Fall 2016

Heart of our mission

Students at the University of Minnesota Morris in its days as a Native American boarding school
Photo courtesy of UMM University Relations

Becca Gercken has always been fascinated with the early history of the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) as a boarding school for Native American children. An associate professor of English and American Indian studies, Gercken is a Founders Scholar (a professorship supported by multiple donors) and author of The Heart of Our Mission Is a Drum: The Morris Indian School, UMM, and the Liberal Arts

Students at the Uni­versity of Minnesota Morris in its days as a Native American boarding school 

Why did you want to research this history? 

It’s interesting to me as a Native per­son teaching Native American studies at a school that’s on the grounds of a place that was meant to destroy Native cultures and languages. We are historically tied to this horribly abusive, restrictive education policy. I wanted to know not what it’s meant for us historically, but how it shapes what we are now and how we ap­proach the liberal arts. 

What did you discover? 

It’s very difficult to find the histories of the children who went to this school. But you can find stories about the nuns who ran it and how much butter they made and how many chickens they had. I found many writings that showed others clearly did not think of Native people as fully human. 

How does this history reveal itself at UMM? 

It’s part of everyday life on campus. Because of the tuition waiver for Native students, 18 percent of our population is Native. The national average is 1 percent. At orientation, we have a drum and play an honor song and talk about the history of the school, and we have a drum at graduation. We have the Turtle Moun­tain Café—named for one of the tribal communities students came from—and signs in Lakota, Anishinabe, and English. These pieces of our history are here for students to see and engage with. They are an important reminder of how dangerous politically motivated education can be.