CMN students live their ancestors’ prayers

Ryan Winn

The Menominee word “sawāēnohtawāēw” translates to English as “gives hearing to his or her prayer.” The sentiment is one that College of Menominee Nation students and staff reflected on when they attended a gathering for Tribal College and University (TCU) personnel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The March conference celebrated the TCU movement through the mantra “Living Our Ancestors’ Prayers.”

CMN is one of 37 TCUs across Turtle Island dedicated to fostering exemplary scholarship that affirms Indigenous knowledge and culture. The schools are members of the 50-year-old organization known as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which was founded in 1973 by the presidents of the first six TCUs “to nurture a common vision” for tribal education. That vision includes hosting the annual AIHEC Student Conference, which drew over a thousand participants in its first gathering since 2019.

Referred to simply as AIHEC by attendees, the gathering enables students to compete against one another’s skills and knowledge in disciplines including archery, art, business, hand games, film, math, theater, traditional plants and writing. While the competition is intense, what the more than three-decade-old conference excels at is affirming the wisdom inherent in earning a post-secondary degree grounded in tribal wisdom.

This year, CMN sent four Menominee students to the event, along with two CMN faculty to serve as their coaches. Melissa Wescott won the coveted CMN Student of the Year award, earning the substance abuse counselor major both a scholarship for the following academic year and lauded recognition alongside her counterparts at other TCUs.

Dr. Lucy Fenzl, CMN’s dean of academic success and adjunct biology faculty, coached the school’s Science Bowl team. Comprised of biological and physical science majors Catishe Grignon, Shawn “Sonny” Pamonicutt and Nichole Verstoppen, CMN’s crew took seventh place in the trivia-based game that tested both students’ knowledge of STEM fields and the speed in which they answered each question.

Grignon also shared a scientific poster presentation about her work studying how the medicinal properties of the bacteria that grows on Menominee land are affected by changes in the seasons. Fenzl explained the catalyst for the research: “CMN is a member of Tiny Earth, which is a cohort run by UW-Madison. It is a crowd-sourcing, student-sourcing research initiative aimed at identifying soil bacteria for its antibiotic capability and connecting students and faculty in this initiative throughout the world.”

While Grignon’s work was rightfully lauded by the competition’s judges, she reserved her own praise for the conference itself.

“It was an amazing experience overall,” Grignon said. “It brought me back into who I am as an Indigenous person. Seeing and meeting so many other Indigenous people from all over Indian Country made my heart happy. It was inspiring to see so many other Native students sharing their knowledge and skills. For once in my life, I felt like I fit in.”

I had the privilege of coaching Pamonicutt and Verstoppen in the speech competition, where they took first place for both their humorous and serious “Duo Interpretation” scenes. The former enabled them to portray an awkward attempt at a powwow courtship, while the latter highlighted the ways in which Native Americans have fought back against colonization and its enduring impact on tribal sovereignty.

Pamonicutt stated: “The whole experience felt empowering. I loved being around so many Indigenous students while representing the College of Menominee Nation.”

Verstoppen added: “It has been a humbling experience. I have never felt more welcomed by so many like-minded people. In a short time, I formed so many amazing new friendships. The whole experience has taught me to be proud to be Indigenous!”

Although the joy the students shared was specific to them, Fenzl noted that the conference resonates because of the opportunities it offers students.

“I have been a part of the AIHEC conferences coaching the science students since I started at CMN in 2012,” Fenzl said. “It is an incredible way to showcase our students’ knowledge, skills and research while helping students to make important connections with other Indigenous students, faculty and other higher education institutions from around the United States.”

In 1856, the famed Chief Oshkosh addressed the Menominee tribal council contemplating Western civilization. He said: “I wish to pursue a course which will be the best for our children who will follow us.” He noted that this included his commitment to “send our children to school.”

In 1993, the Menominee Tribal Legislature created CMN, whose mission dictates that the school “infuses learning with American Indian culture and prepares students for leadership, careers, and advanced studies in a multicultural world.”

The Creator sawāēnohtawāēw and CMN’s students’ success at AIHEC is further proof that they’re living their ancestors’ prayers.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit for information about the school.