Bird Bear calls for critical examination of the Wisconsin Idea to improve campus climate

The Wisconsin Idea should include the state’s tribal nations, according to Aaron Bird Bear, American Indian Curriculum Services coordinator.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

The Wisconsin Idea currently excludes tribal governments from its outreach plan even as it specifically reaches out to other forms of state and local government.

For American Indian Curriculum Services coordinator Aaron Bird Bear, this omission is only part of the long history of marginalization and oppression that has been taking place on Wisconsin land since before the state was founded, and it bars Native American communities from accessing the full benefits of the university.

Bird Bear gave a lecture on the topic Tuesday.

The Wisconsin Idea—the UW System’s grounding principle for outreach to the state—was conceptualized during the peak of ethnic cleansing efforts and refers to the value system of a land grant institution.

“When you look at the print cloaking the Wisconsin Idea, from a Native American perspective, you start to put some layers on it which makes you concerned,” Bird Bear said.

Exclusion from the Wisconsin Idea is not the only way the Native American story has been traditionally left out of campus history, according to Bird Bear. While the university has identified significant landmarks on the already-built environment, there is little recognition of the Native Americans who lived there before.

Bird Bear helps fill in this missing history by leading campus tours that include these unmarked places, and said he hopes to return a sense of belonging to the Native American community.

“It really advances the learning goals we have for new students,” he said.

According to Bird Bear, learning about the people who lived on the land first teaches students how to embrace new perspectives and work across differences.

“We have to design tools to interrogate the colonial landscape, to peel back this veneer, to help us see the full human story of this space, ” Bird Bear noted. “We should not be afraid to tell our history.”

According to Bird Bear, this lack of acknowledgement is damaging to Wisconsin’s entire population, native and nonnative alike.

“When we advance in our 1848-Forward narrative, we’re really dismissing the deep human history of this space. We are undermining all of our learning goals,” he said.

Despite a rocky past, Bird Bear is hopeful for a future of continued and strengthened cultural exchange that will include the entire state.

“[The university] definitely opened its doors wide open and is trying to form these honest and open relationships with Native American people,” Bird Bear said. “Here we are again in a great period of recovery and renewal. Here we get to be the people we want to be.”

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