Bemidji State University senior Serena Graves decided to embark on her academic journey after losing her father and 15-year-old nephew to cancer within a five-year period. In her grief, she found solace in her heritage and in Bemidji State’s Indigenous studies program.
“I set out to use my pain, grief and trauma and turn it into something positive,” she said.
And that is exactly what she has done. Born and raised in Red Lake, Minn., Graves is on track to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Indigenous studies and a minor in Ojibwe and has already begun making an impact on the community in her role as Ojibwe Culturist in the Red Lake School District in Red Lake, Minn.
As Ojibwe Culturist, Graves is using her education to improve the lives of Indigenous youth by implementing culturally-focused social and curriculum activities for students and teachers. Her role is to foster students’ sense of self and pride in their heritage while expanding knowledge of Ojibwe culture amongst district staff. She will also help incorporate Ojibwe culture and history into classrooms.
“My education at Bemidji State has allowed me to begin serving Ojibwe students in culture, language and history,” Graves said. “It’s a great feeling being able to use your education in a way that helps your home community. That’s what it’s all about for me — it’s for them — not me.”
A member of the McNair Scholars Program, Graves worked with staff at Bemidji State to prepare for graduate school and after graduation, she will enter the doctor of education program in education administration and leadership at St. Cloud State University.
“My academic plan is to continue on to graduate school and not stop until I have my Ph.D.,” she said. “My dissertation research will be on the history of the Red Lake Ojibwe language. I will continue working for the Red Lake School District as well as the Waasabiik Ojibwe Adult Immersion Program throughout graduate school.”
Committed to studying and elevating Indigenous culture at Bemidji State and in the community, Graves held a seat as one of three hosts at the weekly Ojibwe language table on campus until assuming her current role as Ojibwe Culturist. Funded by a Multi-Campus Collaboration grant from the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, the language table helps Ojibwe and non-Ojibwe speakers better understand the language. Graves has also held roles as an Ojibwe language tutor, teaching assistant and registration advisor throughout her undergraduate career on campus.
Graves feels well prepared for her work in Ojibwe culture thanks to her combination of experiences and professors at Bemidji State. She especially credits Dr. Anton Treuer, professor in the Department of Languages and Indigenous Studies, for her success in the field.
“Dr. Treuer’s knowledge of our Ojibwe language, culture and history, along with his western education level made for a unique learning experience,” she said. “There are not many other places in the state of Minnesota where you can learn from professors like him.”