By Lethbridge Herald on December 28, 2018.
An Aboriginal education leader from southern Alberta is being honoured across Canada.
Leroy Little Bear, a founding member of the nation’s first university-based Native American Studies program, has been named to the Order of Canada.
Now serving as a special adviser to the president of the University of Lethbridge, Little Bear has earned recognition as an international scholar and a speaker, as well as a pioneer in advancing post-secondary education for First Nations students.
His latest honour, announced in Ottawa, follows an Alberta Order of Excellence citation, a “Key to the City” presentation by Lethbridge City Council, and honourary degrees from the U of L and the University of Northern B.C.
Little Bear was also named “Distinguished Alumnus of the Year” by the U of L’s alumni association in 2003 and was presented the U of L Speaker Research Award in 2017.
In 2003, he also received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Education.
In an interview, Little Bear recalls starting classes at U of L in January 1968 — in just the second semester at the new university.
Recognizing the need to attract Aboriginal students, the university president asked Little Bear how to proceed. Working with founding professors, Little Bear helped lay plans for the Native American Studies department, launched officially in 1975.
After completing his undergraduate studies at the U of L and earning a law degree in the U.S., Little Bear returned to Lethbridge to become a founding member of the new department.
“Little Bear breathed life into Aboriginal scholars by developing ethical, respectful and rigorous Aboriginal programs,” university officials say.
After serving many years as a researcher, faculty member and department head, he retired officially in 1997 — but continued his work as an advocate for First Nations education. Leaving briefly to the U.S., he served as director of the Native American Studies program at Harvard.
Then Little Bear returned to the U of L to help create its Bachelor of Management in First Nations Governance program — another first in Canada.
“I still serve on several committees,” he says, as well as taking part in many special events on campus.
He remains a role model and mentor to countless First Nations, Inuit and Metis students who have made the U of L their university of choice. But the situation today is very different than when Little Bear attended his first classes.
“That has been one of the biggest accomplishments that the Native American Studies department has had.”
Today, Little Bear points out, the number of non-native students taking NAS courses exceeds their Aboriginal enrolment. And that increases awareness not just within the student body, but among the general public.
“Truth and reconciliation is something that the U of L has been doing long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Always open to a new challenge, Little Bear and his wife Amethyst First Rider were successful in bring about a Buffalo Treaty among First Nations on both sides of the U.S. border. Now they’re excited to see the buffalo that were re-introduced in Banff National Park have been set free to find their own habitat.
Little Bear says he’s looking forward to more buffalo restoration work in the coming year. Their once-mighty herds were the basis of Blackfoot stories, songs and legends, he points out.
Seeing them return to some of their original territory is a sign of progress, as First Nations across the plains work to recover some of their lost traditions and knowledge.
“Buffalo were our keystone animal.”
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