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The Impact of an Honors Course, Two Years Later: Professor Bell’s Fort Laramie Treaties Course

| Heather Fielding

One day in fall of 2018, Professor Robert Bell was reading discussion posts from the students in his honors course on the Fort Laramie Treaties, when he started to realize that something special was happening: his students were creating new knowledge before his eyes.

This interdisciplinary course gave students the opportunity to develop individual research projects investigating the afterlife of the Fort Laramie Treaties, which established reservations and forced assimilation of Sioux tribes in the Great Plains in the mid-nineteenth century. Alyssa Huelsbeck, then a sophomore, was getting interested in the invasive species that moved into the Great Plains following the extermination of the buffalo. After reading about her initial findings, Bell took her aside after class to say, “you need to look into this. I’ve never heard about this before.”

A few months later, Huelsbeck and fellow students Lindsey Boehm and Maggie Foltz were in the middle of what all three agree was the defining experience of their time at UWEC: their interdisciplinary roundtable presentation at the Western Social Science Association conference in San Diego in 2019. Boehm, Foltz, and Huelsbeck won funding from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to attend the conference.

In her presentation, Huelsbeck explored the ongoing ecological ramifications of the treaties, such as flooding on tribal land that followed the collapse of keystone animal populations. Foltz researched the continuing religious, spiritual, and emotional impact of the extermination of the buffalo on the Lakota. In this context, she analyzed recent reductions of the buffalo herd size in Yellowstone by white hunters without tribal consultation, and found that forced assimilation continues to be an issue to this day. Boehm focused on the continuing legal consequences of the treaties, particularly with respect to the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

Honors student researchers at the Western Social Science Association conference in San Diego in 2019
Honors student researchers at the Western Social Science Association conference in San Diego in 2019

Their presentations spurred great conversation with experts from around the country, and some of Professor Bell’s colleagues tried to recruit Boehm, a nursing major, to do a JD about federal Indian policy at their institution.

For Boehm, Foltz, and Huelsbeck, working with Professor Bell and attending this conference helped to set them on their paths toward future success. Boehm, future nurse, credits this experience with giving her the confidence to pursue research in her major—she is currently working as a research fellow with Dr. Lorraine Smith on a project that aims to preventing the use of vapes and electronic cigarettes among young people. Boehm began this research with Dr. Diane Marcyjanik, who passed away last year.

Foltz, a psychology major, had never taken a class related to American Indian Studies before, but she tells us, “I left this experience empowered knowing that I had put myself out of my comfort zone and allowed myself to grow and learn new things.” Huelsbeck, a biochemistry major and aspiring physician, hopes to use the experience and knowledge that she gained to be able to better serve Native American and other minority communities in her future work. Not only did this project give her experience presenting and discussing research in an academic setting, but it set her on a path for future discovery by connecting her own academic interests with new subjects through interdisciplinary inquiry.

Professor Bell’s Fort Laramie treaties course shows the power of honors pedagogy, which promotes interdisciplinary exploration and empowers students to drive their learning experience. Through honors, these students got involved in advanced research outside their majors, while taking courses as part of the university’s liberal education core.

Robert Bell himself exemplifies an interest in lifelong learning that cannot be contained by a single discipline. A recent alumnus of UWEC, Professor Bell earned BA degrees in history and American Indian Studies and an MA in history, following a 37-year career as a machinist. Since writing his thesis on the Sante Fe Indian Boarding School, he has become increasingly interested in the ramifications of treaties on indigenous people. In Spring 2021, Professor Bell will return to the Honors Program to teach a course on the Chippewa Treaty Reserve Rights. Learn more about his spring honors course here.