Editor’s Note: This is the first in a November series, “Storytellers: Indigenous Life in the Northwest”
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Joseph Bull is the new Dean of Engineering at Portland State University. He joined PSU after 22 years teaching at the college level — 16 years at the University of Michigan and another 6 at Tulane.
He said he was interested in dean positions “where I felt like I could really make a difference in terms of native community. And Portland has a large native community. My wife did part of her training at OHSU, so we were really familiar with the city and the area and we’re really excited.”
Dean Joseph Bull spoke with KOIN 6 News about his Native American heritage — the Delaware Tribe of Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Lenape — and why he is excited to be at PSU.
This is lightly edited for length and clarity.
“There are a lot of states back east, where historically there were a ton of native folks, but now there are none, no federally recognized tribes that are headquartered in those states, which is kind of remarkable. Whereas here it’s quite different. …
“I think in a place like Portland and Oregon, that’s clear to folks that we are still here. You know, you can go just about anywhere in the state and you see native folks.
“First off, I’ll say this is one of the, as far as I can tell, one of a few places where this type of work has sort of the critical mass of all the pieces that are needed to really move it forward. PSU historically, I think it’s done a lot. I think there’s a lot more we can do and a lot that we can do better.
“But the way I think about it is that native folks have so much traditional knowledge that is really relevant to the STEM disciplines. I’ll throw out an example from my time in New Orleans. So, you know, when I was there, I spent a lot of time connecting with local tribes and things. And before New Orleans was known as New Orleans, it was known as Bulbancha, which was place of other tongues and Choctaw because it was where people would go to trade. And I was at something and someone from one of the local tribes is like, you know, before the Europeans showed up, we came here, but we didn’t live here year round. And it was because we knew about hurricanes and flooding and all of those things, and the Europeans showed up and they built a city there.
“So that’s kind of a simple example, but same thing could be said for, you know, things like knowledge around wildfires, around fisheries, management around plants and foods.
“Also, the types of jobs that we do in STEM are things that are really relevant to native communities. So I think there’s a good reason to do those. And if you think about engineering solutions to big problems, having diverse teams is really important to get them to those solutions. So, you know, really trying to involve native folks and center native knowledge and the assets that native folks bring, but it’s also things that benefit everybody if we have these diverse teams and, you know, folks work together.
“I’ve met with a lot of the tribes when I showed up. I spent sort of first year meeting with folks and most of the nine tribes in Oregon have education departments and directors of education departments. They’ve been very gracious to meet with me and talk about their concerns and needs.
“I do see myself and the students at Portland State that many of them are first gen college students who are sort of figuring out their way who get a lot of value from the experience here.
“It’s so, so exciting to meet people and get to know them and to think about how to help them have the best experience they can here.
“I would add to that, you know, the types of things we do, it’s not enough to just recruit people where they have to be successful and we have to support them. And the support structures we build are things we should be doing anyway, and things that benefit everybody. So I really view it as a win for everyone, even though I do think the native aspect is really important to me, both personally and professionally.”