WSU, Native American partners look to the future

Members of the Native American Advisory Board sitting at tables behind a row of flags of Tribes and Nations.
Members of the Native American Advisory Board met and signed of the newest version of the Memorandum of Understanding, Friday, April 28, 2023 at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center in Pullman.

Representatives from Native American tribes and nations joined WSU leaders in signing a revised memorandum of understanding, paving the way for continued cooperation and expanded collaboration between the university and the historic caretakers of the Pacific Northwest.

The university’s original MOU dates back to 1997, with six local Native American tribes serving as the founding signees alongside then-President Samuel Smith. Today, 13 Native American tribes and nations are part of the accord, with the most recent addition being the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“Members of the Native American Advisory Board alongside our MOU member tribes really sought to expand the mission of the agreement by thinking more deeply about the cultural components of our commitments,” Zoe Higheagle Strong, vice provost for Native American relations and programs and tribal liaison to the president, said. “In doing so, we’ve really deepened and broadened the mission of the MOU and the Native American Advisory Board.”

The Native American Advisory Board to the President was created more than 25 years ago with the signing of the original MOU. Every WSU President and Provost since have served on the board alongside representatives from Native alumni and tribal chairs of signatory nations.

Joining the board with the revised MOU will be a student representative from the university’s Tribal Nation Building Leadership Program. Students who participate in the program benefit from learning and mentorship opportunities with native instructors and faculty as they acquire the skills necessary to be leaders in their communities and beyond.

Streamlining the process for Native American tribes and nations to join the MOU is another major revision to WSU’s MOU, allowing WSU to better fulfill its land grant mission of serving the entire state, Higheagle Strong said.

The head of WSU’s Office of Tribal Relations has spent the months since last November’s Native American Advisory Board meeting presenting MOU revisions to tribal councils across the region. The fact that several of the original signees of WSU’s first MOU were on-hand to sign the revised version speaks to their commitment to foster more significant and substantive ties with the university.

“What’s really powerful is that we’ve had five presidents since the original signing, yet we still have active members who were bringing students to WSU five to 10 years before that agreement was even signed, with several of our original signees present for the signing of our revised MOU,” Higheagle Strong said. “That demonstrates the longstanding commitment our Tribal partners have to this agreement and its principals.”

WSU is working to expand its presence in areas of the state with Native American tribes and nations who haven’t yet joined the MOU, particularly in western Washington. The expansion of the university’s Native Youth Exploring Higher Education program, or NY’EHE, to the Tri‑Cities, Vancouver and Everett campuses is a major part of that effort. The university was also awarded a $1.2 million proviso by the State of Washington to develop a Native American Scholarship program in consultation with tribal partners, something the university is planning to launch this coming fall.

In addition to signing the new MOU at the April 28 Native American Advisory Board meeting, attendees discussed opportunities to educate students on the history of environment conservation and sustainability work undertaken by the historic residence of the region. Members were also provided for the first time with data on revenue generated from two land endowments benefiting the university, and will spend time at their next meeting collecting feedback and discussing potential ways to give back to Native American tribes and nations who’ve historically shepherded the land WSU occupies.

The next meeting of the Native American Advisory Board is scheduled to take place in Pullman Oct. 6. More information about the Office of Tribal Relations is available on its website.

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