Each year, I have the honor of coordinating the WCET Awards initiative.

The goal of our awards program is to highlight those doing great work in higher education digital learning. I feel so lucky to get the chance each year to learn about the meaningful, student-focused work being done by various institutions, organizations, and individuals in our community.

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We’re looking forward to beginning our awards program for 2023, with some new updates to our process and winner showcase! To kick off the our work on WCET Awards for this year, I’m so thrilled to showcase our winners from the 2022 season. We will be doing so here on the Frontiers Blog and episodes on the Frontiers Podcast!

Today we are featuring one of the winners of the WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award, which recognizes outstanding efforts by member institutions and organizations in applying innovative solutions to a challenging educational need.

Today we showcase Nicolet College’s Native American Art Course Redesign. Artist and Art Instructor Nate Wilson discusses the inspiration for the redesign, the partnership between course instructor, instructional design team, and an Elder from one of the Native American tribes in the area. The resulting course honored Native culture and provided students with great learning and artistic experiences. Both Nate, instructional designer Di Wu, and Uncle Ernie, the Elder on the design team, join me for an upcoming Frontiers podcast to discuss the project further. Thank you to all of you for this work, this post, and the upcoming episode!

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


The Place

Nicolet College is a small rural college that serves a large geographical area in northern Wisconsin or “the north woods.” Located on the edge of Rhinelander, the campus buildings are spread through a beautiful expanse of forest and along the Lake Julia shoreline. The location is lovely; deer frequently walk with their wary-eyed glances across the lawn or through a parking lot, you can see the occasional fox or porcupine, and once in a while, a black bear will wander out of the woods.

The Challenge

The previous iteration of the Native American Art course offered at Nicolet College was online, but the design and content did not adequately meet our aspiration to have truly inclusive and culturally appropriate courses. Our goal was to work with local art experts and tribal members to create a course that honored Native American artists and ways of learning and knowing.

The Solution

The project was to rebuild an existing Native American Art course being offered by Nicolet College. As the only full-time art faculty at the college, much of this work fell to me, Nate Wilson, Fine Arts Instructor. While I’m mostly a studio arts guy, drawing, sculpture, painting, and the like, I do have some art history background, both in the classroom and taking students abroad to London. Still, because I’m not Native American, I felt quite nervous about attempting this project. Fortunately, the completion of the project wasn’t just on me; there was a team.

The Team

Ernie St Germain, Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe tribal elder, and our Native American art expert, affectionately known as Uncle Ernie, made this project work. Without his guidance, we would have been lost.

While acknowledging that this region of northern Wisconsin was historically all native peoples’ land, relative to many places in the country, there is still a significant amount of recognized tribal lands in the area served by Nicolet College. Many native people live among the abundant lakes, rivers, forests, and towns of the area served by Nicolet College, many belonging to one of the tribes listed at wisconsinfirstnations.org include Forest County Potawatomi, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Ho-Chunk Nation. Part of the impetus for redoing the course was related to an ongoing grant-funded effort at Nicolet College called Many Ways of Knowing, now known as Indigenous Ways of Knowing. This year-long endeavor has been to better honor the learning methods, knowledge, and traditions and engage with our local indigenous partners and neighbors. This also provided some direction for what a newly made Native American Art course should be like.

How it Started

The initial meeting was in person and included Laura Wind-Norton, then Dean of University Transfer and Liberal Arts, who deserves much credit for organizing the project and team. Susie Crazy Thunder, Tribal Outreach Coordinator, should also be recognized for her contribution, which included an introduction to Uncle Ernie.

Our subsequent meetings were attended by Uncle Ernie, me, and usually Di Wu, Instructional Designer for the college. We would meet a few times a month, typically virtual, beginning with Boozhoo (meaning ‘Greetings’ in Ojibwe). Then much of the time was spent talking about life, family, recent things, historical events, and other topics.

Even when we attended more directly to the official business or purpose of the meeting, Uncle Ernie would tell us stories. Being humble, he would probably describe himself as a cultural advisor to the project; he was much more than that. Uncle Ernie has a story to tell about everything; he’s a skilled and university-trained artist, a very accomplished athlete, a Judge, a professor, a bunch of other stuff, and a fantastic storyteller. These meetings were great and quite fun but sometimes more contemplative. We’re lucky that Di is good about being punctual and would end the meeting at the appointed times. Otherwise, they might have gone on forever.

I would often come prepared with questions or dilemmas to inquire about. In response, Uncle Ernie would usually tell more stories. Even when he wasn’t teaching or guiding the project through storytelling, Uncle Ernie rarely told me directly what to do. Instead, he would ask me about my life and my experiences. Which was challenging and, I’ll admit, a bit confusing because I’m not Native American and don’t have the lived experience of being native.

