Indigenous Representations at Carleton and the Arb

By Ren Manuel, Nadine Musa, Jake Oberg, and Hannah Scooler

Table of Contents


This year, our class visited a part of the Arb that was once a Native American walking trail. This raised many questions for us about the way that Carleton represents its indigenous history now, and how the college represented its indigenous history in the past. As a group, we wanted to investigate three research questions:

How has Carleton represented its indigenous history in the past? How does it represent its indigenous history today?

How can we work on improving indigenous representation and inclusion on campus? 

How can we bring indigenous practices of land stewardship and responsibility into the Arb?

In order to answer these questions, we consulted a multitude of different sources such as the Carleton Library Archives, Carleton’s old course catalogs, and many online/written sources about the indigenous experience in Minnesota. We also conducted several interviews with community members to learn more about indigenous representation at Carleton.

Native American Origins in the Area

Originally, the indigenous peoples primarily located in the Northfield area were members of the Dakota Nation. Sue Garwood of the Rice County Historical Society indicated in a City Council Summary Report that the Dakota “never used the Northfield area for long-term living.” However, the importance of the area for Native Americans can be seen in the presence of a walking trail, as outlined by Jensen and Umbanhowar. This trail is currently within the confines of the Cowling Arboretum, and is still visible, although this information is not known by most students. Further, we know that Native Americans carefully maintained the land from European accounts, using fire to alter and preserve the prairie landscape.

However, while we know the Dakota people inhabited the land we now know as the Arb, they were long gone by the time the Arb came to Carleton’s possession. Around the early 20th century, Carleton’s president Donald J. Cowling acquired the Arb by purchasing it from various people who had bought the land from the United States government, including the Parr Family who owned the Olin Farm. This is why it is now called the Cowling Arboretum. Many were skeptical of Cowling’s decision to purchase the land. It seemed frivolous at the time, as the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. But ultimately purchasing the Arb supplied Carleton with its most loved feature. Pictured below is the actual certificate signed by President at that time, James Buchanan, indicating that Thomas H. Olin purchased the farm site from the US government in 1857. This shows, that while it was possible that few indigenous people still lived in modern-day Northfield when the Arb was purchased, it is important to note, that not a single Dakota person was involved in the selling of their land.

Certificate showing Thomas H. Olin’s purchase of the Olin farm from the Federal Government
Map of the Native American Walking Trail in the Arboretum, Jensen and Umbanhowar, 1998

Indigenous Representations at Carleton

The most obvious indicator of the lack of representation of indigenous peoples is that the Carleton timeline on the official website does not include any mention of Native students/events, let alone of indigenous history in the area. There is an official land acknowledgment, shared by Carleton, Northfield, and St Olaf College.

“We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who’ve stewarded the land through the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.”

Carleton Land Acknowledgement

As mentioned before, it is unclear how much honest storytelling is occurring, due to the lack of clarity around the dubious acquisition of land by Carleton and the overall lack of acknowledgment of Native American origins. Further, though this appears to be a comprehensive and respectful land acknowledgment, it is unclear if there was any input from Native American communities in its construction. Another potentially problematic factor is that this land acknowledgment was written by a St Olaf professor with a specialty in African American literature and drama, which is decidedly different from a professor with a specialty in Native American history and studies. This consideration must be taken into account when discussing Native American representations at Carleton.

In the Arboretum more specifically, there have been a few guides that talk about the indigenous history of the Arb. These have generally come from Environmental Studies students’ comps projects in 2007 and 2017. However, the focus was either on the Arb as a whole with a brief mention of the history or on ethnobotany which somewhat covered the history but did not make it the main focus. The 2017 project centered around the types of plants that were used by local Native American peoples and how they were used. It also discussed ways in which to transmit this knowledge to Carleton and the local community as a whole as a way to increase interest in and connection to the local environment. Since comps projects are rarely used as official guides, this important information is still lacking as a way of representing the Native history of the Arb. However, it is accessible and printable online.

Thinking about courses at Carleton and ways of educating students about Native American history, the first course mentioning Native Americans was in 1935, almost 70 years after the founding of the college. This class was an anthropology class titled “Social Origins and Interactions of Cultures”, said to focus on social institutions through “a study of their origins in primitive life… studies of progress made by African and American Indian groups”. The use of the word “primitive” highlights the obvious biases that would have been prevalent in this class. The first class exclusively about Native Americans was in 1973, titled “People and Cultures of Native Americans”, though this is a very broad scope. It was not until 1991 that a course specifically about the Lakota was introduced with the course “Native American Religions”, which had an emphasis on “the spiritual traditions of the Lakota people”. Currently, we have many more classes centering on Native American history and culture, especially with the introduction of Meredith McCoy to the faculty.

Professor Meredith McCoy on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2021

Another positive change to indigenous representations at Carleton came over the 2020-21 school year, in which a group of indigenous and non-indigenous faculty, students, and staff convened a working group called “Building and Sustaining Relationships with Indigenous Communities”. The presence of this group is a good start to improving the representations and interactions with indigenous groups on campus, though the problems mentioned above are also indicative of improvements that could be made in the future.

