The University of Minnesota will soon offer a doctoral degree in American Indian Studies, following up on one recommendation in a landmark report that called on U leaders to take steps to repair their relationship with tribes in the state.

Just six universities in the United States offer a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies, and the U's program will be the first in the Midwest.

Jean O'Brien, a professor who helped establish the program, said she hopes it "will just create the conditions whereby Indigenous Studies can really flourish."

"It's a moment of great excitement in a world that's pretty complicated right now," she said.

It's been more than one year since the TRUTH Project released a 554-page document that aimed to reframe how Minnesotans view the university and called on U leaders to atone for nearly two centuries of abuses. It described the university as a "land grab" system that profited from treaties that stripped tribes of their land, reiterated concerns with some U-led research projects and recounted how the government ran a boarding school on the land where the university's Morris campus is now located.

Among other things, the report called on U leaders to create the doctorate program, return land to tribal nations, make reparations, hire more Indigenous staff, boost support for Indigenous students and set aside space on each campus for Indigenous people to gather, pray and learn.

The university has made progress on some of those recommendations but "we can't rest on our laurels," Karen Diver, senior adviser to the U president for Native American Affairs, told regents in a meeting Friday. She said the work will take years and added — with a laugh —that it probably won't be done in her lifetime.

'It's just a start'

In the past year, the U hired two more Indigenous faculty members. Diver said it provided housing scholarships to 38 freshmen this past school year and is continuing talks with some of the tribes about how to further reduce the cost of attending college. Efforts to return the Cloquet Forestry Center land to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa were delayed when the Legislature wrapped its session without a bonding bill that contained the language needed for the transfer.

"We've definitely this year looked for areas where we could take action and provide concrete steps that were of interest to the tribal leaders," interim U President Jeff Ettinger said in an interview. "I'm pleased with the progress, but we fully recognize it's just a start."

An Garagiola, one of about 45 people on the team that produced the TRUTH Project report, said she's seen progress in the past year but wants to see more. Garagiola said she wants more discussion about how the university continues to benefit from financial and land transactions that harmed tribes years ago.

She said she's seen people do more thorough reviews of research projects but is waiting for U officials to officially sign off on a new policy outlining how researchers should interact with tribes. Ettinger said he expects that to happen in the next couple of months.

Garagiola is glad to see the new doctorate program but added, "At this point, we do not know how much funding the program will get."

The university founded the first Department of American Indian Studies in the country in 1969, but its work has until now focused on primarily on students seeking bachelor's and master's degrees. About 75 students interested in American Indian Studies have earned doctorates, according to U data, but they did it by enrolling in other departments, such as history.

The new program is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2025. O'Brien said she hopes having a doctorate program dedicated specifically to American Indian Studies will allow the U to better tailor its courses to students' interests and to ensure they're getting instruction in critical topics, such as languages. Students with those types of degrees have gone on to teach, work for historical societies, curate for museums or run programs that help return remains and artifacts to tribes.

"As a Ph.D. student in American Studies, I wish that there would have been an American Indian Studies Ph.D. for me to go into instead of having to kind of piecemeal together a program for myself, which a lot of Native students do," Garagiola said.