Celebrating 25 years of collaboration

An 1838 map of the Oregon Territory.

Washington State University will commemorate its landmark cooperation agreement with regional Native American Tribes and Nations next week with a series of events on the Pullman campus.

In 1997, WSU signed a memorandum of understanding with six Tribes, setting the table for a new era of cooperation and consultation. Among the goals was to improve the university’s efforts to provide educational services to Native American populations, and to better promote understanding of Native American issues.

Those efforts continue to this day, with Native and university leaders eyeing a future where Native voices are more prominent, where more Native students call themselves Cougs, and where indigenous histories and cultures are better considered in the process of conducting world-class research. 

 “Washington State University campuses are deeply rooted in the lands of Native peoples, and it is vital that we not only acknowledge that fact, but work hard to continue to cultivate meaningful partnerships with and fulfill education obligations for the living descendants of these Tribes,” Zoe Higheagle Strong, vice provost for Native American relations and programs and Tribal liaison to the university president, said.

Building bridges

Six Tribes initially signed WSU’s initial memorandum of understanding in 1997: 

  • The Coeur d’Alene Tribe
  • The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation  
  • The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
  • The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
  • The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho 
  • The Nez Perce Tribe

By 2016, six more Tribes and Nations had signed the agreement:

  • The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon
  • Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
  • Cowlitz Indian Tribe
  • Kalispel Tribe of Indians
  • Spokane Tribe of Indians
  • Quinault Indian Nation,

And on Sept. 6, 2022, the Swinomish Tribal Senate voted to sign the MOU with WSU and will become the 13th signatory Tribe.  Mike Iyall personally drove to Pullman to sign the MOU as the representative of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in 2002. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe had to finish its 150-year chase to be federally recognized prior to signing the agreement with WSU. That fact didn’t keep Iyall’s son David, a student at WSU Pullman from signing the original agreement in 1997 as the President of WSU’s Native American Alliance.  

A belief in the positive ripple effect that graduates have on their communities prompted Mike Iyall to make the trip two decades ago and has stayed with him and compelled him to continue to work toward that effort in the years since.

“Having WSU not only accept Native students but offer them scholarships validates them and their life decisions to that point,” Iyall said. “It tells people in their community that WSU values people like you.”

The Native American Advisory Board guided the development of the Tribal Nation Building Leadership Program at WSU, where students receive scholarships and can experience being taught and mentored by Native American faculty in a cohort-based model to develop leadership skills and knowledge grounded in cultural principles, practices, and values. This program was recently expanded across the WSU system.

As part of the MOU, WSU established a Native American Advisory Board to the President of WSU, giving Tribal representatives a direct line to university leadership that they previously lacked.  Iyall and his fellow board members worked in the years that followed to support native students, who in turn established peer support groups that flourished over time.

The board also assisted WSU with its Policy on Tribal Engagement, Consultation, and Consent for Joint WSU-Tribal Research Activities and Projects, a commitment that Tribal voices and perspectives will contribute to WSU’s research efforts.   Moving forward, Iyall said he is eager to have more researchers collaborating with Tribal experts and hopes that WSU continues to add more Tribes to its memorandum of understanding.

Commemorating 25 years of collaboration

Members of the Native American Advisory Board will meet with representatives from more than dozen Tribes who call the Pacific Northwest home as well as university leadership at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 14. Following the meeting, those gathered will attend a WSU Showcase, where researchers and faculty will have the opportunity to solicit feedback on their current and future efforts.

Among those hoping to convene with Native American leaders is Bert Tanner, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience.

In his lab, Tanner and his student researchers examine how cardiac and skeletal muscles generate force at the molecular and cellular level. Since arriving at WSU, Tanner has worked with the Office of Tribal Relations and its supporters to inform Native and Indigenous students about research opportunities and get them doing hands-on work during their time as undergraduates.

“A key part of this effort is trying to meet people where they are, to understand what they are interested in researching, while being respectful of different cultural backgrounds and perspectives,” Tanner said. “People have great questions about the way we do things, and we have to be respectful of their interests and our resources. This especially arises with some of our animal work, where some students are not interested, and I tell students that they aren’t precluded from working in the lab if they don’t want to do dissections.”

Tanner is currently finalizing a new National Science Foundation grant proposal that would fund paid research opportunities for Native American undergraduates. It’s an effort that’s received grant funding in the past, and something Tanner and his colleagues are hoping to revitalize in the near future.

Prior to the Oct. 14 events, a series of events will be taking place, including a performance by the Julia Keefe Jazz Band, an all-Indigenous band, at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center.

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