Our Design Process and Tools

After spending enough time with, listening to, and getting to know Uncle Ernie, the general shape, structure, and content for the course started to form. Di, in his role as Instructional Designer, facilitated the curriculum design process, which was a lot. Uncle Ernie would review and offer feedback, often in the form of more stories. He also provided some specific resources like articles or links to other helpful information.

Course Materials

I selected a book that would serve as one of the main sources of content for the course, a “textbook” I suppose, although not a typical one. Uncle Ernie told me he strongly approved the selection, but only after I committed to using the book for the class and the bookstore started ordering copies. I had tried to ask him directly about the book on a few occasions prior but didn’t get a reassuring response till the choice was made. The book is Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, edited and coauthored by Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves. This book contains a wealth of diverse perspectives, historical and contemporary views and issues, fantastic images, and writings by many artists or by artists about artists. The fact that the book featured only women artists was a problem that wasn’t difficult to remedy with the inclusion of other resources.

Cindy Domaika, Manager of Open & Inclusive Academics for Nicolet College, helped find a great supplementary text, Native Peoples of North America, by Susan Stebbins of the University at Albany. This book is available as an Open Educational Resource (OER) through Open SUNY Textbooks, which makes it free to students. Additionally, Cindy contributed the idea and assisted with the creation of another textbook that exists as an online Pressbook, evolves, and is built through the research, writings, and other contributions provided by the students. This student-created OER owns the creative commons license meaning other college-level instructors or students can use, adopt, or edit it for free.

From the beginning, I perceived that my role was to create a class that followed the guidance provided by Uncle Ernie, and I came to understand that would be a class that that wasn’t beholden to some of the typical tropes, such as a western art historical orientation, timeline, and perspective. It also needed to be deliverable through the means available, in this case, fully online and asynchronous. In my attempts to find a way to do this, I learned a few things that helped. Perhaps the most important of these insights was that the art itself contained the content needed for the class.

Learning Through Art Itself

It became increasingly apparent to me that everything that should be taught in a university-level course on Native American art could be found in the art made by native artists. Students learn by directly engaging with the art, looking at and studying the phenomenal artworks, objects, clothing, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, structures, pottery, and function items, and this list could go on much longer, made long ago, recently, or today. Additionally, there is an abundance of writings, interviews, films, articles, books, and a wide variety of resources created by the artists or about the artists that are made available and conveniently accessible for students in an online class.

My only job was to find, organize, arrange, and then build lesson plans around the chosen resources. While this did prove to be a very time-consuming and arduous means of creating the curriculum, once students were enrolled and started participating in the class, their engagement was encouraging and provided some valuable real-time feedback.

Student Reflection and Projects

One of the biggest surprises was the quality of students’ journal entries. Worth a negligible number of points and was only intended as means of encouraging and accounting for the reading and study of resources; what I expected was perfunctory lists and summaries. Instead, what I found in the student journaling submissions were paragraphs and sometimes pages of writing that were insightful, introspective, creative, nuanced, unrestrained, and frequently quite passionate. Students recorded their discoveries, explored their ideas, and deployed critical thinking in words that were sometimes messy jumbles and other times carefully crafted prose.

As a result, the journaling component of the course continues to evolve. My first idea has been to tie the ideas and writings from the journaling more directly to the formal essay-writing component of the class. So far, that has yielded mixed results, so I will continue experimenting and perhaps determine that it’s best just to leave it alone.

Born directly from Uncle Ernie’s wisdom and direction, I created a class project called the “Heritage Project.” Creating art with your own hands is one of the course requirements, and for this several-weeks long project, students explore their own background and heritage. While this is usually through family and family history, the wording in the assignment makes it clear that each student is free to define “heritage” for themselves.

Following their own heritage research, students determine a medium and process for creating an artwork that embodies, celebrates, or otherwise captures the essence of their own personal heritage. While some are native, most students are not and don’t identify with a native heritage. Because of this, they are not trying to copy or replicate Native American art. They are making their own art about their own heritage while, along the way, being guided by a wealth of examples of works by the native artist that they’re learning about. After completion, the students are further prompted to reflect on how creating their own art, about themselves and their heritage, provided more insights into Native American Art. This has proved to be one of the most successful aspects of the course, which I attribute directly to the wisdom and guidance provided by Uncle Ernie. Miigwech, Uncle Ernie.

I’d like to end this post with a comment left by a student in a discussion board thread for her classmates to read:

“Part of why I went back to school after 15 years away is so that I could be a good example for my children. This was a class where they also were interested in the class material, so I took them with me to my site visit for my paper, and they regularly looked through artist’s pages and weekly class materials. This has been a great way for me to connect with them, too. We’re all going to Washington DC over summer break for vacation and when we were planning out which museums to go to, they wanted to go to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian… purely based on things that they saw from this class. I love that so much, and it helps me to feel that the many nights of hard work and falling asleep at my laptop turning in homework (especially for some other classes that I struggled with) have been worth it. That extra connection is absolutely priceless to me.”

Nate Wilson

Art Instructor, Nicolet College

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