In Their Own Words

Members of the American Indian Studies Community Reflect on their Time at UW 

As the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin celebrates its fiftieth anniversary during fall 2022, members of the American Indian Studies community – students, staff, faculty, and directors – reflect on their experiences at the University of Wisconsin. 

These stories reveal a range of experiences across decades. Each contributes a unique perspective to what we know about campus life, the role of Native students and activism, and relationships between the American Indian Studies Program and University administration.  

If you are a member of the American Indian Studies community, a community that spans five decades, and would like to contribute your memories and experiences to this project, please contact us by email at: 

 Ada DeerAda Deer (Menominee): Student, AIS Faculty Member, AIS Director 

Ada Deer’s time at UW-Madison has spanned decades. As a celebrated leader and activist, Ada left Madison for Washington, D.C. in the ‘90s when she became the first Native woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Ada returned to UW as a faculty member in the School of Social Work and the American Indian Studies Program (AISP), eventually becoming Director of AISP. Today, Ada remains committed to UW and the Native community on campus.

In speaking about her efforts to grow the AIS Program as the Program Director, Ada Deer recalls trying to secure additional funding and the pushback she received, “I told him we are a very small program and we needed some more money to develop the program. I didn’t know what you have to do to bring that about. But he told me that I couldn’t do anything [about it] unless I brought in a $100,000 to begin with. And I thought, what? Well, I said I can’t do that. You know, I didn’t want to spend my time making money and I know the University was big and there were opportunities for somebody, somewhere to provide money. But, you know, it didn’t work at that time. And so we just kind of jogged along. Yeah, jogged along.”

Janice RiceJanice Rice (Ho-Chunk): Student, UW Faculty Member 

During the early 1970s, Janice was a young, Native woman at UW, actively participating in the creation of Native spaces on campus, often through activism. Janice, who received her Master’s degree in Library Science from UW in 1975, became a pillar of the Native community at UW and in Madison. 

As a graduate student and member of Wunk Sheek in the mid to late-1970s, Janice Rice remembers the lack of graduate level classes in American Indian Studies, an issue that remains today. “There really weren’t any classes. So this is in 1974 and ’75, and then coming back again, in ’77 to ’79 there were no [American Indian Studies] classes. And if there were, they might have been the introductory level, which would not fit my grad level course load. So there was nothing at the grad level I could take…So if you look at my grad degree, and each of the degree areas, there were no [American Indian Studies] courses, and some places there still aren’t [any American Indian Studies classes]…There weren’t courses back when I was in school…Make your own and be an advocate.” 

David Chang (Kānaka Maoli): Student

David Chang began graduate school at UW in 1994, receiving his PhD in History in 2002. While at UW, his graduate research examined the racial politics of allotment within the Muscogee Creek Nation and, more broadly, Oklahoma. As a student, he found comfort in on-campus events led by Native peoples and co-founded an organization called Friends of Hawai’i. He has continued to be an influential Indigenous scholar and is currently a professor at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

When asked what the campus environment for Native students was like David captures a particular moment when he attended a campus powwow, “I didn’t know people there [at a campus powwow], I didn’t know the organizers, but it meant something to me to be there. Even though I am Native Hawaiian, I am not Native American, and powwow is not our thing, it meant a lot to me to go to powwow. And just to be in that space, to see not only students but families, community members, kids, elders. That felt really good.”

Gary Kmiecik (Lakota): Native American Student Recruiter 

Gary arrived to the University of Wisconsin as the Native American Student Recruiter in 1973. During his time at UW, Gary participated in the political activism sweeping up the nation. As a staff member, today he reflects on the lack of visibility and support offered to Native students and a budding AIS Program by University administration.

Reflecting on his perception of the University’s support for American Indian students at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s, Gary Kmiecik remembers, “It didn’t seem like the University was not supportive, or supportive. And we were just there. Students were just there going to school and working. There was a faculty member, who has since been deceased, his name was Truman Lowe, L-o-w-e. And he was in the Art Department, he was Ho-Chunk. And he was the mover and shaker behind the AIS Program actually, a long time ago. But he was very quiet. He didn’t want to, he wasn’t like out front, you know, saying anything.”

Larry Nesper: AIS Faculty Member, AIS Director 

Larry Nesper began teaching in the Department of Anthropology and the American Indian Studies Program at UW in 2002. Prior to retirement, he served as Director of the American Indian Studies Program from 2018-2021. Today, Larry remains committed to uplifting and supporting Native peoples of Wisconsin and can often be found at campus events.

When asked if there was ever any conversion about the AIS program being turned into a department, Larry remembers, “ would occasionally come up, it would occasionally be explored in terms of a scope; what’s the outline of the issues that have to be dealt with and I don’t know that we ever got very far with it because we probably ran into something like, could we really? What would be required for us to do this? We would need four more faculty members, and the dean will give us one, but not four. Something like that would cause us to say, well, maybe at another time, not at this time. That’s my memory of it. I don’t have [a] very specific memory of this, but I’d sort of in general and be some sort of bureaucratic structural issue that would put a sort of bookmark in the conversation and say, this is for another day.”

Dr. Susan DominguezSusan Dominguez: Student, AIS Faculty Member 

Susan Dominguez began her career at the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate student in 1971. She would later return to UW as an AIS faculty member in 2019. Susan recalls the political activism she observed as a student and how that informed her future career trajectory, pursuing Native American literature as a graduate student, and now as a faculty member.

Susan Dominguez reflects on the political activism, and Native presence, on campus during her time on campus as a non-Native student in the early 1970s, “It was really hard to not notice them [Native students], because the drum, at the time, and I don’t know any of the names of who would have been [at] the drum. But the drum would be very visible – like at the student union, on [Bascom] hill. So this was a time of all the protests, so we were outside all the time. And the protesting against the [Vietnam] war was pretty heavy here…I don’t remember anything about the [American Indian Studies] academic program at all. I just remember there being a Native American presence on campus that was separate from the war protests.”

Chad Smith (Cherokee Nation): Native Student Recruiter

Chad Smith attended UW as a graduate student in the School of Business from 1973-1975. While at UW, Chad was involved with many aspects of the Native community on campus, an earlier indicator of his strong support of Native peoples and tribal nations. After he left UW, Chad went on to serve his community in many capacities, including his tenure as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999-2012.

When asked about American Indian students on campus, Chad Smith remembers student led activism to create space, There was a building a few blocks off the main campus. It had been an Indian center at the time and for budget reasons and for other reasons they [University of Wisconsin] decided to close it. So a bunch of the folks said well, we will occupy it, we will just stay there until they threw us out. So folks took turns staying there and doing activities and living there. The university sort of slow walked to shutting it down. There was sort of an ongoing protest.”

Patty LoewPatty Loew, (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe): Student, UW Faculty Member

Patty Loew started her career at UW as a graduate student in 1986. She received her Master’s degree in 1992 and PhD in 1998, both in journalism with an emphasis on history. Patty would go on to teach in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and worked with UW Extension, Patty’s work has been influential across the state of Wisconsin. Today, she continues to support and uplift Native communities and Native students through her work at UW and Northwestern University.

When prompted, “How would you like to see the AIS Program grow?” Patty responds, “I’d like to see American Indian Studies become a department. Programs in the “academic pool” are at the bottom of the food chain. They can’t grant tenure, they’re generally underfunded, and they have to hope that they can partner with a department that might find a candidate that they really want attractive. So I think that would be really important.”