The University of Northern Iowa and members of the Meskwaki Nation are looking seven generations ahead.
UNI and members of the Meskwaki Nation Tribal Council announced Monday that they are in the process of creating a land stewardship statement acknowledging that the university sits on land that was first home to the Meskwaki Nation, the only federally recognized tribal nation in Iowa.
The statement is among the new initiatives of a university and tribal partnership intended to support Indigenous students, faculty and programming.
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The partnership’s goals are guided by a principle common among many Indigenous knowledge systems, which advise that people should consider how descendants seven generations in the future will be affected by decisions made today.
“The university is located on land formerly stewarded by members of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Meskwaki Nation and other Indigenous tribes. The university acknowledges our responsibility to continue the legacy of stewardship by caring for the land on which the university sits, delivering our mission for the people and communities of Iowa and beyond, and ensuring our actions today lay a strong foundation for generations to come,” reads a statement from Mark Nook, UNI’s president, and Judith Bender, chair of the Meskwaki Tribal Council.
The announcement of the partnership came Monday, which was also Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Iowa.
The Meskwaki people were forced out of present-day Iowa by the U.S. government in the mid-1800s and, except for a handful of people who stayed behind in hiding, were sent to a reservation in Kansas. In 1856, Iowa enacted a law allowing the tribe to remain in the state, and in 1857 the tribe formally bought 80 acres of land in Tama County. The settlement has since grown to include more than 3,000 acres.
UNI has an enrollment of around 9,500 students, 0.1% of whom are Native American or Alaskan Native. The school is in Cedar Falls, which is part of Black Hawk County, a neighbor to Tama County.
UNI administrators and the Meskwaki Tribal Council began conversations in July about ways the two could collaborate, Andrew Morse, an assistant to the president for board and governmental relations at UNI, told the Press-Citizen.
Along with drafting a land stewardship statement, the university is developing scholarships for students from the Meskwaki Settlement School and South Tama High School.
UNI is also creating a program for faculty to work with teachers at the Meskwaki Settlement School, which is on Meskwaki Nation land, to support language and culture programming. The partnership will also drive the reinstatement of a summer camp for Meskwaki youth focused on the transition to higher education.
“It wasn’t that we recognized that the time is now,” Morse said. “It was recognized that this work is long past due. And so we decided to take it on and act with vigilance, but also with thoughtfulness.”
A working group of about 15 people, including members of the Meskwaki Nation, aims to create a draft of the land acknowledgment statement by the end of the fall semester. The statement will be shared with students and faculty leadership for approval before it is officially adopted by the entire university.
It’s critical to ensure the statement translates into actionable steps, Angela Waseskuk, an art instructor at UNI and a member of the working group, told the Press-Citizen. She pointed to similar efforts that other institutions around the country are beginning to pursue, and said they can serve as an example or a cautionary tale to the work being done in Iowa.
“Many of these institutions are quick to adopt a statement, but they end up feeling kind of empty and, in their own way, become a type of tokenism,” Waseskuk said. “We are really trying to do this work in a way that institutionalizes a land acknowledgment and a stewardship statement, but also so that it (is) backed up by actual policy in the university — so it doesn’t become an empty statement.”
Supporting diversity and equity is one of the moral obligations of higher education, said Waseskuk, who is going into her 11th year at UNI.
She remembers a panel series a few years ago with Indigenous UNI students, which began with a short land acknowledgment statement that generated lots of questions from faculty.
“It’s something that has been on people’s radar, but maybe some people just didn’t know where to start or where to look,” she said. “So I think that, if we can really institutionalize a statement that would be widely used for anyone in the university, I think that it would be embraced by many people on campus.”
Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter via @_CleoKrejci.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Meskwaki Nation, University of Northern Iowa to craft statement noting campus sits on land once home to the tribe