'I want nothing more than to make the world better for my children and grandchildren.'--Henrietta Mann
One warm May morning some 72 years ago, deep in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the poverty of the Great Depression, the family of newborn Henrietta Mann assembled. They passed the infant from person to person around their tight circle.
The baby came to Mann's great-grandmother, a Cheyenne prayer woman, who held the child as if she were holding a sacred pipe, offering the baby to the four sacred directions. Then she presented the child to the sky and to the earth, all the time praying for the child's future.
"I don't know what my great-grandmother said," says Mann, herself now an elder in the Southern Cheyenne tribe. "I think her prayer was for an extremely long and good life. And while it has been a life, like most, full of ups and downs, it has been a good life."
Mann believes that the love and prayers of her family launched her on her trajectory that has "sometimes taken me where no one else has gone before."
"When you are loved like that, you know you have responsibilities and want to be the best you can be," said Mann, who is one of the country's most respected indigenous educators, a Native American leader and a spiritual grandmother for Indians and non-Indians alike.
Mann does this all from her base at Montana State University, where she is currently a special assistant to MSU President Geoff Gamble. In 2000, Mann migrated to MSU from the University of Montana to become the endowed chair for the MSU Native American Studies Department. Mann had been at UM intermittently for 28 years and was nationally recognized, having been selected in 1991 as one of the top 10 college professors in the country by Rolling Stone magazine.
"There aren't many endowed chairs in Native American Studies in the entire country," Mann said. MSU's offer was an opportunity she had to take.
Mann's arrival at MSU coincided with Gamble's. The two shared interests and values. Gamble tapped Mann to help him with several projects and then asked her to serve as a presidential assistant when she retired. Together they established MSU's Council of Elders, composed of leaders of all of Montana's tribes. They are now fund-raising for a planned $10-million Native American Studies Center, $2 million of which is targeted to provide scholarships for Native American students.
"Henri Mann has a wonderful balanced approach to every issue and matches compassion and empathy with political and personal strength to achieve incredible results," Gamble said of Mann. "It is a joy to work with her, and MSU is blessed to have her as part of our leadership team."
"I have my dream job," Mann said. "I love MSU. And it's been my pleasure to serve a very good-hearted and visionary president here and help him do his work."
While Native American education has been the backbone of Mann's work for more than 50 years, she is increasingly sought out as a spiritual mentor. She has prayed at ceremonies ranging from an indigenous gathering in New Zealand to Ground Zero. She has prayed at Stonehenge, and at Cape Canaveral when Indian astronaut John Harrington went to space. Her ardent prayers in her native Cheyenne language have transformed many an MSU event.
"I obviously was called to be a prayer woman by my parents and my grandfather," said Mann, who begins each day with a long prayer in Cheyenne. Mann's three children have been similarly called.
Mann said her valued ability to navigate in the world of the Indians and non-Indians was a result of her heritage. Her mother was a strong Christian, and each Sunday Mann would go to church with her and later in the evening attend Cheyenne prayer meetings with her father. Today that duality is clearly reflected in Mann's personal style. A chic white contemporary spike haircut and red designer glasses frame a Cheyenne face mirroring the wisdom of ages. Scarlet-lacquered fingernails grasp an eagle claw pendant, an ancient symbol of her people.
"I'm not conventional," Mann admits. "I never have been. But I know where there are boundaries and I push them."
Mann knew she wanted to be a teacher early and was just 16 when she enrolled at Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford, close to her native Hammon, Okla., a "little bitty town." She earned a master's degree from Oklahoma State and a doctorate from the University of New Mexico. Her career, which began as a middle-school English teacher in Barstow, Calif., progressed to some of the most respected universities in the country, including tours at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley.
"I was aware that I was at the forefront of a generation that was expected to go out and be an interpreter of our culture," Mann said.
Mann has spent an increasing amount of time back in Oklahoma, since accepting the position of interim president of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribal College in Weatherford. Recently the college and her tribe in Oklahoma paid homage to Mann with an honor dance, a great tribute among her people. She has been asked to take the college presidency permanently, but Mann said that would mean she would need to leave Montana and she's not ready for that. Nor is she ready to turn over her leadership to an upcoming generation of young Indian students.
"I'm not yet at a point when I can say to them 'now you take care of it'," Mann said. "There is so much to be done. I still feel the need to effect some positive changes in life. To be of assistance. I want nothing more than to make the world better for my children and grandchildren."