The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay last week awarded its first-ever doctoral degrees in First Nations Education.
Yekuhsiyo Rosa King, Crystal Leah Tourtillott Lepscier, Artley Murray Skenandore Jr. and Vicki Lee Young all received their degrees at the 2022 spring/summer commencement exercises on Saturday. They are four of the 12 students who make up the program’s first cohort, which began coursework in 2018. The other eight will defend their dissertations in the coming semesters.
“This particular degree in First Nations education allows me to help open doors for our communities,” said Lepscier, who works as UWGB’s First Nation Student Success Coordinator.
Lepscier said UWGB officials engaged in dialog with Wisconsin’s Indigenous nations before launching the program, to find out what Indigenous communities would want from such a degree program. She said she appreciated that the program allowed a different mindset than traditional academic research methods.
“I’ve been trained in different research methods that are very specific to the Western academic space,” she said. “And in this program, I was challenged to kind of understand myself as an Indigenous scholar, and that my voice can be central to that scholarship, as opposed to when I went to (UW)-Madison, where when you’re writing an academic paper, you have to pretend like you don’t exist. Even the way that you structure your sentences to say, basically, that you’re unbiased, and you’re not involved. And so being able to flip that script and write it, from my perspective, as an indigenous scholar really empowered me.”
Skenandore, the principal and athletic director at Oneida Nation High School, said he also appreciated that the program was grounded in an Indigenous understanding of learning and knowledge.
“When you look at Indigenous nations, it’s all about our original knowledge base. And that original knowledge base is the oral history,” he said. “That’s the strength of how we duplicate ourselves as nations is that oral history.”
Lepscier also said she appreciated the program’s collaborative approach.
“The model is basically, in the classroom, we’re all teachers and we’re all learners,” she said.
The two years of coursework took place mostly on the weekends, meaning students could continue their professional careers and family life. Since completing the coursework, students have embarked on original research projects and produced dissertations.
Lepscier’s research focused on using artistic responses to what she refers to as “racial battle fatigue,” a term that refers to the physical and emotional toll of constant microaggressions.
“I have skills in moccasin making, so I helped guide students, or what I call co-researchers, to explore their identities through their moccasin designs. And that’s kind of grounded in battling that racial battle fatigue, because understanding who you are, your sense of belonging, your identity, and empowering yourself helps you to address those issues.”
Skendandore’s research focused on knowledge within the Oneida nation’s clan system.
“My research focused on the utilization of our original knowledge, and part of that original knowledge was our clan system,” he said. “That clan system is a representative process of enrichment in terms of not only identity, but also decision making. Part of my work was to also identify the potential to utilize that clan system feedback to not only make decisions but also to enhance and enrich cultural learning. It’s the highest form of democracy in the world, the clan system discussion and feedback. So it’s really just providing and enhancing the opportunity to utilize the very ancient knowledge of our communities and renew it and make it work for us going into the future.”
Lepscier said she appreciated being part of the first cohort, working with faculty to build a program from the ground up.
“We’re walking through that kind of learning, and they’re learning about what does and what doesn’t work best for teaching. And so we’re just kind of figuring things out,” she said.
Both Skenadnore and Lepscier see a bright future, both for the program and for themselves.
“This is just the beginning,” Lepscier said. “There’s still scholars that are currently writing and some that are about to write, and some that are about to start in the fall. So there’s just the beginning and there’s going to be a lot more that comes from this.”
In addition to the eight scholars still working from the first cohort, another cohort of eight started in 2020 and another cohort will begin in 2022.
“We’re all on a learning journey,” Skenandore said. “For me, this learning journey provided me the opportunity to collaborate with others that were seeking that common framework of how to make our communities better for the purposes of enriching the identity, and sustaining the future. I guess more than anything else, it’s been an honor to travel this learning journey with my cohorts. It’s not ending, it’s really just beginning.”
More information on the First Nations Education doctoral program is available at the UWGB website.