Washington State University President Sam Smith and representatives of 10 Northwest tribes have entered into what may be the country’s first agreement between the leaders of tribal governments and a university.
The memorandum of understanding creating an American Indian advisory board to the president calls for increased cooperation and biannual meetings at the highest levels between tribal governments and WSU.
“In a sense, all of us have traveled a great distance to have this occur,” Smith said during signing ceremonies on Saturday. “We can’t rewrite history, but we can create history and create a future that is better and brighter for all of us. … Giving Native Americans a united voice through the board will make WSU a stronger place.”
Tribal leaders at Saturday’s ceremonies joined Smith in calling the agreement historic. Sam Penny, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the memorandum was the first agreement tribes had signed with a major university. “It’s unprecedented,” said Ron Halfmoon, president of Ku-Au-Mah Alumni Society. “It’s a once in my lifetime thing.”
Saying WSU was constructed on aboriginal territory of the Nez Perce tribe, Penny said “this agreement has been a long time coming.”
He credited Smith for making the agreement happen and, in remarks prepared for the ceremony, praised the university for following through “on promises that we sometimes felt were long lost.” He cited new student scholarships and a 1994 bill WSU championed in Washington’s Legislature that gives many American Indian students in Idaho, Oregon and Montana resident tuition.
Because of WSU’s historic connection to Northwest tribes and its status as a land grant university begun with land from the federal government, it makes sense for WSU to work closely with tribes, Halfmoon said.
“There are certainly some unmet needs and the definition (of WSU’s tribal outreach) has not been attempted,” he said. “We’ve just assumed that we are part of the service delivery, but it’s not happening. This will make it move.”
The memorandum emerged from meetings with Smith during tribal leadership conferences held at WSU in recent years.
Signatories include the chairmen or designees of the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Yakama, Warm Springs, Kootenai, Kalispel, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Spokane Tribal Council, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Representatives of American Indian student and alumni groups also signed the agreement as members of the newly-created presidential board.
The memorandum provides twice yearly meetings of the board, which will be staffed and funded by the university. The board’s mission is to promote a campus climate friendly to American Indians, promote American Indian studies, and strengthen services WSU provides to American Indian communities.
Penny stressed the retention of American Indian students as a primary mission of the board.
While numbers of American Indian students attending WSU have increased in recent years, a majority of tribal members continue to leave campus without a degree.
“We cannot afford to stand idly by while the graduation failure rate skyrockets,” Penny said in prepared remarks, recommending that WSU make use of existing tribal programs to aid in student retention. Students could be given summer internships on tribes in areas where the tribe will need future leaders, like fisheries, biology, criminal justice and environmental sciences.
Northwest tribes need to train members to take on roles running tribal governments, said Halfmoon. With decreasing federal funds, tribes now find themselves taking on health, social service and infrastructure functions once performed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he said. Without local expertise, the services are usually contracted.
“As the tribes get into these programs, non-Indians tend to run the programs. We aspire to have Indians making decisions about Indians. We’ve got to be able to pull on resources not otherwise available now, and I see WSU, because of its land grant status, as having tremendous capabilities in terms of research, off campus activities contracts academic programs.”
Those opportunities go beyond bringing American Indian students to Pullman, said Halfmoon, who sees in the new agreement the possibility of seeking grants and contracts in partnership with WSU professors.
As an example Halfmoon cites a lost opportunity when WSU researchers were examining a method of creating commercial fiber from basalt. The Umatilla tribe had just surveyed its property and knew it was sitting on a wealth of basalt. But when tribal leaders tried to consult with WSU, they couldn’t get past the front door, Halfmoon said. “We just didn’t have any standing to make a connection.”
Next on the agenda for the board, said Halfmoon, is creation of a 20-year plan, with protocols and schedules for initiatives.
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