University, Native leaders celebrate accomplishments

The Julia Keefe Jazz Band performing in front of a small crowd seated at tables.
The Julia Keefe Jazz Band performed at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center Oct. 14 in honor of the 25th anniversary of WSU's memorandum of understanding with Native American tribes and nations.

Dozens of representatives from Native American tribes and nations joined systemwide university leaders in Pullman last month for a celebration of a quarter century of collaboration.

Twenty-five years ago today, six inaugural signatory tribes signed an historic memorandum of understanding with WSU. The agreement charted a course for creating more inclusive campus communities, promoting Native American studies and education programs, and strengthening relationships between WSU and regional tribes and native nations.

These core principles, as well as the continued education of Native American students, remain of paramount importance to the leaders who gathered last month to commemorate the joint commitment.

“One of the most important parts of our role as Native leaders is ensuring our students have the opportunity to go to school,” Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said. “The goal we’re all hoping for is that our children continue to learn, to get into a profession and to work on behalf of their tribes.”

Penney was among the first Native leaders to sign the MOU with WSU in 1997 and recalled then-WSU President Sam Smith proposing the idea of an advisory board composed of Native and university representatives. Penney recommended to Smith that those gathered should acknowledge that the day’s gathering was being held on the homeland of the Nez Perce.

Two-and-a-half decades on, Penny thanked WSU’s leadership, past and present for honoring and continuing to make strides on the efforts that began 25 years ago.

Cooperation, collaboration with Native groups

The celebration of the 25th anniversary of WSU’s MOU with tribes and native nations began Oct. 13 with a reception at the WSU Pullman Chancellor’s House. From there, dozens gathered at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center for a performance by the Julia Keefe Jazz Band. Keefe is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and was joined in the performance by several Native musicians.

On Friday morning, members of the Native American Advisory Board gathered for their fall meeting inside the Lewis Alumni Center. Joining them were WSU leaders including WSU President Kirk Schulz and Elizabeth Chilton, provost, executive vice president and chancellor of the WSU Pullman campus. Daryll DeWald, Mel Netzhammer, Sandra Haynes and Paul Pitre, chancellors of the Spokane, Vancouver, Tri-Cities and Everett campuses, respectively, were also in attendance.

Four people talk about WSU research at an information table.
The WSU Showcase on Oct. 14 gave researchers and student groups the opportunity to chat with leaders from Native American tribes and nations from across the region as part of the celebration of 25 years of collaboration.

Following the procession of Native flags and introductory remarks, Zoe Higheagle Strong, vice-provost for Native American Relations and Programs & Tribal liaison to the President and director of the Center for Native American Research and Collaboration, outlined numerous developments that followed the signing of the original MOU back in 1997. She noted that the number of signatory tribes has doubled since its original drafting, and that the number of signatories continues to grow. Representatives from the Swinomish Tribe, which signed on as a MOU member earlier this year on Sept. 6, were also in attendance.

Higheagle Strong, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, called out specific programs and resources that Native American students at WSU have benefited from in recent years. The Native American Student Center, which functions as a home away from home for many Native students, continues to grow. The Tribal National Building Leadership program offers students the opportunity to be taught by native instructors and faculty as well as opening doors for internships and other opportunities. That program has recently expanded to welcoming students from across the WSU system and also provides scholarships to Native students.

WSU is also committed to enhancing scholarship related to historical and persistent racism, inequality, and injustice across myriad fields of study. WSU recently launched a cluster hire program to do so, Chilton explained. WSU’s focus this year is hiring faculty who focus on radicalized, social and environmental inequality and injustices in Native American and Indigenous Communities.

Last fall, WSU leadership also approved Executive Policy 41, which commits the university to meaningful engagement, consultation, and collaboration with tribes and native nations with current and future research activities and projects. Several research projects, from the work to digitize and contextualize cultural materials from the Plateau Peoples, to the work of the Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, or CEREO, were highlighted in presentations to Native representatives.

Among CEREO’s current efforts is a National Science Foundation-funded project to train the next generation of leaders capable of tackling the complex issue of watershed health and rehabilitation.

