Two Minnesota tribal colleges recently won millions in grant money from the National Science Foundation to offer more opportunities for Indigenous students to study sciences.

Red Lake Nation College and White Earth Tribal and Community College, both two-year schools, will each receive $2.5 million over five years. Officials at Red Lake plan to invest in training students in health and behavioral sciences, while White Earth will create an associate degree in natural sciences covering biology, chemistry and physics.

Allen Derks, a science faculty member at White Earth College, said the funding will have an impact on the Indigenous community, setting students up with the education they need to become nurses, doctors and environmental scientists.

"It'll give a new, accessible pathway for our tribal community members to get training that they can then use to get meaningful jobs and to give back to the community, especially within our tribal service organizations," Derks said.

Red Lake Nation College President Dan King, who is hereditary chief of the Red Lake Nation, said it's important that Indigenous people receive the education and training needed to thrive in higher education and beyond so they can make a positive impact in their future careers.

"There's really a great underrepresentation of Natives in social services all throughout the state," King said. "The idea is that if you have more Natives educated and trained, then they'll be there to serve with cultural sensitivity and the values in the [social services] system."

Indigenous students can use the two-year tribal college education to springboard into four-year universities or a future career, King said.

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, both D-Minn., announced the grants in a joint statement issued Wednesday.

"This funding will provide accessible pathways for Native students to pursue higher education and serve their communities, all while integrating Tribal cultural heritage and roots into their curriculum," said Smith, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs and Education committees.

White Earth Tribal and Community College is in Mahnomen. Red Lake Nation College has a campus in Red Lake and plans to open another this year in Minneapolis.

National Science Foundation documents said funding for Red Lake Nation College would fill a community need and workforce opportunity and that funding for White Earth College supports studies in areas that may be culturally significant to the community.

Both colleges factor traditional Indigenous culture and knowledge into their curriculum. Ojibwe culture and language are prioritized at Red Lake Nation College, with students having to complete two Ojibwe language classes to graduate, according to King.

Derks said students' research projects for the new associate degree at White Earth will integrate Indigenous environmental knowledge to study subjects such as soil health and water quality.

"We're going to be incorporating lots of aspects of traditional ecological knowledge," Derks said. "We'll be addressing a lot of topics that are very important, such as food sovereignty and environmental health."