Schreyer Scholar Madison Miller explores misrepresentations of Native Americans

During Maymester 2014, Madison Miller traveled to northern Minnesota, immersing herself in Native American lifestyles as part of a Penn State course called “Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing among the Ojibwe” (CED 401).

From discussing Native American perspectives in literature to participating in spiritual and cultural activities, Miller said her time spent on the Leech Lake and Red Lake Reservations was “extremely eye-opening.”

Following this trip, Miller said she knew she had to change the misrepresentations of Native Americans spurred on by the education system.

Miller, a Berwyn Pennsylvania native and a self-described advocate, is aiming to eliminate stereotypes by devising recommendations for Native American history curriculum through her thesis work in the Schreyer Honors College.

“I’ve always felt like we don’t get the full story in our education,” she said. “I’m very interested in the environment, social justice and the injustices faced by Native American people. I really wanted to know more of the story and how people who are different from me see themselves in the world.”

Miller is a senior studying corporate innovation and entrepreneurship in the Smeal College of Business along with community, environment and development in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

In order to draft a comprehensive thesis, Miller has interviewed fellow students who visited the reservations, people of Native American descent, Native American history and culture experts, and curriculum developers.

Ted Alter, Miller’s thesis adviser and a professor of agricultural, environmental, and regional economics, said this project is “central” to tackling indigenous and personal identity issues.

“Her thesis work is a very important piece of research that she is doing in the context of cross-cultural understanding, perspectives on diversity, and bringing those considerations to young people in the course of their educational experiences and their intellectual and cultural development,” Alter said.

Miller said the majority of her participants have noted the current education system is failing minority groups. She said in order for students to acquire a better cultural toolset, teachers must receive proper training and support.

“It’s important for Native American students and for other students that are underrepresented, but it’s also important for all students,” Miller said. “When people don’t see their stories reflected in their education, it sends the message that their history is not important and therefore they are not important.”

Audrey Maretzki, professor emerita in the College of Agricultural Sciences and co-director of the Interinstitutional Center for Indigenous Knowledge in the Penn State Libraries, said Pennsylvania youth possess a “shameful lack of knowledge” regarding Native American history.

“As a result of Madison’s experience in the Ojibwe course, her curriculum will reflect an insight into the contemporary lives of one of the largest Native tribes in North America,” Maretzki said. “I feel quite certain that in developing her curriculum, Madison will avoid the stereotypes of Indians that students in the U.S. schools are currently being taught.”  

In April, Miller was able to share her thesis work with a larger audience at the Undergraduate Research at the Capitol – PA Poster Conference. She spoke with many professors and undergraduates students who had only “vague recollections” of Native American history.

After delivering her presentation, Miller said everyone seemed moved to address the underlying purpose of her research.

“When we have conversations and when we truly listen to underrepresented perspectives, we are beginning the process of solving the problem,” Miller said. “We are contributing to the solution.”

Pennsylvania State Representative Warren Kampf, who actively promotes STEM education, was interested by Miller’s thesis as well. Miller said they had a “great” conversation at the conference about Native American contributions to ecological science.

Bruce Martin, who teaches CED 400 and 401, said Miller is “creating a more just and peaceful world” as she continues to refine her thesis.

“Madison is the kind of engaged student I’d like to have in my courses every year: bright, curious and passionate, combined with personal integrity and a commitment to justice,” Martin said.

Though Alter has nearly 45 years of experience, he said Miller is one of the top two or three students he has ever worked with. Besides actively serving as her thesis adviser, Alter has interacted with Miller through previous courses and research projects.

“Madison is an extraordinary person, both as a human being and as an intellect,” Alter said. “She’s highly motivated and highly passionate about the things that she does.”

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Last Updated July 05, 2016