It literally will be a “hall” of fame this summer when Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, lines the hallway beside its Native American and Indigenous Culture Center with portraits of some of its 200 Native American alumni.
Some faces will be familiar to students—the faces of family members, friends or tribal leaders. All of the faces are meant to send the message: If these people can attend college and become important to their communities, you can, too.
“It was to recognize those individuals and to get some incentive for those current students,” said James Pete, director of the center. “Also when we bring in and host events here… they will see that recognition of people who are Native American alumni. They might be one of their relatives.”
The familiar faces—and the culture center itself—can help make students feel more comfortable in the college setting. Northland is an environmental liberal arts college known for focus on the environment. It’s located near the Bad River, Red Cliff, Lac Du Flambeau and Lac Courte Oreilles bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe.
The idea for alumni portraits came from the college’s Council on Indigenous Relations. “When I was at Northland, there were over 60 Native students. Northland College has a pretty good, special relation with the tribes,” said Mic Isham Jr., Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe and a member of the advisory council. “They got away from that a little bit… They were really losing their Native students, and they were down to four.”
Isham joked that whenever he saw LCO members distinguishing themselves, he’d think—“Must have gone to Northland.” He feels time at the college sets a direction for graduates. “They’re making a difference here at LCO. We want to go out and change the world. That’s kind of our motto… We want to bring that back.”
The drop in Native students at Northland can be linked to many things, Ishim said, especially the drying up of grant and scholarship money. “There is a misnomer that all the tribes were rich from gaming. The cost of education has been rising. Northland is a private school, so cost was a factor.”
The advisory council has found renewed energy with the new college president, Mike Miller. “He’s already met with tribal councils, and he’s trying to see what the needs are,” Isham said. “We’ve started this task force I’d say maybe five years ago, and they’ve always listened, but when President Miller came on, he put it into action.”
Other council suggestions include linking students to internships at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, located about 20 miles from the college, to give students solid work experience before graduation.
The display of portraits will indicate the alumnus’ graduation year, tribal affiliation and occupations. Images of culturally significant objects, such as sage, sweetgrass, wild rice and tobacco, will be integrated into the display as well. The majority of Native alumni are Ojibwe, but there are also Lakota, Dakota, Ho-chunk, Oneida, Diné, Crow and Cheyenne graduates.
The college’s environmental focus matches the interests of Native communities, according to Isham, who recently became chairman for LCO. “We have nothing without the environment. That’s the way of life for Native people… no matter if you live in Milwaukee or on the reservation, we have a special recognition for the earth.”
The advisory council hopes there will be renewed recognition of Northland College as an education path for young people. Members believe something as simple as portraits of those who have already succeeded could help.
“As we tour tribal members through the college, when we have recruitment tours… They’ll see all of them on the wall, and they’re going to see, ‘Hey, they are council members, they are leaders, they are business owners,” said Isham. And they will see his portrait among them.
“If I can do it, they can do it.”