Joe Coulter, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, created the first curricular center for Native issues at the University of Iowa and established a program for Native Americans across the U.S. to receive in-state tuition at the university.
Richard C. Lewis
Tim Schoon

For nearly three decades, Joe Coulter has been an advocate for and educator about Native Americans at the University of Iowa.

Coulter has taught classes on health disparities and justice issues affecting Native Americans, helped establish the first academic center at Iowa focused on Native issues, created a program at Iowa that extended in-state tuition to eligible Native Americans, and expanded a summer initiative to share higher-education opportunities with Native Americans.

“I’ve always been aware that I’m part Native, and I care about Native issues,” Coulter says.

Coulter is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, a Native American tribe that eventually settled in Oklahoma after being bought out by the federal government of its ancestral lands in northern Indiana. He is 1/16 Potawatomi, his Native American roots coming from his father’s side of the family. (He also has Danish, English, French, and Irish ancestry.)

Coulter grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, living with his family at a former military airfield that his father managed as the university airport. He attended K–12 schools on the airport campus and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, from which he earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and a doctoral degree in biological psychology.

“I’d walk across the field to the University School, which was on the old military base,” Coulter recalls.

“It’s important to me to educate people about what kind of challenges there are, and also hopefully get people sensitive to health disparities that exist in the Native community, and what people can do about it.”

Joe Coulter
professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma

Coulter came to Iowa in 1985 as a professor and chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. In 1993, he joined the Office of the Provost as a coordinator and liaison for American Indians and Alaskan Natives, while remaining a professor. In 1999, Coulter assumed more responsibility when he was named associate provost for diversity and director of Opportunity at Iowa, a program to foster diversity at the university.

It was in that role that Coulter made his mark for Native Americans at Iowa. He helped create the Iowa First Nations Program, which provides resident tuition status for members of American Indian Tribes or Nations historically linked to the State of Iowa. The program has since expanded to include Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, and there are now 67 tribes across the U.S. whose members are eligible for in-state tuition at these schools.

Coulter helped establish the American Indian and Native Studies program, the first curricular hub for Native issues. The idea sprang up in conversations Coulter had with faculty in archaeology, history, and law, among other disciplines. Now called the Native American and Indigenous Studies program, students can earn undergraduate and master’s certificates.

Native American and Indigenous Studies

The Native American and Indigenous Studies program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is an interdisciplinary program that offers opportunities for all interested students to learn more about key Native American historical experiences and contemporary issues, within North America as well as other regions of the western hemisphere. 

“I started it in part because I’m part Indian, and I had the motivation and skill to get it organized and get it done,” Coulter says.

As associate provost, Coulter took the reins of the Iowa First Nations Summer Program, which provides Native American students the opportunity to live on campus and experience the university setting and its academics. Coulter added biological sciences classes to the weeklong session.

In 2004, Coulter left the provost’s office to become a professor and the associate dean for diversity in the College of Public Health. He created and taught a course called Health Disparities and Culturally Competent Care. He also has taught an environmental justice course and one on epigenetics that examines historical trauma inherited by offspring. One of the issues in that class is food deserts that exist at some Indian reservations.

“I try to convey to students the problems that especially people on big reservations have had with getting even clean water, much less decent food,” Coulter says. “On some reservations, the only place to get food sometimes is the truck stop.”

Coulter has been an emeritus professor since 2015, but he continues to give lectures, such as in the School of Social Work. His interest and passion for Native American issues remain near and dear.

“It’s important to me to educate people about what kind of challenges there are,” Coulter says, “and also hopefully get people sensitive to health disparities that exist in the Native community, and what people can do about it.”