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Ohio State history student John Bickers selected as one of 36 Ford Fellows nationwide

Bickers is one of few Indigenous scholars in Native American research

Since the 1980s, only six Ohio State University students have received a National Academy of Sciences/Ford Foundation doctoral dissertation completion fellowship. John Bickers is one of them.

Bickers, 30, who is pursuing a doctorate in history, has been selected a 2021-22 Ford Fellow.

Through its program of fellowships, the Ford Foundation seeks to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties by increasing their ethnic and racial diversity, maximize the educational benefits of diversity, and increase the number of professors who will foster diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students, according to the organization’s website.

Bickers is one of a small number of Native Americans across all disciplines and institutions to have received a Ford Fellowship in the history of the grant. He is an enrolled member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and writes on Miami history.

“The number of Native Americans who have PhDs in history alone is very small. And then the number of those who do work on Native history or do work on their own tribes is even smaller,” Bickers said. “If we don’t tell our own stories, somebody else is going to, and they may not always have the knowledge or the care that we do in crafting these narratives.”

Bickers’ dissertation, “Miami Nation: A Middle Path for Indigenous Nationhood,” explores how the Miami people responded to challenges following the American Revolution, including federal and state policies of dispossession and removal.

“My dissertation, at its core, is a political history of the Miami tribe of Oklahoma, which is a Native American nation of which I’m a citizen myself,” Bickers said. “It is an exploration of how we created a centralized national government in the early 1800s in the face of early American expansion into the Great Lakes region, and how that government changed and evolved over the 19th century until we ratified our first written constitution in 1939.”

Bickers’ research is unique in that there are few Native Americans who are conducting research into Native American history. A 2014 National Science Foundation study found that fewer than 1% of doctoral degrees in any field are awarded to Native Americans each year.

“One of the goals of my work is, I want the next generation of Indigenous people to have more than I had,” Bickers said, “that they can look to my work and say, ‘This was written by a Miami person. This is a Miami perspective on our past.’”

Bickers is one of only 36 Ford Fellows nationwide in the 2021-22 cohort, which demonstrates the competitiveness of the program and the significance of his research, said Ohio State Professor of History Margaret Newell, his adviser.

“This is a grant which thousands and thousands of people from all over the country apply for every year and only a handful are awarded this incredibly prestigious grant,” she said. “I think it’s a commentary on the originality and excellence and potential contributions of John’s research, as well as a statement about the need to encourage more Native Americans to pursue careers in academia.”

Bickers said he is still exploring his career options and is interviewing for jobs in academia and public history. Either way he plans to continue to document and amplify the history and experiences of Native Americans.

“I think it’s really important for Indigenous scholars like myself to get into these levels of academia, rise through the ranks, make sure that we’re in these rooms where the decisions are being made – not just for Native people, but in terms of the larger university, structuring classes and policies,” he said. “Because if we’re not there, no one is going to speak for us.”

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