Growing up on the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux reservation, Wayne Stein hated high school.

If it weren’t for a promise he made to his mother, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribal member, who worked her whole life as a waitress and maid, he would never have tried college. But Stein started classes at Northern Montana College in Havre, and it changed his life.

“I fell in love with higher education,” he said.

That was the spark that led Stein to become not only a professor of Native American studies at Montana State University, but also the department head during a key period of expansion. Now after 24 years at MSU, he is preparing to retire.

Stein, 62, will be recognized with an honor dance at this week’s American Indian Council Pow-wow. The 38th annual event, free and open to the public, will be held Friday and Saturday at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

Graduate student Ronald LodgePole, American Indian Council co-president, said Stein has been a “very good role model” and “really steadfast in American Indian education.”

Stein is “kind of like the grandfather or father of our program,” said Walter Fleming, current Native American studies department head. He said MSU’s native enrollment has grown to about 575 Indian students.

Back in 1970, there were only about 35 Indian students, Stein said, when he transferred as a college student from Havre to the Bozeman campus to study filmmaking. There was no such thing as a Native American studies department – a new idea just starting in places like California.

He recalled sitting in the Strand Union Building one day when a couple of Indian students, wearing big black “reservation” hats with flat brims and feathers, invited him to join the Indian student club.

“I really enjoyed it,” Stein said. “By the time I graduated in ’73, I was hooked. Fascinated.”

He realized education had been used as a “blunt tool to hammer Indian people” for decades in America, but now “education could be a tool Indian people could use to change their circumstances.”

After earning a master’s degree in Pennsylvania, teaching in Arizona and the Dakotas and serving as president of Sitting Bull College, he earned a doctorate in higher education at Washington State University. His mother came to his doctoral graduation; his dad, a German farm boy, had died when he was just 4 years old.

Fleming persuaded Stein to come to MSU in 1989, despite the low pay, to teach and work with tribal colleges. Today Stein is happy he did.

“The best thing that ever happened to Native American studies was (former MSU President) Bill Tietz,” Stein said. Other MSU presidents have been friends to Native American studies, but Tietz had a real passion for Indian education, Stein said. When budgets were being cut, Tietz protected the fledgling department.

Tietz was also charging hard to make MSU a scientific research university. Stein said Native American studies showed other campus departments – virtually all headed by older, white male professors – that “money follows Indian students.”

If a science or engineering department competing for a federal research grant would include Indian students in the project, he said, its chances of winning the grant seemed to double, because federal agencies were trying to boost women and minorities in research.

Stein recalled one math professor, Lyle Anderson, reached out to help Indian students and created a new program called AIM, American Indians in Math. So Stein and his colleagues went searching for at least one professor in each department who wanted to help Indian students. MSU programs for Indian students expanded from three to 34.

Stein worked for 10 years to raise money for an endowed chair in Native American studies. Native American studies also worked to win Board of Regents approval to offer a master’s degree, and in 2003 it won a status upgrade from a center to a department. Today its graduates go all over the country, working as teachers, filmmakers, doctors, museum curators and business people.

Stein said he’s proud of the growth of Native American studies. “We couldn’t have done it without our non-Indian friends,” he said.

With his wife, Colleen, Stein has three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Having attended the first MSU Pow-wow back in the 1970s, Stein said he’s seen the event grow five-fold into a “really magnificent social event … for Indian people and non-Indian friends.” He gave credit for the pow-wow’s growth to Jim Burns, former longtime MSU Indian student adviser, who will also be honored at the event.

It may be the largest free pow-wow and is certainly one of the best on any university campus, Stein said.

On Wednesday night, John Bozeman’s Bistro downtown held an event with dancers, drummers and Indian tacos as a “kick off” for the weekend pow-wow.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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