A new University of Minnesota initiative will examine the school's historically fraught relationship with tribal nations and use public humanities projects to educate state residents on racial justice.

Faculty leading the Minnesota Transform initiative will work with Black, Indigenous and immigrant communities to tell stories through digital platforms and public exhibits, revitalize Indigenous languages and write a report on the U's relationship with American Indian tribes, among other things. The initiative will be funded over three years by a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, university leaders announced Wednesday.

"This statewide initiative deepens the university's relationships with our diverse communities, with a focus on developing new knowledge, visions and practices for inclusion and justice," said Rachel Croson, the U's executive vice president and provost.

University leaders cited last year's nationwide protests against racism and police brutality as inspiration for this work.

The report on the U's relationship with tribes is a necessary step toward acknowledging past wrongs, said Tadd Johnson, the university's senior director of tribal nations relations.

During the Cold War, researchers from the university's medical school conducted experiments on residents of the Red Lake Reservation while studying the diseases impetigo and nephritis, Johnson said. Children were injected with penicillin and taken off the reservation, sometimes without their parents knowing. Tribal members want the medical school to explain its actions, Johnson said.

Additionally, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has sought greater transparency regarding forestry research the university conducts on its land.

"All these negative things happened to the tribes, many of which accrued to the benefit of the university," said Johnson, noting the U was built on Dakota land that was ceded in the treaties of 1837 and 1851.

The tribes and the university will work together on the archival report.

Through digital storytelling and public exhibits, the Minnesota Transform initiative will seek to educate residents across the state about the protests and civil unrest that erupted in the Twin Cities last summer after the killing of George Floyd, said Jigna Desai, a gender, women and sexuality studies professor who's helping lead the new project.

Faculty will also look inward to examine how the university contributes to societal inequities and how it can become more inclusive, Desai said. Leaders of the initiative will work with professors to create a more welcoming classroom environment for students of color and students with disabilities. The initiative will also collaborate with the U's law school to integrate anti-racist teachings.

"There are longer histories that need to be reckoned with," Desai said. "We need frames for exploring white supremacy and its legacies within universities."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234