A pathbreaking scholar of Native American history, Professor Jean M. O’Brien continues to overturn conventional narratives that have written indigenous peoples out of existence. She’s authored numerous books and articles related to American Indian history and indigenous studies, co-founded the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and received two McKnight awards for Land-Grant and Distinguished University Professor. O’Brien, who joined the U in 1989, has been a leader in the Department of History and the Department of American Indian Studies, the oldest program of its kind in the United States.
What prompted your interest in Native American studies?
I’m a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. My mother and grandmothers grew up on the reservation, and I’ve spent lots of time there. I went to college at Bemidji State University, where I majored in history and social sciences and minored in Ojibwe.
How did the McKnight endowed positions contribute to your work?
The Land-Grant Professorship was fundamental to publishing my first book. It gave me time to research, travel to see archives, and write. The second position, awarded in 2015, supported research and writing for my latest book and other projects I’m working on, including editing a volume on allotment policies that divided communal tribal lands and placed them in individual ownership.
As a professor, what are you most proud of?
The undergraduate and graduate students in our program are amazing. We’ve graduated more than 60 doctoral students across a range of disciplines in the past 25 years. They teach throughout North America and are doing great things.