GREEN BAY – Dr. Crystal Lepscier, Ed. D, was looking for a way to help other Indigenous students navigate their way through microaggression racism while working on her dissertation.
For her, it was about reconnecting with traditional Indigenous ways, such as by learning how to make moccasins and then teaching that skill to others.
Reconnecting to one’s culture can be effective in addressing “racial battle fatigue,” Lepscier argued in her dissertation.
“It’s about becoming grounded in who you are and exploring your identity as a way to address this (racism),” she said.
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Lepscier, who is a citizen of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa in Montana and is a Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican descendant, graduated this month as part of the first class in a doctorate program in First Nations Education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“One reason why I wanted to do this was because it’s brand new,” she said. “It’s a new thought on a doctoral program from an Indigenous perspective.”
Lepscier was part of the first cohort of students who started their education in the program in 2018.
In creating the program, academic researchers conducted listening sessions with everyone from high school students to elders in each of the tribal communities in Wisconsin to learn what should be focused on.
“This program is grounded in renewal of Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being,” said Dr. Lisa Poupart, director of the program. “It’s about that connection to all living things… and living in balance.”
She said one elder explained that through the process of colonization those ancient ways were not lost, per se, but were “set down” and need to be “picked up.”
“This program is really about the renewal of those original institutions,” Poupart said.
One semester addresses generational healing from the intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous people through 500 years of colonization and the effects of certain policies, such as at boarding schools that were meant to forcefully assimilate children.
And other courses, such as grant writing and statistics, weren’t rejected as Western teachings, but as skilled knowledge that are needed in Indigenous communities.
Poupart said this First Nations Education doctorate program is unique in the Midwest region, although Native American studies programs have been becoming more available in universities since the Civil Rights era.
Another graduate of this year’s program is Artley Skenandore, who also happens to be the principal of the Oneida Nation High School.
“It was a very positive experience,” he said. “I’m more than willing to encourage the next cohort group.”
Skenandore’s dissertation explored Indigenous clan systems and how they help divide areas of management among people by giving certain groups certain responsibilities. He also argued how those systems need to be rekindled to better manage our lives and the environment.
“All of our Indigenous teachings are about respecting the relationship and reciprocity with creation,” Skenandore said.
Both Lepscier and Skenandore said the doctorate program helped open doors for them and are eager to use what they’ve learned to help teach the community. Skenandore said he also plans to write books based on Indigenous teachings.
They were part of just four graduating students this year in the program. The other two are Vicki Young (LCO Ojibwe) and Rosa Yekuhsiyo King (Oneida).
Poupart said the second cohort of seven students are about halfway through the program and a third cohort is scheduled to start this fall.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.