Will Antell, who gave voice to Indian education issues, will be honored Tuesday in Stillwater

17 July 2023

Will Antell is well known in the Stillwater area as a former teacher, coach and football referee, but many don’t know that he spent decades promoting education opportunities for American Indians.

Widely regarded as an authority on Indian education and desegregation, Antell, a member of the White Earth Band of Anishinaabe Indians, helped guide policy for American Indian education at the state and federal levels. Antell served as director of Indian Education for Minnesota and was founder and president of the National Indian Education Association. In 1972, Antell helped write the landmark Indian Education Act, which allowed American Indians to decide their own education for the first time.

Antell will be honored Tuesday by the Stillwater City Council. He will receive the Stillwater Human Rights Award, given annually to recognize those in the city who work to “build an environment that promotes fair and equal treatment for everyone.”

Antell, 87, formerly of Bayport, deserves to be recognized for the “groundbreaking work he did providing leadership to historic reform in state and federal Indian education policy to support students from preschool through doctorate programs and adult ed,” said Ann Wolff, who nominated Antell for the award.

“To read the extensive list of Will’s positions, accomplishments, connections and legislative actions is absolutely astounding,” she said. “On a deeper level, it’s his strength of character, strong Native values and hard work for human rights that I most admire.”

Antell moved to Stillwater in 1963 when he took a job as a teacher and coach at Stillwater Junior High School. He taught social studies, served as the school’s athletic director and coached football and basketball; he also was the coach of the varsity baseball team at Stillwater High School.

In 1968, Antell was hired as a human relations consultant to the Minnesota Department of Education. The next year, he joined the staff full time as director of Indian education — a job that led him to serve as a consultant to then-Sen. Walter Mondale.

The National Indian Education Association was formed in 1969 in the basement of Antell’s house on Pine Street in Stillwater. Antell served as the group’s president for the first three years.

“We started that because we didn’t have a voice anywhere,” Antell said. “We needed our own voice at the national level. We built that up, and it’s a very influential group today. It’s very active and works closely with Congress.”

The organization now has 6,300 members and represents American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students and their advocates.

Indian Education Act

In 1972, Antell helped write the landmark Indian Education Act, which for the first time gave Indians on reservations and in cities control over how they spend education dollars. The law is still in force today.

He later was appointed by Presidents Nixon and Ford to the National Advisory Committee on Indian Education, which he chaired for three years.

The creation of the committee was “very controversial,” Antell said. “The law required the president to appoint a committee, and Nixon didn’t like the law because it took away a lot of his authority. He didn’t want anyone telling him how to run his agencies, so they sued to get him to appoint this committee. He was forced to do it.”

Antell spent more than 40 years in public education, including 20 years in the Minnesota Department of Education. While at the department, he served nine years as the assistant commissioner of education. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree from Mankato State and a bachelor’s degree from Bemidji State University. He served six years as a trustee in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system from 2000 to 2006.

“My whole professional career, I have been working for people who have not had the same opportunities as others,” Antell told the Pioneer Press in 1998.

Howard Casmey, the state education commissioner from 1974 to 1981, said at that time: “I don’t know one person who has done more for the Native American people than Will Antell.”

Born on reservation, recruited for sports

The oldest of eight children, Antell was born on the White Earth reservation in 1935. His mother, Bernice Lena Fairbanks Antell, worked as a cook for various lumber companies, and the Antell family moved often. He attended many different elementary schools and lived with his great-grandmother in Beaulieu, Minn., when he was in second grade.

When Antell was 14, a recruiter looking for football players for the Mahnomen High School Indians asked him to play for the team. Antell, a three-sport athlete, agreed to move to Mahnomen and live above a local café.

When the coaches in Bagley heard that Will might be leaving, they came up with a better offer: Antell could move to Bagley and live in a remodeled athletic supply room at the high school. They arranged for him to get a couple of part-time jobs — one at the Bagley Medical Center, where he also stayed from time to time, and another at Lundmark’s Cafe, where all of his meals were free.

“I stayed in Bagley for four years,” he said. “They built a room for me right in the school. Ruth and Lowell Holmgren, the owners of Lundmark’s, were like my parents. They made sure that I got all my meals and were very, very supportive.”

Antell went to the University of North Dakota, where he played football and basketball for a year and then transferred to Bemidji State to play basketball. Within a few weeks of his arrival at Bemidji State, his mother died. She was 39.

“I had to quit the team,” he said. “There were all these little kids at home, and I had to go home every weekend and help. It was very difficult — trying to figure out what to do with all of them. They went to live with different relatives and friends. Eventually, I took two of my sisters after I got a teaching job.”

In an interview with the Pioneer Press in 1998, Antell said discrimination against Indians when he was growing up was “blatant and brutal.”

“If you went to town,” he said, “you heard a lot of comments about ‘typical dirty Indians.’ And I would wonder, `Why would you say I am dirty when my mother makes me wash and clean up?’

“There were also a lot of references to drunken Indians. You just heard nothing positive about being an Indian. There was a lot of razzing and war whoops. To get through it, you just endured. To overcome it, you had to be the toughest or the best in athletics. Academics didn’t make much difference.”

Indian team names

Former Stillwater teacher and coach Will Antell will be honored with the Stillwater Human Rights Award. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Antell is well known for his work with Concerned American Indian Parents, a group that was dedicated to getting schools to change their Indian team names. When the state Board of Education in 1988 passed a resolution urging all public schools in the state to remove all Indian mascots, emblems or symbols, Antell spoke in favor of it. He also talked extensively to school district officials around the state about the issue.

“When we took that on, there were more than 50 schools in the state that had Indian names or mascots,” he said. “We got to the point where there were just eight or 10 that refused to do anything.”

A new state law, which went into effect July 1, prohibits school districts from using a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian tribe, person, custom or tradition as the district’s mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name. The prohibition does not apply to schools located on reservations where at least 95 percent of students are American Indian. Schools can ask Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations and the Tribal Nations Education Committee for an exemption, but if any of those bodies denies the request, the exemption is denied, and the school must remove its mascot by September 2025.

“We were the pioneers on that,” Antell said. “I am very proud of what we did. The efforts of Minnesota carried over to other states and to collegiate and professional teams. There were many of them that changed their names. We had an impact.”

Stillwater Human Rights Award

The Stillwater City Council will present Will Antell with the Stillwater Human Rights Award at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Stillwater City Hall, 216 N. Fourth St., Stillwater.

The presentation will be followed by a reception at the Lowell Inn Event Center, 102 N. Second St., Stillwater, hosted by Trinity Lutheran Church’s Racial Justice Ministry Team.

For more information, contact Ann Wolff at [email protected] or 651-260-3855.

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