Aaron Bird Bear

Tribal Relations Director

University Relations and Division of Extension | Tribal Relations

Hometown: Denver, CO

Aaron Bird Bear (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Diné, enrolled Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation) was appointed as the inaugural Tribal Relations Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2019, with dual appointments in the Office of University Relations and the Division of Extension. Bird Bear previously served as Assistant Dean for Student Diversity Programs in the UW-Madison School of Education. Bird Bear joined UW-Madison in 2000 to support the retention and graduation of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students at the university. In 2009, Bird Bear began supporting historically underrepresented students in the UW-Madison School of Education, and in 2012, Bird Bear began supporting the School’s efforts to integrate First Nations Studies into public PK–16 education, creating the educator resource Bird Bear is an alumnus of the Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis MS program at UW-Madison.


  • Despite previous periods of intense conflict and mistrust, the 21st century finds Wisconsin in possibly another “Middle Ground” similar to that of the western Great Lakes in the 1600s and 1700s. In fact, Wisconsin’s complicated history models the broad learning goals we hold for students today: working across difference and seriously taking the perspective of others. As defined, the middle ground requires relations in which whites could neither dictate to Indians nor ignore them and where there is an inability to achieve one’s ends through force. Interruptions of the middle ground are noted in the ethnic cleansing attempts against both the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi Nations in the 1800s. More recently, from 1987-1991, violent conflicts erupted on Wisconsin’s northern lakes between Ojibwe Nations exercising their right to spearfish and residents opposed to the tenets of tribal sovereignty, ultimately requiring assistance from the US National Guard to quell the Walleye War. Out of this difficult clash came state legislation in 1989 known by its nickname, Act 31. The collective group of statutes known as Act 31 mandate that both in-service and pre-service teachers receive instruction in the study of minority group relations and specifically, the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s American Indian tribes and bands. Unfunded at the time of passage twenty five years ago, Act 31 has never been widely implemented. Learning about diversity and becoming culturally-competent citizens in increasingly diverse communities and in an environment where Wisconsin Indian Nations are the largest employers in 10 (or 14%) of Wisconsin’s 72 counties is an economic imperative. Despite the historic reluctance of some educators and educational leaders to fully engage Act 31, moving towards “Confident and Capable” in fulfilling educational Act 31 may advance 21st century learning goals identified by leaders in both business and higher education: (a) civic knowledge and engagement, both local and globally; (b) intercultural knowledge and respect; and (c) critical thinking, ethical reasoning and action.

    Approximate Length of Talk: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • At the beginning of the 21st century, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is proud to claim more distinct archaeological sites here than on any other university campus in the country-maybe even in the world! As such, UW-Madison is re-conceptualizing how the entire campus landscape can serve as a classroom and can address learning goals for students. Aaron Bird Bear will discuss transformations of our place and of our landscape by visiting key mile posts along the journey from Dejope (Four Lakes) to Madison.

    Approximate Length of Talk: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • In using place-based experiential learning, we can explore the revolving relationship between Indians and non-Indians in the development of campus buildings and landmarks over time. We can examine and interrogate Indigenous landmarks created between 700 and 2500 years ago. In interpreting the significance of the landmarks, we can provide an overview of American Indian history leading us to a greater awareness of modern Indigenous nations and peoples.

    Approximate Length of Talk: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • This session will feature three student service coordinators who collectively hold over 25 years of experience serving minority students at UW-Madison. The presentation will discuss factors influencing the identity development for Native American students as they relate to campus racial climate. A brief introduction to contemporary race relations, the achievement gap, and mass incarceration rates in Wisconsin will set the context for stories regarding the well-being of Native American youth and young adults in Wisconsin schools. Racial and/or cultural identity remain important for any discussion on interventions since racial and/or cultural identity affects all areas of students’ lives in Wisconsin, particularly Native American students. With historical trauma embedded within each of the community histories within the last two generations via assimilation policies, the youth of tribal communities face similar and dissimilar issues as they negotiate PK-16 education.

    Approximate Length of Talk: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • We will examine how the University of Wisconsin-Madison shares its history with considerations for the complex outcomes for the American Indian people and nations of the Great Lakes. Following the 2004 archaeological investigation of the UW-Madison campus, in 2006, the University of Wisconsin-Madison began asserting, “You can find more distinct archaeological sites here than on any other university campus in the country–maybe even in the world!” Today, the university continues to explore how it can leverage this deep human story for student learning, including the Chancellor’s Convocation for new students, Campus and Visitor Relations public tours, and Dejope Residence Hall. Forty-three ancient archaeological sites have been identified on current or former university lands, and the campus and city of Madison exist in what was once the epicenter of the effigy mound building cultures of the upper Midwest.

    Approximate Length of Talk: 45 minutes to 1 hour