Olin Farm Site and Indigenous Representations

Maisel’s Indian Trading Post tag found at the Olin Farm

We did not find any specific artifacts directly from local indigenous cultures at the Olin Farm site. While disappointing it is important to realize the lack of artifacts still provides us with useful information. It highlights how the Dakota had been systematically removed from the land that is rightfully theirs. This helps give context to why is so difficult to properly trace the Dakota in Northfield.

However, while we did not find any Dakota artifacts, we did discover a metal tag that had an engraving with the words Maisel’s Indian Trading Post on it. Maisel’s Indian Trading Post was a business in Albuquerque from 1939 to 2019 that sold Pueblo and Navajo art and goods and, according to the National Park Service that at one point employed more than 300 Native American artists. The business was placed on Route 66 as a souvenir shop, which does have some problematic issues with the commodification and commercialization of indigenous culture.

Student and Faculty Input

In order to gain more insight into the history of indigenous representation at Carleton, our group conducted interviews with several community members.

Nancy Braker (’81), the Arboretum Director, has been maintaining the 800 acres of land that we call the Cowling Arboretum since 2007. She has a great responsibility in educating students and faculty about conservation and sustainability in the Arb. Part of her job involves reintroducing lost native species and returning the landscape to what it was before Europeans. The Arb now holds controlled burns on the landscape because Native Americans used to hold controlled burns as well to manage the landscape and maintain it as a prairie. As the college builds trust with the Prairie Island Indian Community—a Native American reservation in Southeastern Minnesota—Nancy hopes that we will be able to learn more about ways to incorporate indigenous stewardship practices into the way that we manage the Arboretum landscape.

Meredith McCoy is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at Carleton. Since she came to teach at Carleton in 2019, she has been the college’s only indigenous faculty member (out of 270 other full-time faculty). Meredith is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians. When she first arrived at Carleton, she noticed a lot of misinformation floating around about Rice County as an indigenous space. She heard people say that “Native people never lived in Rice County since it was not visible on the archaeological record,” or that the county “was a trade route but not a homeplace” or even that “since Carleton was gifted the land, they were not implicit in the stealing of the land from indigenous peoples.” She started doing her own research and talking to local Dakota peoples from Shakopee and Prairie Island about the history of the land and confirmed that Rice County is unquestionably a Dakota space. Carleton has had much difficulty in representing its indigenous history, and Meredith points to Monument Hill (in the Upper Arboretum) as a glaring example of misrepresentation—there is one monument there indicating that the “first” religious ceremony held on the ground was in the 1880s. This monument clearly ignores 12000 years of Dakota religious ceremonies, which is very concerning. Meredith mentioned a quote from a Tulalip psychologist, Stephanie Fryberg, who believes that “invisibility is the contemporary form of racism against Native peoples.” The most important thing that Carleton College and the city of Northfield can do is make active attempts to make indigenous people feel visible. Meredith believes that the religious space in the Arboretum and the new signage are helpful first steps in increasing this visibility, but there is still much more work that needs to be done—and it needs to be dictated by Native Dakota peoples.

Saheli Patel (’25) is Ojibwe and a member of the Indigenous People’s Alliance at Carleton. She has found Carleton’s treatment of Native peoples subpar at best. Saheli admitted to not knowing much about the indigenous history of Rice County specifically, but she does know that it is Dakota land. So far, she has noticed that most of Carleton’s efforts towards indigenous representation have felt pretty performative. Indigenous students asked to have their own religious space in the Arb almost two years ago, and it is only just now starting to come to fruition. The Indigenous People’s Alliance also demanded the Indigenous Communities Liaison position a while ago, and only as of May 26th, 2022 did the College finally create this position. Saheli talked about how the Indigenous Communities’ Liaison is focused on building relationships with outside tribes, aiding in the recruitment of Native students, and teaching faculty how to properly represent indigenous history, which are all important responsibilities, but she wishes there was more support for indigenous students at Carleton—a responsibility she feels is all too often left to Meredith McCoy. However, this position will hopefully help make some change in the way that Carleton represents its Native students, especially in the classroom. Even now, Saheli still struggles with professors who refer to indigenous people in the past tense, ignoring that indigenous culture and traditions are still present today. Saheli also mentioned that Carleton will be including a new Native cultural house in its upcoming building project, although this project will take about eight years to complete. The Indigenous People’s Alliance has requested a Native architect for this project, but the college has yet to comply. Saheli believes that a good time to clear up misconceptions about indigenous peoples would be during the New Student Week presentations. Many people come to Carleton not knowing much about Native history, and New Student Week would be an opportunity for everyone to be educated on Native culture in a positive way and to learn how it is represented today. Saheli ended her statement with “If you’re going to live on Dakota land, you should know something about Dakota people,” and recommended the book Ojibwe in Minnesota by Anton Treuer as an informative read.

