CMN’s 30th year of restoring Native nations

Ryan Winn

When President Christopher Caldwell thinks about College of Menominee Nation’s 30th anniversary, he thinks about netāēnawemākanak. The Menominee word translates to English as “all my relations,” which he sees as a component of the “generational” nature of the college.

Caldwell explained: “This anniversary reminds us of the continual handing down to the next in line to lead. It reminds us to take time to pause, reflect, and learn from our stories.”

CMN’s story began when Virginia Nuske called founding President Dr. Verna Fowler. On behalf of the Menominee Tribal Legislature, Nuske asked Fowler to return to the reservation to establish the college. At the time, Fowler had aspirations of becoming a college professor, but she agreed to shelve those plans in order to serve her people.

Fowler is quoted in the March 12, 1993, edition of the Shawano Leader, explaining: “I began to think of the Menominee people, and what this would mean to all of us.” The article’s reporter, David Niles, captured that, in the speech at the college’s launch, Fowler “recalled the past struggles of the tribe, and how she believes education would help the tribe deal with those struggles and crisis.”

In that same story, Tribal Chairman Glen Miller stated that the creation of CMN would allow “the Menominee to strengthen themselves and contribute to the strengthening of American society.”

Thirty years later, CMN has graduated over 1,200 students while boasting an average class size of one faculty member for every four students. CMN students past and present represent 83 Native nations and 93% of the school’s alumni matriculated without incurring any debt. Its graduates serve in a variety of roles, contributing to the success of private businesses, public entities, and tribal nations.

Similarities to CMN’s founding are evident in its leadership today. Like Fowler, Caldwell imagined a different future prior to being called to lead the school. Caldwell said: “I grew up in the shadow of the sawmill. My intent was to be a forester, but you have to be prepared for leadership.”

Caldwell took the helm at CMN in February 2020. He reflected: “What I found when I came into this role was that the lessons of forest management applied to education. It’s a story of relationships. How we care for the forest and the people.

“Our elders said that if you take care of the forest, it will take care of you. At CMN, we say, if the college takes care of the students, the students will take care of the college.”

Applying the wisdom inherent in the mantra of Menominee sustainable forestry practices to education has proven essential to CMN’s success. The school’s top three leadership positions are all currently held by its alumni — President Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer Geraldine Sanapaw, and Chief Financial Officer George Otradovec.

Caldwell noted that this leadership team often thinks about their successors. He said: “We think it’s more than likely that the future leaders at CMN are walking our hallways today.”

Evidence of the leadership team’s premonition can be found in the CMN students who traveled to Washington, D.C. last month. They spoke to lawmakers on behalf of the 35 tribal colleges, sharing what CMN has meant to them and their future.

Oneida tribal member Rita Reiter is one such student. The business administration major stated that the experience was profound. She said: “CMN has provided me with more than I anticipated. I am empowered as a Native American, and the staff truly put me in a position to give back. Someday I hope to teach at College of Menominee Nation so that I too can be an example to our Indigenous people.”

Still, CMN is not resting on its laurels. Caldwell pointed out that the school’s charter called for it to “serve Menominee people — it doesn’t say to only educate those living on the reservation.”

“Relocation led to Menominee diaspora,” Caldwell explained about the 1950s federal policy. “We now have the ability for online classes and remote learning. We are reaching out to Menominee people. We are inviting other Indigenous people to ‘come learn with us,’ both physically and virtually. We want to create a physical pathway for those who want a long-term connection.”

Caldwell summarized: “When we focus on the 30th anniversary, we focus on the past while thinking about the future. It comes back to generational. We’re thinking about the sustainability of the institution and how we reflect Menominee values.”

To put it another way, CMN’s president sees the school’s most recent milestone as another opportunity to take stock on how it can best serve the people whom he calls netāēnawemākanak.

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school visit