Seeing the World in a Different Light

St. Thomas students learn the reality of Native Americans

In 2001, 10 students spent their semester break at the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, mulching strawberry fields while exploring firsthand the work of a social change organization.

A course called" A VISION of Native Lands" examines the meaning of land as a primary factor in justice and self-determination for Native Americans.

"Service learning is a very important part of this course," said Mike Klein ’90, who has a 1998 master’s in educational leadership from St. Thomas. Klein works in Campus Ministry as assistant director for Volunteer Programs. Whether it’s advising the student-led Volunteers In Action or arranging and organizing student, faculty or staff volunteer activities, Klein’s office is the place to go.

In 2000-01, 175 students, 12 faculty and staff and 12 alumni participated in VISION (Volunteers in Service Internationally or Nationally) immersion trips in the United States, Central America, Northern Ireland and South America. Rooted in Catholic social teaching and based on six components — service, simplicity, spirituality, community, intercultural exchange and justice — the trips are service-learning efforts based on the VISION philosophy:

"Our community partners address real needs at the site, needs identified by the community. We visit without illusions about changing the world in a few days, but our days are added to years of work by others, and together we do make a difference. Sometimes the injustices we see make us want to understand and respect the long and committed work of our hosts. Then we may find our own way to make change and promote justice."

VISION trips are usually short-term, during semester breaks, and Klein thought that semester-long courses would enrich students. For the past three years, he has created and taught courses, Civil Rights in Selma, Ala., during spring semester and Native Lands in the fall.

The Native Lands course concentrates on social change and a multi-faceted approach to building a just and sustainable community. It deals with diverse issues and draws a wide-range of students. "As usual, the fall 2001 course had a good cross section of students from all majors — social work, pre-law, education, and justice and peace studies," said Klein. "When we get students interested in being agents of social change, they have the opportunity to better the world. I’m also excited about having management majors take courses like this, because then they can see management in a different light and approach their field with an awareness of social justice issues.

"One student has Native American ancestry and the family doesn’t talk about it, but she wants to know more. One is from the Sudan and sees a direct correlation to family situations in the Sudan. He wants to learn from the mistakes and successes here so as to bring back effective means of making changes in his own country. Another student is going into law school and is interested in American Indian treaty rights and obligations.

"There are so many legal actions going on now, an ongoing struggle with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, or the dilemmas presented by self-determination and sovereignty of native peoples," Klein explained. The class explores the history of treaty rights, reservation lands, allotment and contemporary justice issues. Allotments — the land divided up to Native American when communal reservations lands were privatized — raised problems. "In order to ‘civilize’ Native Americans, the reservation land held in common was divided, so that 80 to 120 acres were allotted to each family. Problems rose immediately after allotment. Sometimes the acreage was forfeited for unpaid taxes, or unallotted land was sold to timber interests, so that Native holdings continued to shrink even after the people were forced onto reservations," Klein said.

Mainstream and American Indian cultures often collide in many ways. European-American principles such as "private property, manifest destiny and individual rights" are contrasted to American Indian principles such as "decisions for the seventh generation, all creation as relation and ownership-in-common," Klein explained. "The land is a sacred trust. It also is the essential primary factor in justice and self-determination." Proposals are being introduced for a constitutional amendment that states decisions about land should not be for next year’s profits but for seven generations to come. And while it would make an untenable constitutional amendment, it raises the issue of immediate gain versus long-term sustainability, in Klein’s opinion.

After academic preparation, reading and discussing texts like Night Flying Woman and All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, having guest speakers and watching videos, the class goes on the road.

The service-learning experience involves students living and working on the 1,300 square-mile White Earth Reservation of small and medium-size towns during semester break. They learn through shared work, research and formal presentations about the mission of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP). Through the efforts of Harvard graduate Winona LaDuke and her staff, WELRP works to recover land through purchase and legal rulings. It also is creating a sustainable economy on reservation land. Called "Native Harvest" (its Web site is, the recovery project includes efforts such as harvesting maple syrup and selling locally grown and manufactured preserves and jellies.

St. Thomas students start to make connections — the third component of the course. Drawing on their reflective papers, discussions, journals and service learning, they use their understanding of the White Earth issues to examine one local, national or international indigenous issue. Their research, presented in seminars, covers issues that include media accounts, interviews of Native American activists, reports on a local organization working on behalf of Native Americans, and chronology of a single treaty, legal or law enforcement issue. Topics have included Native American housing in the Twin Cities, adoption issues, children’s rights, and storing nuclear waste at Prairie Island, as well as many other religious or cultural issues.

"We see firsthand a Native American community that is struggling but taking positive steps," said Klein, 34, "and I recognize my part in it. That is due to the example of my parents and the Catholic social teaching that has influenced my faith. I am hopeful and excited about the types of students at St. Thomas who long for educational and service opportunities that are as real as this. They can see the world in a different light."