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Pelletier honored at UMM

Developer of new American Indian Studies major receives alumni association teaching award

By Kristi Goldade

Julie Pelletier
UMM's Julie Pelletier helped develop Morris's new American Indian Studies major.

May 13, 2008

You know your Aunt Sarah, the one who isn't really your aunt? Well, this relationship is an example of a kinship pattern ...

This is how Julie Pelletier often begins her class: with a story, one that at first seems unrelated to anthropology but by the end has illuminated concepts that her UMM students might not otherwise grasp.

"Storytelling is how I learned as a child," says Pelletier, a descendant of the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq tribes. "Students have an easier time making connections if the information is in a narrative."

Pelletier is this year's recipient of the UMM Alumni Association Teaching Award, which honors Morris faculty members for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. Upon receiving it, Pelletier says she was "humbled to be chosen."

She is a lead developer of the new American Indian studies (AIS) major. UMM offered AmIn Studies courses for years, but with Pelletier's push the smattering of classes become a full-fledged course of study.

"There are so many Native students," says Pelletier, "and with UMM's history as an Indian boarding school, the major is a natural fit."

Her most popular class is called "Contemporary Native Women." Students from disciplines like women's studies and anthropology come to learn about the Native woman's roles from the first time Europeans set foot on America's shores to relatively recent times, using representations such as Pocahontas and Sacagawea.

"There are so many Native students," says Pelletier, "and with UMM's history as an Indian boarding school, the major is a natural fit."

"I want to challenge the idea that Natives are all this, or all that," Pelletier says. "To examine the good and the not so good."

Her current research is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the Ojibwa people. Although she focuses on how gaming revenue affects the surrounding communities--tribes pay 2 percent for, say, maintaining roads--how it affects identity is always a factor. She analyzes perceptions of Indian identity--she's been asked if a rich Indian is a "real" Indian--and other aspects of the relationships between Native people and everyone else in the area. The study has been going on for close to 15 years.

Although she has an undergraduate assistant for her work in Michigan, Pelletier has enlisted many students for an even bigger project: genealogical research to trace descendants of UMM students who went to the Indian boarding school, located where the Morris campus is now, in the late 19th century.

For this project, besides scouring class lists, students read letters from former headmasters and other documents. Through this detailed work, they are able to form stories about their subjects, transforming what could be tedious study into live histories.

Because UMM is a relatively small school, undergraduates are able to play leading roles in the research and in presenting findings at conferences, thus gaining skills useful at the graduate and professional levels.

Ian Jentz, a former student of Pelletier, describes her use of storytelling as "not only pedagogically in line with the anthropology topics we explored, but also it captured our attention."

Pelletier is an honorary member of the student group, Circle of Nations, where she participates in community events and makes connections with neighboring tribes.

Pelletier also travels the area with brochures and tales of the UMM experience, recruiting students who can benefit from the tuition waver UMM offers all Native Americans.

"When I was 19, somebody opened that door for me," she says, "I never dreamed I could return the favor."