Native American students and others protest on Friday, March 17, 2023, at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus calling for expanded tuition aid. Credit: Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

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Students and activists protested in the freezing cold to urge the University of Minnesota to follow through on promises to tribal communities. At the top of their list was an expansion of a tuition program that they say too few can access. 

“[It] is kind of frustrating and hard for the students that are here already and aren’t getting the support that we feel like we need,” said Laila Gourd, a sophomore from the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota. 

A new tuition support program for the U’s campuses, including the Twin Cities, began last fall, but it has limits. 

The university’s Morris campus has had a full tuition waiver program for all American Indian students since its inception, as stipulated by federal legislation and Minnesota statute due to the site’s history as a former boarding school. In 2021, the university announced the Native American Promise Tuition Program to extend tuition support for Native students attending its four other campuses. 

At the time, University president Joan Gabel said the “program is a meaningful step to increasing access and continuing to improve retention and graduation rates while closing opportunity gaps.” 

Unlike at Morris, the new program offers free or reduced tuition, depending on family income, limited to enrolled members of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations. Students must also be first-year undergraduates or transfer students from tribal colleges.  

Eighteen of 146 Native freshmen received funding through the Native American Promise Tuition Program in fall 2022, according to reporting by the Star Tribune

“The university isn’t doing a good job with keeping their relations with Native American students,” said Gourd. She said the tuition program excludes displaced Lakota and Dakota people forced to settle in what are now other states. 

The American Indian Student Cultural Center organized the protest Friday with the U’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. They want to see the tuition program extended to include current undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, as well as descendants of all federally or state recognized tribal nations. 

“It is just insanely inadequate for the fact that the University of Minnesota is a land grab university,” Sorcha Lona, an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society. “It owes its Native students free tuition.”

Universities, including the U of M, profited from the sale and leasing of land taken from Dakota people in the 1800s, detailed in landmark reporting by High Country News. Minnesota researchers from tribal nations and at the University are preparing a report recommending how the University should improve its relationship with Native communities.

The protest of around 30 people also drew members of the UMN Teamsters, Anti-War Committee, and the American Indian Movement.

“Many students who currently qualify for the Native American Promise Tuition Program are receiving a large share of support from other existing programs from federal, state, and University sources,” said University Relations spokesperson Jake Ricker on Friday. “I think it’s worth reiterating something the University has said previously about this program, which is in the very first year of its existence. This program does not represent completed work.”

In early March, the University of Minnesota requested funding from the state Legislature for a full tuition program that would expand eligibility. Governor Tim Walz included the request in his revised budget plan released this week. 

In addition to the tuition program expansion, students also seek more funding for the American Indian Studies department and Native-led student groups.

“Having better support for us by providing Indigenous faculty members would really be helpful,” said Taryn Long, from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, adding many courses in the major are inactive.  

“It’s good to know that the American Indian Studies Department was the first of its kind in the nation and the Cities…is, like, very Native populated. That was comforting to come into,” student Laila Gourd said. “But then also to see on the other side of that, how poorly the university tries to support these students is also tough.” 

Feven Gerezgiher is a reporter and producer for MPR News. At MPR News, she works with a team focused on reporting with and for young adults. She started her journalism career in community radio, covering...