The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced this morning that it has chosen someone to fill a new office dedicated to facilitating relationships with Native American tribes in Wisconsin. Their choice, Aaron Bird Bear, is currently the School of Education’s assistant dean for student diversity programs. He’s also a graduate of the university.
The new office of Tribal Relations Director is the first of its kind at UW-Madison. In the position, Bird Bear will serve as a communications conduit for dialogue between the university and tribal governments throughout Wisconsin. Bird Bear says that his first priority is to speak with Native American groups and understand their concerns.
“Our priority is listening,” says Bird Bear.
“We have to be good listeners to the issues, needs, the desires of the First Nations of Wisconsin, as citizens of the state and citizens of their own nations. Back in 2016 we had various University faculty staff and students reach out to Native Nations and do listening sessions with them and we’re currently completing our second round of listening sessions.”
Richard Monette is a law professor at UW-Madison and Director of the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, which provides legal assistance on Native American matters. He says the job could be complicated by a state institution working with governments that are equally sovereign.
But Monette says the new office is really about supporting Native American students at UW-Madison. He says this is part of an effort to help students not leave their identity behind when they attend UW-Madison and to help students bring their experiences back home.
“This is about Native students and one of the things pushing this is the sorrowful reviews we get from them,” Monette says.
“While they’re here, after they leave, let alone the fact that they get beat up, they get arrested, they commit suicide, they get raped—in huge numbers. So, how do we deal with that? So that’s what the university is doing through this new position and hopefully through developing a university-wide Indigenous Studies Center, to accomplish two very simple things: they don’t have to leave their identity behind when they come here, and when they go back, they bring meaningful value back.”
Larry Nesper, Professor of Anthropology and Indian American studies at UW-Madison, led the search to fill the position. He says building those relationships begins with listening and taking note of their concerns. After that, Nesper says, Bird Bear will work as a liaison between the tribal government and the university.
“[Bird Bear] is probably going to spend time talking to tribal leaders and then bringing them to the appropriate units of the university, whether that’s the chemistry department or medicine or the Native American Center for Health Professionals or American Indian studies” Nesper says.
“That person is really going to be paying attention to what’s going on in the tribal communities and how those have implications for the work of the university. And the reverse. When we’re doing stuff that might have implications for the tribes, he’s really going to be carrying that information to the tribal communities,” he adds.
Bird Bear says that his job is similar to existing offices, which act as liaisons to state and federal governments. These offices speak with those governing bodies and inform the university how changes in those governments affect them, as well as see what the university can do to help them. Bird Bear says the goal is to build trust.
“Short-term relationships usually offer very little benefit or no benefit to Native American communities, and so we’re really thinking about long-term relationships that are going to have some sort of reciprocal element to them, where there is a definite enhancement to Native Nations in addition to enhancing research,” he elaborates.
Bird Bear says that in some cases, Native Americans haven’t even received a follow-up after collaborating with researchers. He hopes to change that.
Bird Bear will assume his new office of Tribal Relations Director next month.