to a Native
By Jodi Rave
Native people, their ancestral spirits, and UM leaders are walking a sacred road together, a journey that will lead them to build a Native American Center in recognition of past, present, and future generations.
The spiritual unification bringing Natives and non-Natives together signals a milestone within the multicultural history of UM’s educators, alumni, students, and Montana’s tribal elders.
“We are all spiritual,” says Kate Shanley, an Assiniboine, associate professor of Native American Studies, and chair of the Department of Native American Studies (NAS). “And we are all on a spiritual path.”
A united vision brings everyone closer to building a dedicated Native American Center on campus—a tribute to Salish homelands and to creating a sense of place for the Native campus community.
In October, spiritual and community leaders from all twelve Montana tribes gathered for a historic sunrise ceremony to bless the ground on what will become a premier university Native American Center. The 19,900-square-foot building will house the University’s Native American Studies department, American Indian Student Services Program (AISSP), and related campus programs.
“This center is to make certain we’re serving the needs of all Montanans and, particularly, that we continue to increase the number of Native Americans who take advantage of the opportunities here,” says UM President George Dennison. “This center is more than symbolic to the Native American community. It will help define the future of higher education for Native Americans studying in Montana. That is why it was so important to include this project as one of the highest priorities in the campus’s $100 million capital campaign.”
The $6 million building will cement Native people’s ancestral connection to the campus. Tribal people once shared visions and ideas in the valley sweeping below Mount Sentinel, which stands guard over the University.
The new center will pay homage to the Salish and all tribes that historically used present-day University land as a traditional gathering place. The tepee encampments and burning campfires are no longer visible, yet the campus remains a host to cultures as a bustling learning center.
Today, Natives and non-Natives—faculty, staff, and students—work side by side. And the indigenous presence grows each year. In fall 2006, more than 570 Native students attended the University, setting an all-time enrollment record.
That’s because the school has a colorful palette of Native-related courses and organizations. “It makes me feel like we’re important,” says Adam Sings In The Timber, a Crow and a journalism student. “Just the fact that we get to focus so much on Native issues in our reporting and photos. It’s invaluable to me. It keeps me closer to the community and my culture. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
“This center…will help define the future of higher education
for Native Americans studying in Montana.”
– President Dennison
Although staff, faculty, and eight active student groups exist to meet students’ needs, all these people and groups are scattered about the University. Some University staffers call the current NAS building “The Rez,” because it’s one of the oldest and smallest buildings on campus. It’s not a complimentary statement.
“If you go on campus and you ask for the NAS building, you get directed to this old house,” says Selena Eagle Speaker, referring to the former residential structure near Arthur Avenue that now serves as the center for NAS at UM. “And all these other programs are in a formal, nice building,” she says. Eagle Speaker, a Blackfeet, is a work-study student who helps out in the AISSP office.
Eagle Speaker and others agree a new center would dramatically and positively alter the campus climate when addressing Native issues and University students.
“It’s important for Native Americans to have a place where they feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging,” says Eagle Speaker. “It’s important for them to know there are other Native Americans going through the same thing as them, and that there are Native American staff who support them in their educational goals.”
While the Native American Studies department helps define the identity of the campus community, the AISSP offices in the Lommasson Center are the epicenter for the Native student population and serve as a central gathering place. “Even though this office is small, it’s an office people love to come to,” says Patrick Weasel Head, AISSP director.
Students gather daily at AISSP, where a one-desk reception area and two small offices—one of which is a renovated elevator shaft shared by three student counselors—meet the needs of hundreds of Native students.
“It’s hard, especially when we have students socializing in the front office—which we encourage—but to have a student come in, in crisis, and not feel comfortable…first of all, when the door is shut, people know something confidential is going on,” says Salena Hill, a Crow-Blackfeet graduate student and an AISSP guidance counselor. “Ears tend to tune in.”
“I think we lose some students each semester who walk to the door, see that, and turn right around,” says Hill. “They don’t want everyone to know what their issues [are], what their crisis is. Confidentiality is one of our biggest concerns.
“One of our most important roles is to be an advocate for them, but to have space as an issue almost defeats that purpose,” says Hill. Some people have learned to adjust. “There are students who will come in and say, ‘Here’s my problem. And I don’t care who knows.’”
