Montana State University

MSU student aims to use her degree to work for better education for American Indian children

March 26, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News

Michael Munson, a Montana State University doctoral student who has firsthand knowledge of educational challenges in Indian country, plans to use her degree to work for better education for American Indian children. Munson is pictured here reading with student Malaysiah Shewade John. Photo courtesy of Michael Munson.

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A Montana State University doctoral student who has firsthand knowledge of educational challenges in Indian country plans to use her degree to work for better education for American Indian children.

“I want to work with communities to build school systems that lead to academic and life success, leadership, agency and tribal development,” said Michael Munson, who is enrolled in MSU’s Indian Leadership Education and Development, or I LEAD, program. The program offers American Indian teachers an opportunity to earn a master's degree or doctoral degree in school administration without having to leave their jobs.

In addition to I LEAD, a scholarship from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation is helping Munson reach her goals. She recently was named – for the second year in a row – MSU’s recipient of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Native American Graduate Scholarship. The award comes with a $10,000 stipend, which has allowed Munson to focus on her studies and present her work at national and international professional conferences. Munson also works as a Native American studies instructor at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

“I LEAD and the Washington fellowship are amazing,” Munson said. “Both have provided me the opportunity to study without having to work full-time, too.

Munson, who is Salish and white, attributes at least part of her passion for education to her background. She was raised off the reservation in Missoula.

“I was often the ‘white girl’ when I went back to the reservation for community events or funerals,” Munson said. “When I was in Missoula, in school, I was the ‘Indian’ girl…there were both sides of this crazy bias, and I didn’t really fit (in either place).”

Munson received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum development in Indian education and science, both from the University of Montana.

While working on her master’s degree, she approached the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes about developing a curriculum that was centered on places of importance to Salish and Pend d’Oreille people that have been altered through colonization.

She won a grant from the Montana Office of Public Instruction for the project and worked with elders to develop the curriculum.

“Hearing the elders speak about those places and the importance of them to Salish and Pend d’Oreille people was really transformational for me,” Munson said.

After receiving her master’s degree, Munson began working for the Montana Office of Public Instruction as an Indian Education for All implementation specialist. Indian Education for All is the Montana constitutional mandate that aims to ensure that every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, learns about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.

“What a cool, cool opportunity,” Munson said. “I learned about some of the other Native cultures in Montana, and I was learning how to teach teachers how to be better teachers in regard to Indian Education for All.”

She also worked for OPI as an Indian student achievement specialist. She called the kids she worked with in that role “incredibly inspiring.

“They were so motivated, and they were so smart and so able to be just absolutely amazing,” she said. “They have ideas and passions and give back to their communities. It was just awesome.”

However, Munson began to feel as though the schools could do more to serve those children. She wanted to help, so she decided to go back to school.

“I thought maybe if I went and learned more I could do something to contribute,” Munson said.

She enrolled in a doctoral program in justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University, choosing the program in part because of a professor she knew who taught there. However, Munson quickly found the program wasn’t the best fit.

“My heart is in Montana Indian education, and they didn’t have people at Arizona State who were experts in that area,” she said.

Munson reached out to one of her mentors, MSU education professor Jioanna Carjuzaa. From her, Munson learned that MSU’s I LEAD program had begun to offer doctoral degrees. Munson decided to enroll, and within three weeks, she had finished up at Arizona State and moved back to Montana.

She began her I LEAD studies in May 2013; since then, she has found that enrolling in the program was a great decision.

“I’ve received incredible support,” Munson said. “People believe in me. I’m back in a world of hopefulness.”

Sweeney Windchief, an assistant professor of education at MSU, said Munson is an exceptional student who is very deserving of the Washington scholarship.

“Michael has exceptional potential in the field of Indigenous education and is committed to the Indigenous community in Montana,” Windchief said. “Her scholarly contributions are responsive to community in a way that focuses on cultural strength and resiliency. As a researcher, she works tirelessly to do things in a good way.”

Carjuzaa, who first met Munson in 2007 and has worked with her on projects related to Indian student achievement initiatives and Indian Education for All, agreed that Munson is very deserving of the Washington scholarship.

“Michael is a dedicated, passionate educator who is a born leader,” Carjuzaa said.

Catherine Johnson, I LEAD project director, added that Munson possesses “distinct understanding of Indigenous education issues and community participation” and “demonstrates innovative leadership capacity for Indigenous education reform.

“We appreciate the pivotal contributions she makes to the I LEAD program, Montana State University, the state of Montana and in Indigenous communities around the country,” Johnson said.

Munson’s goal is to graduate in December 2015 or May 2016. Then, she would like “to work with Native communities to build school systems that meet their needs based on what they feel is important.”

Specifically, she said her vision includes school systems that display “academic rigor, high expectations, cultural reclamation, language reclamation and identity building.”

Throughout her work, she aims to be “inclusive and community-driven,” she said. And, she pledges to always do her best.

“That’s something my family really taught me,” Munson said. “Always give everything the best you can.”

The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation awards two Native American Graduate Fellowships a year -- one to an MSU graduate student and one to a University of Montana graduate student. The fellowships run a maximum of two years for master's students and three years for doctoral students. More information is available at

More information about I LEAD at MSU is available at

Contact: Michael Munson,