Bemidji State: A North Woods Destination for Indigenous Learners

American Indian Destination University

American Indian culture, history and traditions have deep roots at Bemidji State University. Over the years, Bemidji State’s connection to American Indian students, language and pride has evolved from an institutional emphasis into a foundational pillar of the university’s mission.

Today, tucked amongst Minnesota’s forests, wetlands, rivers and glacial lakes, Bemidji State is the premier north woods destination for American Indian learners.


Home to the first Ojibwe language program in the nation

A regional public university located between Minnesota’s three largest tribal nations — Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth — Bemidji State has a storied history of taking strides to represent the people of its community and the region.

Amid a surging American Indian political movement, Bemidji State made history in 1969 when it began the nation’s first collegiate Ojibwe language program and established an Indigenous studies degree. Now, the Ojibwe language program is housed within the university’s Department of Languages and Indigenous studies.

Strong American Indian Resource Center

The following year in 1970, an Indian Studies Center opened near campus and became a gathering place for students. That same year, American Indian students formed the Council of Indian Students and organized BSU’s first American Indian Education and Awareness Week and held its first on-campus powwow in 1972.

The Council of Indian Students continues to hold annual powwows on campus annually and has a home base, lounge area in the campus’ American Indian Resource Center, which replaced the Indian Studies Center in 2003. As a central hub for American Indian students at Bemidji State, the AIRC continuously advocates for student success with Chrissy Downwind, executive director, at the helm and Ann Humphrey and Ron Wilson as associate directors of retention and outreach, respectively.

“American Indian student success is not only a success for that student, it is a big win for their tribe, their family and their community,” Humphrey said. “I want American Indian students to succeed because that means we have more educated Native voices speaking up.

Azhoogan tribal college pathways

In 2017, Bemidji State set a new precedent by establishing dual-enrollment agreements with four tribal colleges in Northern Minnesota – Leech Lake Tribal College, Red Lake Nation College, White Earth Tribal and Community College and Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College. The pacts established direct pathways for Native students to move from the two-year schools into a four-year degree.

Soon afterwards, President Hensrud unveiled a strategic plan which focused in part on becoming a destination university for American Indian communities. The plan looks to increase the number of enrolled American Indian students through targeted recruitment and retention strategies.

Land Acknowledgment

In March 2021, Bemidji State unveiled a land acknowledgment which recognizes the Indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed from the land occupied by its lakeshore campus.

We acknowledge that Bemidji State University is located on land and water that is the current and ancestral homeland of the Ojibwe and Dakota. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide, forced assimilation, and efforts to alienate the Indigenous inhabitants from their territory here. We honor and respect the many diverse Indigenous peoples still connected to this land, retained tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural resilience. Indigenous people are spiritual and physical caretakers of this land to which we all belong. Bemidji State University respects these sacred lands, stands with the community members from these Nations, and will fight injustice in all its forms.

Indigenous-focused programs

In addition to Bemidji State’s growing history of supporting American Indian students, the university is now home to a number of programs that elevate and support Indigenous students.

Niganawenimaanaanig Indigenous Nursing

In 2017, Dr. Misty Wilkie realized a lifelong dream to support fellow and future nurses. Combining a $2 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Nursing Workforce Diversity program and her experiences as an Indigenous woman, student nurse and professor, she created the Niganawenimaanaanig Indigenous Nursing Program at Bemidji State.

In July 2021, after a competitive application process, the program was awarded another $2.2 million NWD grant to continue its work diversifying the nation’s nursing workforce. The Niganawenimaanaanig – an Ojibwe word that translates to English as “we take care of them” – grant is one of 32 distributed by the HHS Nursing Workforce Diversity program for 2021.

Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin Program

Launched in 2018, Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin – which means “two ways of doing the right thing in the right way” in English – joins Bemidji State’s Office of Sustainability, American Indian Resource Center, Center for Sustainability Studies and Department of Languages and Indigenous Studies to create a unique interdisciplinary program that offers a ground-breaking Indigenous Sustainability Studies major and minor, graduate student positions and summer internships. The program celebrated three years of success at the university in March 2021.

Minnesota Indian Teaching Training Program

In Sept. 2020 Bemidji State administered $92,000 in grants to American Indian students entering the education field as an educator or professionals working in a pre-K-12 environment. Each scholarship includes $1500 in tuition dollars, a $400 book stipend and a $3000 living stipend per semester. This year the program will fund eight students – five of which are new to the program and on track to join Bemidji State’s Department of Professional Education.

Indigenous Students in Psychology Training

Bemidji State’s Department of Psychology recently received a one-year, $9,981 Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Educational Innovations Grant to launch a scholarship program for Indigenous students studying psychology. With a pilot cohort of six students, the InPsyT (pronounced like “insight”) program will train and prepare American Indian students for careers in psychology through mentorships with Indigenous psychologists and mental health professionals.