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UW-Madison initiative fills gaps in learning about Indigenous cultures

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UW-Madison graduate Paige Skenandore found her identity last fall, in a class about the struggles and successes of American Indigenous people.

A member of the Oneida Nation, Skenandore was no stranger to her history. She grew up on the reservation west of Green Bay, where she was a jingle dress dancer — a traditional dance that uses metal cones sewn on the dancer’s outfit to symbolize healing through music — and learned beadwork after admiring others’ jewelry.

But it wasn’t until her class on American Indian Community, Sovereignty, Struggles and Successes, created as part of a program to support Indigenous communities, that Skenandore realized how much she had to offer in helping others better understand her heritage.

“I had to basically reinforce or teach my classmates what they were learning from the professor in the classroom,” said Skenandore, a 2022 graduate who is now launching her own business making beads and quill work. “A lot of the time, I was co-teaching, and that was really nice, because I felt like I was learning a lot, too, just by being able to speak to people who didn’t know my culture’s history.”

EcoWell

Paige Skenandore learned beading while growing up on the Oneida reservation. She recently led a workshop on the craft as part of UW-Madison's School of Human Ecology's "EcoWell" initiative, which seeks to support Indigenous students and staff, and advance research into First Nations.

The class is part of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology’s “EcoWell” initiative. The initiative provides grants and awards for research projects, conference fees to support Indigenous students and staff, and opportunities to collaborate with other departments.

Those include a campuswide “Our Shared Future” initiative, which recognizes and celebrates the Ho-Chunk Nation, its culture and its history. Other projects include a beading workshop last month that Skenandore led, and projects documenting Indigenous history through mapping and oral histories.

The initiative, started in 2021 after School of Human Ecology Dean Soyeon Shim sought out and hired four Indigenous faculty members, is helping to fill gaps in the Human Ecology department, which previously had no classes for Indigenous studies, EcoWell faculty member Kasey Keeler said.

The UW-Madison course catalog lists at least two dozen other classes related to Indigenous studies for its American Indian Studies certificate. But by having their own class, Human Ecology faculty can offer students a way to study Indigenous issues with research methods they’re already using and without having to switch departments.

“This initiative has really encouraged and supported us,” Keeler said. “When we have courses dedicated to and centering Indigenous voices, Indigenous histories, Indigenous communities, I think that also then creates pathways (for Indigenous students to) find the School of Human Ecology and become comfortable here.”

Embracing the human spirit

Creating those pathways is vital when knowledge of Indigenous traditions and culture is often passed down by the people themselves, said Carolee Dodge Francis, department chair for the School of Human Ecology.

Beading is a prime example. Beading is an Indigenous art form that uses colorful beads to embroider designs, which are often nature-based. Prior to European contact, the beads were made of stone, clay and bones.

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EcoWell

Indigenous beading artist Paige Skenandore demonstrates how she creates a necklace using the peyote stitch technique at her home.

“There’s not typically a book — I know there’s probably YouTube videos — but many, many times, you learn one-on-one from another beading artist as to the techniques,” Dodge Francis said.

Skenandore’s knowledge of beading was passed down to her, first from her middle school’s Native advocate and then her sorority sisters in college. She then taught it to participants at the beading workshop, many of whom were new to beadwork.

Since graduating, she realized that teaching people about her culture is a passion.

“The goal of the event was to illustrate the importance of being represented as people and that it’s more than just beads in a craft,” Skenandore said. “This connects this to our culture, our community, no matter where we are.”

The EcoWell initiative aims to represent multiple tribal communities and cultures, and embrace both community and “the human spirit,” Dodge Francis said.

“We’re always striving to improve Indigenous knowledge, not only inwardly, but outwardly, so people understand how Indigenous knowledge and culture fits in to the more global picture,” Dodge Francis said.

EcoWell

Skenandore made this beaded medallion with the Indigenous EcoWell logo.

Creating partnerships

The initiative also encourages cross-campus collaborations by putting additional grant dollars behind them.

Many of those collaborations happen on an individual level, Keeler said. Grants are competitive and aren’t just limited to the EcoWell faculty but are available to faculty and students within Human Ecology who want to pursue research into Indigenous communities, Keeler said.

Keeler’s two research projects are collaborations with the American Indian Studies department. One, called Mapping Teejop, involves creating a digital map highlighting places of importance to the Ho-Chunk Nation on campus; it received a $15,000 grant to pay two Ho-Chunk geography graduate students to complete the cartography. Another consists of collecting oral histories from people who have been involved with the department over its five-decade lifespan.

And while the money might not seem like much in the world of academic grants, Keeler said just having funds set aside for Indigenous research is meaningful to those communities.

“Scholars in the humanities, or even in the humanities-leaning social sciences, we compete for grants with people in the hard sciences for multimillion dollar grants,” she said.

“I think it’s nice that we have a dedicated source of funding from the School of Human Ecology through the Indigenous EcoWell Initiative to do more community engaged work.”

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