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April Lindala of Marquette, the director of the Center for Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, is a Superior Woman. Lindala began working for NMU while still an undergraduate student and has built a solid university department honoring the Native America culture.
By Dale Hemmila
Sometimes the right person, in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff, is meant to happen.
Her current position is the culmination of a long line of service to NMU that began when she was a college student there, and her cultural awareness goes back to childhood. Both continue today, with Native American studies at NMU prospering during her tenure.
For Lindala, a native of Michigan’s lower peninsula, her career began as an offshoot of her love affair with broadcasting. Yes, broadcasting was the beginning, but far from the end.
While still an undergraduate student at NMU in the late 1980s, Lindala began working in promotions, community outreach and on-air fundraising at the university’s Public TV 13. She earned a bachelor’s degree in speech/communications, with a minor in Native American studies in 1997. She then spent two years as the university’s first-ever Native American admissions counselor, recruiting students from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Her personal interest and involvement in the Native American culture was driven by her family heritage. The daughter of a Syrian father and First Nations’ mother, Lindala studied both cultures, but it was the Grand River Six Nations (Ontario Reserve) heritage of her mother that had the most influence on her. A lot of it included traditional Native American dance.
“My mom’s culture has always been present in my life,” she explained. “While it wasn’t on my radar as something I could embrace for employment when I was in my early 20s, studying and being active in my mom’s culture has always been a part of my life much more so than my dad’s Arab culture. I think it was her influence. But I also believe it made both of my parents happy to see me dancing, to see me in my powwow outfit.”
And that dancing and powwow activity has been present in Lindala’s life, with her mother’s influence, since she was a child. She recalls dancing in powwows in places like Ann Arbor and Chicago and learning about song and dance from a tribal elder and his daughter in Detroit who taught her how to do fancy shawl dancing.
“My mom purchased albums of drum groups, and I would play them at home and practice dancing a few evenings a week as a little child,” Lindala said. “My mom was a talented seamstress, so she made dance outfits for me.”
That native culture continued beyond powwows.
“My mom signed me up for Title IV Indian education (a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education),” she said. “I remember attending evening classes with my mom to learn how to do beadwork. Once she learned how to bead, how to work with shells and other materials, she started adding to my dance regalia. She had a seriously good eye for color and high quality of work. I don’t think I realized that until I was much older and could appreciate the time involved in making dance regalia.”
Lindala said her interests in powwows fluctuated in her teens, but moving on to college helped her to re-engage and absorb more about her cultural heritage.
“I did meet other Native students at NMU,” she said. “Through meeting other Native students, I became more familiar with culture. I also met some local community members and started dancing at powwows again. I picked up beading again. In fact, I learned something new upon moving to the Upper Peninsula. As a child, I only knew of competition powwows. I had no idea there were alternatives. The U.P. communities however, host more traditional or honoring powwows (with) little to no element of contest. I traveled to the different communities in the U.P. to meet people and learn from them.”
She may not have recognized it at the time, but all of this was putting her on the path to having the right stuff at the right time.
Her career moved from recruiting Native American students to becoming the assistant director of diversity student services, to interim director of Native American studies. She was named the permanent director in 2007. Ever-the-student, along the way, she earned a master’s degree at NMU in English and a master’s degree of fine arts in English, as well.
But it has been her ability to successfully guide the Native American studies department that has been critical in moving the program forward.
“Our primary role is to advocate on behalf of the discipline, and faculty, and to support the students and alumni,” Lindala said.
But the program goes beyond the doors of the university campus.
“We (also) work with the tribal communities,” she said. “We need to work with the tribal communities to address their needs and assist if they ask.”
Some of that work involves the revitalization of the Anishinaabe language, sovereignty revitalization, and education related to the value of traditional, indigenous foods.
“We are measuring ourselves within the university system,” she said, “but also measuring whether we are meeting the needs of the tribal communities.”
By any measure, the on-campus program has thrived over the years. Lindala pointed out that there were originally nine courses when she began, compared to the 30 courses now offered. The program includes approximately 300 students per semester, with 15 to 16 majors and 32 minors, with the bulk of the majors focusing on environmental studies and sustainability.
And not all are Native American students.
“Culturally our program can serve as a bridge to non-native students,” Lindala said.
From the university’s standpoint and from Lindala’s, it is clear that her selection as permanent director in 2007 was not only a wise choice, but one that was the right person, right place, right stuff.
“At the time, I was fortunate to have a solid mentor with Dr. Donald Rybacki, the associate dean of the NMU College of Arts and Sciences — who was also a former professor of mine,” she said. “When the position for the center director was posted in late 2006, I had already been doing the work for some time. I applied and was invited to be interviewed as part of the national search process for the full-time center director. That gave me the opportunity to prove to myself, and to others, that I was competitive against other qualified candidates from around the United States. Was I in the right place at the right time? Yes. But I also proved that I had the right stuff to do the job well.”
So, what does the future hold for this trailblazing university administrator?
Lindala recently announced that she will be stepping down from the director’s position after this year. She plans to head back to the classroom to teach. And while she is an educator, she has never stopped educating herself. She is also working on her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Theory, and Culture at Michigan Technological University, which she hopes to complete by the spring of 2020.
“I love the camaraderie of the classroom, both as a student and as faculty,” she said.
Nonetheless, it will likely be a difficult transition to leave a program she has nurtured and grown for more than a decade.
“It’s like handing off a baby,” she said with a smile. “I might become a back seat driver, or end up sitting on my deck drinking coffee.
“(But) I’m looking forward to different responsibilities. I look forward to re-engaging with the content of the program and being engaged with students.”
Given her history and experience, it will be a huge gain for those in her classroom, who find themselves in the right place at the right time with the right instructor.