Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

Family values May 10, 2016 by Amy Stix • Published 05/10/16

If you land on the homepage for Montana State University’s Native American Studies Department, one of the first links you will notice is “Core Values.”

The page details the department’s mission statement of sorts, a commitment to “Honesty,” “Generosity,” “Kindness and Openness,” “Hard Work,” “Family,” “Spirituality,” “Humor and Respect,” and how each of these core values not only guides the department’s relations on campus and in the world, but with every person who walks through its doors.

These same principles drive Walter Fleming, the man who has led NAS for the past 14 years. Fleming propelled what was once a program that provided student services and an academic minor into an academic department that grants master’s degrees and is recognized nationally and internationally for its excellence in teaching and research.

“You walk through the door, we say, ‘Welcome. You’re someone worthy of our attention,’” Fleming said about the academic department he was instrumental in establishing within MSU’s College of Letters and Science in 2002.

When Fleming, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Kansas, first began teaching at MSU as an adjunct instructor 37 years ago, the 26-year-old was finishing his master’s in guidance counseling at MSU and was hired to teach a couple of summer classes. At the time, MSU had 52 Native students, he recalls.

Fleming’s home base when he started out in 1979, and for many years after, was MSU’s Center for Native American Studies, which operated as the focal point for Native student support, and as a home away from home for the scant number of American Indian students attending MSU in those days.

“Indian students were somewhat exotic at that time,” Fleming recalled.

In fact, up until the mid-1970s, the MSU academic adviser to Native students was based in the headquarters for international foreign student advising.

When Fleming took over leadership of the Center for Native American Studies at age 28, he dreamed of a day when MSU would graduate 100 Native students.

That day came in May 2015, and today MSU has more than 550 Native students enrolled at MSU’s Bozeman campus.

As more Native students matriculated and graduated from MSU, NAS also grew. Through the department’s evolution, Fleming ensured that the department remained closely connected to its roots as a place where all students are made to feel part of a caring, family-like community.

For students leaving their families and closely knit reservation communities for the first time, this support is critical.

“If we are going to recruit Indian students, we are obliged to make sure they succeed,” Fleming said.

“Our philosophy when we go out to recruit is, ‘If you come to MSU, we promise that we will take care of you.’ We’re promising that not just to the student, but also to his or her parents, grandparents, family and community.”

Fleming works tirelessly to make good on that promise.

“He (Fleming) is very energetic about making sure we’re successful at MSU,” said Montana Wilson, a political science major from Poplar, located on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and a member of the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. “No problem is too big or too small for him.”

Fleming “has a genuine concern for your welfare and tries to help people in any way he can. And that is reflected in the whole NAS department,” Wilson said. “It’s a really great learning environment because it is based in respect.”

Fleming’s empathy—and his ability to put himself in the shoes of students who have left their families and reservations to pursue their educations—may stem in part from his own experiences growing up. Fleming is an enrolled member of the Kickapoo tribe of Kansas and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe and Cherokee Nation. Both his parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in careers that brought the couple to Montana. Fleming was born in Crow Agency and grew up in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. He graduated from Colstrip High School, Glendive’s Dawson Community College and MSU Billings.

“I grew up on someone else’s reservation,” said Fleming. “I’ve always been somewhat of an outsider.”

He said his outlander’s view has shaped his perspectives on identity and about what it means to be “Indian.”

“Is it living on a reservation? Is it speaking the language?” asked Fleming. “The most easily identifiable things come down to values, rather than, ‘Does a person dance or sing at a powwow?’ A sense of family. Generosity. Spirituality. Humor. And cooperation. These are Native values. As a department, we identified these as values of Indian people.”

In addition to his MSU duties, Fleming led efforts to shape Montana legislation that launched “Indian Education for All,” an initiative that provides K–12 students, and all Montana citizens, knowledge and understanding about the heritage, distinct cultures and contributions of American Indian tribes in the state from a Native perspective.

“It is the other side of the story, in that it’s education about Indian people, from an Indian perspective, for all Montana citizens,” Fleming said. “For Indians, it provides access to their culture and history and demonstrates that both are relevant to their education.”

In 2013, Fleming received the Governor’s Humanities Award, the highest honor in the state that recognizes achievement in humanities scholarship, service and enhancement of public appreciation of the humanities. MSU’s Native American Studies Department is also the only department or program in a mainstream institution accredited by the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium.

Robert Rydell, a professor in MSU’s Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, has known Fleming since he began teaching history at MSU 36 years ago.

Rydell calls Fleming “one of the most outstanding humanists in the state,” adding that Fleming “has a sense of humor that is unsurpassed, and he weds that to a seriousness of purpose that can’t be missed.”

The two worked together on the multi-year “Teaching American History” project, a Department of Education initiative for Bozeman and Gallatin County K–12 classrooms that enhanced teachers’ and students’ understanding of American and Montana history.

Rydell also marvels at Fleming’s ability to shepherd NAS “from something that was part of a university to something that is central to the university’s core mission.

“That is an amazing accomplishment.”

And though he has dedicated nearly four decades to MSU and its students, Fleming is game to accomplish even more.

“I really don’t feel like I’m done. Because, I still enjoy what I’m doing. Teaching, administering, and especially helping students. I get so much joy from my work.” ■