UW DDEEA’s Laura Hiebing Supports Indigenous Students on Campus: Community and Support


UW DDEEA’s Laura Hiebing Supports Indigenous Students on Campus


By Jonathan Gramling

Laura Hiebing, of Métis heritage, is a lifelong resident of Madison. She is adopted, but her adoptive dad did everything in his power to connect her to her Native heritage. Yet that scratched the surface in terms of Hiebing knowing her heritage even if everyone else expected her to.

“I think the most common one that Native students face — speaking for myself and what I have observed with other students — is the tokenism, speaking for all Native people, being asked to speak on anything that comes up related to Indigenous people, being seen as some kind of expert even though you’re just a student, just yourself,” Hiebing said. “You’re just trying to go to your classes and do what every other student is doing, that idea that you speak for the whole community. That wasn’t as much as my experience at UW-Madison as I have heard it is for some other students. But I have experienced that in the Madison school system my entire life, not just at UW-Madison. I remember that happening to me in first and second grade.”

It wasn’t until Hiebing came to UW-Madison — she attained her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Madison — that she became immersed in her heritage.

“I started taking courses in American Indian Studies and meeting more staff and faculty and finding out that there was a community there that I started finding more meaningful opportunities again to revisit that part of my identity and learning more,” Hiebing said. “That got me really interested in working with the Native community. I didn’t know what I wanted to do originally. I thought about a few different majors and really nothing resonated. I finally landed on social work while at the same time I was taking courses in American Indian Studies and getting more involved with the community. I did my first year master’s placement at the Ho-Chunk House of Wellness up in Baraboo. And then my second year’s master’s placement, I had employment with the school district with the Title VII program for Native American students. By that time, I really knew I wanted to work with Native students in education.”

And now, through a newly-created position within the UW-Madison Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, Hiebing has a relatively large mandate to work with any Native student regardless of where they fit into the university.

Being a Native student on campus is complex.

“I don’t know the exact number of tribes represented on the UW-Madison campus, but 40-50 sounds accurate,” Hiebing said. “Very often, we make references to Native American culture as a singular. And that just isn’t something that exists. There are 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. and 12 in Wisconsin. Even those that are culturally related in some way are all different.

There is no such thing as Native American culture. Each tribe is distinct in its culture. They are unique political entities. They are sovereign nations. They have their own history and own contemporary realities. Each tribe is distinct from the next. Despite those differences, there are commonalities in terms of the experiences Indigenous people have faced as a product of colonialism. With contemporary issues, there are some pan-Indigenous aspects to culture that people have created community around and share culture. It is very easy for Indigenous people to create community together. I think Indigenous people inherently understand that we are different from each other. But we generally connect with each other on some of these things that we have in common.”

While Hiebing is based in the Middleton Building, which also houses the UW PEOPLE Program, she spends one day a week at the Native American Student Cultural Center on N. Brooks Street. While it has been a challenge, Hiebing and others have been trying to help create community in spite of the pandemic restrictions.

“I am trying to do weekly study breaks at the American Indian Student Cultural Center,” Hiebing said. “That’s an informal way for students to stop by to have a break in between classes and have somewhere to go and hang out. They can come and spend time at the house. We have different crafts and coloring and activities. They can just come and talk to other students and meet students and hang out. They can meet with me. They can do drop-in advising if they need a more formal advising type of appointment. It’s really just a time in the middle of the week for students to stop by and make it whatever they need it to be. That’s been pretty safe and students feel comfortable with that because the American Indian Student Cultural Center is fairly large given the number of students who stop by on any given day. There is space for social distancing.”

Hiebing is also tied into the academic coaching and tutoring services through DDEEA.

“That is really the great aspect of my position being in that department,” Hiebing said. “Students I advise can get free coaching and tutoring services, which is really critical, but also not the end of what type of services students need on campus. I want Native students to know that there truly is a community of support, whether they have found it or not, whether they are hesitant to reach out for any reason. There are truly a lot of people besides me, so many staff and faculty on campus, who want to see them succeed and are here to support them.”

While it is important that the students have academic support and a supportive community, the campus climate must also become more hospitable for Indigenous students. One important thing is to just let Native students be college students.

“I encourage anyone to start looking at the history of campus and campus’ interaction with Native Nations, starting with looking into what land grant universities are in the Morell-Hill Act and looking at our shared futures website,” Hiebing said. “There are a lot of great resources on there that people can start educating themselves with. There are a lot people on campus doing the work to provide all of these great resources — but stop relying on the Indigenous staff and faculty on campus to educate you — is out there for people to find. There is a wealth of information if you want to learn more about Indigenous people and learn the real history.”

While UW-Madison has taken steps to create a more inclusive climate, Hiebing is concerned the measures may only end up being ‘skin deep.’

“A prime example of this is the plaque, the Our Shared Future plaque on Bascom that was created between UW-Madison faculty and the Ho-Chunk Nation to speak to that history UW has with the Ho-Chunk Nation,” Hiebing said. “It’s a wonderful statement in terms of education for the broader community. People have picked that statement up as a land acknowledgment. And there is a misconception around campus that the statement on that plaque is our university’s formal land acknowledgment. And it is not. It’s just intended to be a plaque for people to recognize that history and start reflecting on it. But it is really getting frustrating for myself and other Indigenous people on campus to hear that statement repeated over and over in so many settings. ‘Now we are going to open today starting with acknowledging the land we are on. This is the history …’ It seems that people are checking a box, just leaving it there. ‘Okay we did the “land acknowledgment.” We’ve acknowledged Indigenous people. We’ve acknowledged the Ho-Chunk Nation. We’ve’ acknowledged the land.’ And there is no further action after that.”

There is so much left to do.

Indigenous students wishing to connect to campus resources and support for Indigenous students can visit https://actsddeea.wisc.edu/indigenous-student-services/. For more information about the Indigenous community and their history, visit https://oursharedfuture.wisc.edu/ for more academic resources