“We’re really looking to take an integrated approach where we help students develop expertise related to local governance as well as the ecological health of watersheds and their surrounding communities so that we can work on projects that have real impact not just along the Columbia Basin but worldwide,” Jan Boll, director of CEREO, said. “We need people who can relate and understand people across disciplines, who understand all of the jargon and can ask good questions.”

The future

The celebration marked the first gathering of the All-Native American Advisory Board meeting that consisted of the Native American Advisory Board to the President, which facilitates WSU’s MOU and government-to-government tribal relations with tribes, the Native American Health Tribal Advisory Board, and the Vancouver Campus Native American Community Advisory Board representing Native American community leaders and practitioners that guides Chancellor Dewald and Chancellor Netzhammer on localized Native American programs and initiatives. 

People gathering at various information tables at the Lewis Alumni Centre.
The WSU Showcase on Oct. 14 gave researchers and student groups the opportunity to chat with leaders from Native American tribes and nations from across the region as part of the celebration of 25 years of collaboration.

Following the presentations of each Native American Advisory Board, members discussed language revisions to the original MOU and what the future of cooperation may look like. Bringing more tribes into the agreement, as well as cooperating more closely with tribes that are not federally recognized or Native organizations to ensure advocacy for both federally- and non-federally enrolled tribal students.

The idea of developing housing for Native students that better resembles the more community-focused nature of life on a reservation was also brought up. A more community-focused approach to housing is an idea that Emily Abrahamson, a biomedical sciences senior, thinks could help not just Native students, but any groups of students who feel displaced upon starting college.

“One of the biggest reasons people in our communities don’t pursue a college education is because it takes them far from home,” Abrahamson said. “Having some cultural housing could help students not feel so secluded, and I think it would be great if WSU made it an option.”

Abrahamson transferred to WSU in the fall of 2020 to pursue a career in pharmaceutical research. An interest in finding less harmful treatments for cancer – an illness that several of her family members have battled – drove her to a path where she could one day help to develop effective treatments. She also wants to be a role model for other Native students and encourage them to pursue higher education and bring their knowledge with them back to their communities.

Chloe Thompson, a senior majoring in broadcast production, transferred to WSU two years ago after obtaining a Tribal Nation Building Leadership (TNBL) scholarship offered to students who are members of MOU tribes.

Through her involvement with the Native American Student Center and the TNBL program, she’s been able to find a community in Pullman while exploring career opportunities. As part of a TNBL class, she got to talk with Tazbah Chavez, a writer and producer on the FX series Reservation Dogs, which follows four indigenous teenagers living on a reservation in Oklahoma.

Thompson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, would love to see opportunities like these persist and even expand for future students, as well as WSU continuing to build a community where Native students feel at home.

“The times when I go into the Native American Student Center, I can be authentically myself,” she said. “It’s a place where everyone gets me, but when I go out onto other parts of campus it can be hard to truly be me.”

Having more Native and indigenous faculty members, and more classes on native history for all students at WSU, would also go a long way toward creating a campus where more students, faculty and staff understand the history and culture of the people who called WSU community home long before the university was founded.

Increasing the number of opportunities Native students have to visit campus and learn about the resources, programs, and student groups that are pivotal in helping them persist through graduation is also critical, said Ermia Butler, a fourth-year environmental and ecosystem science major.

Butler is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. WSU wasn’t on her list of possible universities in high school until an outreach coordinator visited her class. Through the Office of Native American Programs Native Youth Exploring Higher Education (Ny’Ehe) program, she was able to visit Pullman and see herself as a Coug.

Helping to establish a deeper sense of community, whether by expanding the Native American Student Center or relocating it to a more central area on campus, or by creating a community living environment for Native student, could help address concerns some Native high schoolers have about pursuing higher education.

“It can be difficult to come grow up in a small community where you know everyone and move to a university with more than 20,000 students, so it’s important to create a sense of community, whether that’s in the dorms or at the Native American Student Center,” Butler said.

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