Once an additional $5 million is raised to complete funding (almost $1 million has been raised to date), groundbreaking can ensue. Looking ahead to that time, the Native American Center will provide a place for UM’s Native students, the AISSP, and the approximately 2,000 non-Native students participating in Native American Studies department courses. In addition, the building will provide gathering and classroom space for related academic programs and organizations. Among UM’s Native American programs and organizations are the following:
• American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL), founded in 1995 within the School of Business, which serves as the national headquarters for more than 500 future Native business leaders across the country;
• The American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which helps mentor leaders in science and engineering;
• The Indian Law Clinic, founded in 1980 within the School of Law, the first of its kind in any law school in the country; students also participate in the Native American Law Student Association;
• INPSYCH, Department of Psychology, one of the country’s leading programs for aspiring Native American psychologists;
• The Health Careers Opportunity Program, College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, which identifies students from reservations and rural areas and communities and encourages them to enter health fields and return to practice in their communities;
• The Native American Natural Resources Program, College of Forestry and Conservation, the only college in the Northern Rockies region to offer courses on Native American resource management; and
• Reznet, School of Journalism, the nation’s first online newspaper for aspiring Native journalists. The School of Journalism’s Native News Honors Project is also the country’s first—and arguably only—college journalism course devoted to covering news across a state’s Indian reservations. The school also established the first Native American Journalism Professor-in-Residence in the nation, and Native students established the first college chapter of the Native American Journalists Association.
UM is also home to the Kyi-Yo Club, a student-driven organization boasting one of the largest college powwows in the Northwest. American Indian alumni of the University are kept in touch through a banquet and silent auction each year as well as an active online listserv.
Weasel Head, as director of UM’s AISSP, has a unique vantage point from which to view the continued growth and robust presence of Natives on campus. A Blackfeet who graduated from UM in 1975, Weasel Head was among the first waves of Native students across the country to attend college through federal education programs. Bureau of Indian Affairs education grants marked a dramatic shift in the agency’s relationship with Indians. Instead of sending young people away to urban areas like Chicago, San Francisco, or Denver, the bureau started relocating youths to colleges and universities.
Even then, Montana’s Native students were ahead of the curve. Joe McDonald, founder and president of Salish Kootenai College and a Salish, earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from UM in 1958. He didn’t stop there. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University, as well.
“I think The University of Montana is a great place,” McDonald says. While McDonald was breaking down barriers in the 1950s, his Salish relatives had begun to clear a path for him a half century earlier. UM transcripts show McDonald’s cousin Colvin McDonald attended UM in the 1890s, shortly after UM was founded and a short sixteen years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana.
Weasel Head attributes the strong indigenous presence on campus to a powerful cadre of Native and non-Native staff and faculty who share a long-term commitment to supporting students. UM President Dennison can be counted among those with a steadfast commitment. “When it filters down, people take notice of it and they want to help,” says Weasel Head. “We’ve had a long history of good, key people at The University of Montana.”
And looking to the future, that history is about to get even better. UM recently created and filled a UM tribal liaison position. Linda Juneau, a Blackfeet, will fill that job and work diligently with UM staff and faculty and with leaders from Montana’s seven reservations to deepen existing connections. Juneau will begin by learning about what kinds of partnerships, shared expertise, and opportunities will benefit the tribal colleges, their students, their faculty, and their communities. She also will identify UM individuals and groups who can help expand educational opportunities for Montana’s Native and non-Native people.
“Linda has an exceptional ability to walk as a true leader with strength, vision, and integrity in Indian Country and also in mainstream society,” says Julia Horn, senior director of development and alumni relations for the UM Foundation. “She can navigate both worlds extremely well and will be a tremendous force in the unification of Natives and non-Natives in an educational context and beyond.”
Visionaries stand on the shoulders of those before them. Scores of people have helped raise the Native stature, making UM one of the most vibrant Native community campuses in the country. The next step will be to harness all that energy within a Native American Center, says Shanley. Weasel Head agrees: “This center is a tangible representation of that commitment to the Native American community.”
The Native American Center has become more than a set of architectural designs. “I’m really excited, not just for the staff and faculty—but for the students who know there is going to be a designated space for them and that they’re not going to be taking up someone’s office space,” says Hill.
“Natives are so much a part of …Montana,” says Sings in the Timber. “Having a building for us tells me the University sees Native Americans as an important part of the community.”
Jodi Rave is a national correspondent for Lee Enterprises, reporting on native issues for newspapers in twenty-two states. She joined the Missoulian in 2004 after completing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
The Native American Center is one of UM’s top priorities in its $100 million campaign, Invest in Discovery: Connecting People, Programs, and Place, which is scheduled to conclude on December 31, 2007. If you would like more information about how to make a gift, please contact Julia Horn, senior director of development and alumni relations, at (800) 443-2593 or (406) 243-2646 or e-mail, Julia.Horn@mso.umt.edu.
this article in Montanan