The Importance of Representation

Some may question the need for more indigenous representation at Carleton and in the Arboretum. The answer to this can primarily be seen through a moral lens and the importance of equitable and unbiased history. First, including accurate information about indigenous peoples is important to prevent ignorance and racism. Many Native students mention facing constant microaggressions in classroom settings, which would be easily preventable with more accessible and prioritized education about diversity and inclusion. Native students should not have to worry about the burden of correcting and educating others in higher education, as this should be the onus of the institution. Further, representation is important in higher education in order to have more diverse student bodies that better correlate to the demographic of the United States. Currently, Native students make up less than 1% of students in higher education nationally, and only 0.5% of university faculty are indigenous. More specifically, Carleton College employs one indigenous faculty member, making its own percentage of indigenous faculty only 0.4%. This is lower than their corresponding percentage of the United States population, especially considering the constant and unjustified atrocities that have been committed against tribes through colonial history. Fighting to improve the representations of indigenous peoples and their histories at Carleton is a way to introduce more equitable practices for the future.

Future Steps

In 1887, the first known indigenous student George Kidapisidus “Yellow Bull” Bassett attended Carleton at the Academy level. However, Harold G. Rainwater, class of 1941, is likely the first student of Indigenous ancestry to actually graduate from the college. Nearly a century later, dozens of Native students have called Carleton their alma mater. It is safe to say that the current Carleton is a significantly different school than the Carleton George and Harold attended. With the creation of the Indigenous studies program in the 90s and the nascent Elder-in-Residence program this year, it is clear that the college has made strides in making Native students a priority over the years. That being said there is still a lot left to be done. And a lot of it starts with properly honoring who the land belonged to long before Carleton was even an idea. The Arb is a perfect place to do that.

The Arboretum has been open to the public for many years and is an integral part of not just the Carleton community but the wider Northfield community as well. This makes it difficult to restrict access and/or change the stewardship practices that we use in the space. Carleton College is working on building a relationship with the Prairie Island Indian Community—a Native American reservation in Southeastern Minnesota. Hopefully, we can learn from them about how to be better stewards of the land that we currently inhabit. The Arb Staff is presently working on creating more informative signage that acknowledges the native history of the Arb, especially the history of the Native American walking trail along the Cannon River. In future years, the college hopes to create a space in the Arb for indigenous students’ religious practices and ceremonies. The Arb Staff is also working on creating an opportunity for community members to forage in the Arb for medicinal/edible plants, and opening up the annual Archery Deer Hunt to the members of the Prairie Island Indian Community.


The indigenous history of Carleton and of Rice County has long been misrepresented, and it is time for that to change. Carleton has made the first steps towards change recently, with the Land Acknowledgement and the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but there is still much more work that needs to be done. We hope that our project will have positive, lasting effects on this community and help to increase the visibility of our Native community members.


Founding Carleton: 

“Timeline: 1866-1891.” Laurence McKinley Gould Library, Carleton College,

“Carleton’s Beginnings.” Our History, Carleton College,  

The land before Carleton: 

 “A Brief Overview of the History of the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum.” History of the Arb: Cowling Arboretum, Carleton College,

“Dakota Ethnobotany in the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum.”

Jensen, Paul and Charles Umbanhowar. “The Indian Pathway through the Carleton Arboretum.” 1998.

Why this project is important: 

Hardy-Mittell, Greta. “’We’re still here’: Indigenous organizing at Carleton.” News: The Latest From North College Street, Carleton College, 7 June 2021,

Native History in Minnesota (Cannon River)

Kallestad, Beth. “Signs of Progress: The State of The Cannon and Straight Rivers.” Cannon River Watershed Partnership, 2011. Accessed 7 May 2022.

“Why Treaties Matter.” Why Treaties Matter. Accessed 7 May 2022. 

Native History as it is acknowledged in Northfield and at Carleton

“Recognizing the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day.” Gould Library, 2 October 2018. Accessed 7 May 2022. 

“Land Acknowledgment.” Carleton College. 9 June 2021. . Accessed 7 May 2022. 

“Gwen Westerman Talk.” Carleton College, uploaded by Madeline Parr, 7 October 2021. Accessed 7 May 2022.

First Occurrence of Carleton Classes on Native Americans:

            Carleton College. Registrar’s Office Academic Catalog 1973-1974

             Carleton College. Registrar’s Office Academic Catalog 1991-1992

Native American Representation in the Arb Archives:

             Hatch, Gina Ross, Molly Vought, Morgan Cultural Inclusion in Arboretum Restoration

            Luterra, Mark. The Carleton College Cowling Arboretum: An Interpretive Guide

                Hatch, Gina Ross, Molly Vought, Morgan Dakota Ethnobotany in the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum

Importance of Representing Native American Voices 

Keene, Adrienne. “Representations Matter: Serving Native Students in Higher Education.” Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015.

Articles by Native American Authors: Assorted Authors. “Independent Voices: Native American.” JSTOR. 

Lack of representation of indigenous history in the Northfield Historical Society website: “Home Page.” Northfield Historical Society, 2 May 2022,

Acquisition of Land 

Federal Documents on Minnesota territory: “Territorial Papers of the United States.” NewsBank InfoWeb, 

Olin Farm

“Maisel’s Indian Trading Post: Albuquerque, New Mexico,”,