U of M leaders outline initial steps to address harm done to Native communities

A woman gestures with her hands as she speaks
Karen Diver, the University of Minnesota's senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs, speaks to community members about the TRUTH Project findings during a presentation Monday at the Kirby Student Center in Duluth.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The University of Minnesota should ask for more state support to pay college costs for Indigenous students, a university official told a Duluth audience Monday.  

University leaders made their most extensive comments so far on recommendations made in the TRUTH Report, which details the school’s expropriation of Native lands and mistreatment of Native people throughout the state and region.  

Karen Diver, the university’s senior adviser to the president for Native American affairs, and Regent Tadd Johnson spoke to a room of around 75 people at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Kirby Student Center and a virtual audience participating by video conference. 

Diver said her office is advocating for an increase to the current aid programs targeted at Indigenous students to include the full cost of attendance, and not just tuition and fees. Students and tribes have told the university affordable housing is a barrier for Native students who need help from their home communities to succeed, Diver said. 

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Released in April and totaling more than 500 pages, the TRUTH Report, which stands for Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing, called on the university to repair harm done to Native communities.

The report’s recommendations include the return of land, diverting money from the permanent university fund to benefit Native Americans, greater representation on the university’s faculty, and a commitment to enact policies that respect tribal sovereignty, among others.  

People listen to two people speak
University of Minnesota Regent Tadd Johnson and Karen Diver, the university's senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs, speak to community members Monday about the TRUTH Project findings during a presentation in the Kirby Student Center in Duluth.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Diver, a former tribal chairperson of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, said the university may need time to change and tribes likely understand that.  

“Do they have high expectations and really a kind of hope for immediate gratification? Hell no. I mean, I was one of them,” said Diver about the tribes. “What we want is the slow and steady drum of progress. We want the awareness first. We want the commitment to change. And then we know these institutions are like big boats, they turn slowly.” 

Diver presented a list of initiatives the university started over the past 10 months, including a staff person hired to inventory all items in the university’s possession that fit the requirements of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. 

A printout in a box
A printout of the 550-page TRUTH Project report.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

NAGPRA requires institutions that receive federal funding to work with tribes to repatriate Native American remains, funerary objects and items of cultural patrimony to Native nations.  

The new NAGPRA staff person will also work to determine the origins of a human remains acquired decades ago by the university’s medical school.

“We’ve hired some expertise to do a much more thorough and technologically-advanced analysis of those so that we can have those conversations, narrow down which ones might be potentially Indigenous,” said Diver. “At that point, we’ll be talking to tribes about what we have and any records we may know of where they came from.”  

Diver also says the university has developed “community-led, approved and consented research” on Indigenous matters. Diver explained that her office will be notified when researchers work with Native communities. Researchers will obtain “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribal nations when conducting research — including data sovereignty agreements.

Diver listed other recent efforts taken by the university: 

  • Incoming freshmen will be required to take a “Gopher equity” online course with tribal and Indigenous content. The student training is in addition to a seven-part course recommended for university faculty.  

  • American Indian Studies will be moved from its longtime home at Scott Hall and will be co-located with all the Native students’ support services and club. Diver said she hoped the move will create “a community that will enable us to recruit and retain our learners on the Twin Cities campus.” 

  • A Ph.D. program within the American Indian Studies department.

A man carries a cardboard box
Regent Tadd Johnson carries a 550-page printout of the TRUTH Project report after a presentation Monday in the Kirby Student Center in Duluth.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Diver said the conversation between the university and Fond Du Lac tribal leadership continues to return Cloquet Forestry Center land, and that the university is working with the state Legislature to help move the process along.

“Our communications with tribal leaders continue to be our guide stars,” Diver said.