The idea was ordinary, but the execution was extraordinary.
As she normally would in a class about oral learning, Harvard University senior lecturer Ann Braude agreed when one of her Native American students suggested her mother give a guest lecture to the class.
"This was not like any previous family visit," Braude wrote. That's because her student's mother was also a college professor at the University of Montana and an accomplished scholar in her own right.
"Professor (Rosalyn) LaPier presented a polished and erudite lecture on Blackfeet religion, which students remarked on in their evaluations as one of the high points of the class,'' Braude said.
As a result of the lecture, Braude suggested LaPier seek a visiting post with the Women's Studies in Religion program at Harvard Divinity School, and the associate professor in environmental studies from UM earned the competitive selection.
The work LaPier did last school year at Harvard follows an earlier project she worked on with the Ivy League institution. She is also collaborating with Harvard's plans to observe the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages in Cambridge, Mass., in 2019 and 2020.
Thursday, LaPier will receive the George M. Dennison Presidential Faculty Award for Distinguished Accomplishment as part of UM's 125th year celebration and Charter Day awards ceremony, with Braude's letter among the nominations. (See box for other award recipients and more about Charter Day.)
The award recognizes a faculty member who has made distinguished accomplishments that have brought recognition to UM regionally and nationally.
After reviewing the list of earlier recipients, LaPier also said the award marks a milestone this year.
"I'm the first Native faculty to ever get one, so I'm pretty happy about that just to push forward the idea that we need more Native faculty," said LaPier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe.
For a long time, LaPier worked at the Piegan Institute on the Blackfeet Reservation, which aims to research, promote and preserve Native languages. The late founder and executive director, Darrell Kipp, had gone to Harvard and suggested LaPier's daughter do the same.
In her own work at Piegan, LaPier collaborated with a program that's part of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on a project with two graduate students who came to the Blackfeet Reservation for a report on the Blackfoot language.
The most recent collaboration came from a request an elder and Native language specialist made of LaPier. He had worked at the Blackfeet Community College and then the Piegan Institute, and LaPier joked that he "volun-told" her for a project.
The elder noticed that many young people didn't have much ethnobotany knowledge. If asked to name some of the plants that the Blackfeet had historically used for purification, many could list just one or two, maybe three, like sage, sweetgrass, and possibly sweet pine, a subalpine fir.
"You should make a list of all these plants we use for purification," LaPier said the elder told her.
She herself is a trained ethnobotanist who learned under her grandmother, and she first made a list of the ones she knew. She then talked with elders and added to the list, and she searched in archives and museums, mostly natural history museums, and added more names.
The list includes some 30 plants, fungi and other natural elements used for purification. At first, the project was just a part of the Piegan Institute's language revitalization. But LaPier saw that the work naturally merited a broader scope.
"Actually, all of these different plants, especially if they're used for purification, a lot of them have individual myths and legends that go with each single plant, and they also have different uses," LaPier said. "So not every single ceremony or ritual would use the exact same types of plants or fungi for purification."
LaPier thought a book on the topic could be of use not only to the community but to people who are interested in purification and purification rituals. She said the Blackfeet have some gendered ideas of religious practice and purity. So she spent her time at Harvard delving into that subject.
As she shares information and stories, LaPier said she's trying to balance her discussions between the science and ecosystem and religious understanding and practice. And she's learning about what information is appropriate for her to publicly share.
"I am a Blackfeet tribal member trying to figure out to what extent you share what information under what situations," LaPier said.
In another letter of recommendation, University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus Patricia Albers praised LaPier's research and publications, and she said she anticipates the work the UM faculty member did at Harvard involving plants and religion will be well received.
"Her research in this area promises to bring another highly acclaimed and award-winning book to fruition in the near future," Albers wrote.
LaPier is also a research associate for the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History. She's an organizer of the March for Science and a "committed and exceptional scholar and educator," Albers wrote.
"The University of Montana is incredibly fortunate to have a scholar of her caliber on its faculty, and even more so, to have a faculty person who can represent science, history, and Native scholarship to the public this fine institution serves both within and beyond the state of Montana."