Morseau, current faculty, and guest lecturers, Koretsky says. The courses will be offered using a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning for people unable to attend in person who may live in other states or have full-time jobs that don’t afford them the flexibility to physically attend a class.
“This is such a great opportunity to engage and serve Native American communities and the larger community,” Koretsky says. “This really is like a first step and we are continuing to build out these partnerships. This could be a model well beyond Western Michigan.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.