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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Higher education

‘Aim higher’: EWU’s new tribal relations director seeks to empower Native American students

Erin Ross, EWU tribal relations director, is photographed on campus on Thursday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Erin Ross, EWU tribal relations director, is photographed on campus on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Growing up, Erin Ross wasn’t sure she would ever be able to go to college.

A Spokane native and a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Ross worked as a teen in food service jobs at places that she hoped wouldn’t be forever. She knew her parents wouldn’t be able to pay for her college education, however, and she wasn’t aware of avenues available through grants and student loans.

“I couldn’t visualize that for myself. I guess I thought I wasn’t smart enough and I wasn’t capable,” Ross said, “but I also knew that I didn’t want to stay where I was at.”

Ross eventually overcame that apprehension to graduate in 1999 from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in government. She took her education further in 2015 with a master’s degree from EWU in urban and regional planning, with a tribal planning concentration.

Ross, 45, credits her postsecondary instructors, including those at EWU, with pushing her to “aim higher,” she said.

So as she returns to EWU as the university’s new tribal relations director, Ross hopes she can pay it forward as a liaison – and perhaps a role model – for Native American students and the area’s tribal communities.

Ross started in the position July 1 to replace Nicole DeVon, who left for a new job, according to the university. As tribal relations director, Ross will take point on facilitating the relationship between EWU and regional tribes, as well as urban Indian organizations, to promote the university as a steward for tribal communities and to better support Native American students.

The university’s Lucy Covington Initiative – recognizing Covington, a tribal rights activist and Colville Tribal Council member – is an example of what these relationships can accomplish, Ross said. Covington helped lead the fight against a federal policy called termination, which offered members of Native American tribes cash payments in exchange for their reservation lands.

Ross said she will also work for increased registration, graduation and retention rates among Native American students.

“I’ve always emphasized the value of education and how that is one thing that nobody can ever take away from you,” Ross said. “The United States government has taken a lot of things from Native Americans, has broken and continues to break promises with Native Americans. The way that we empower ourselves and stand up for ourselves is through education – particularly, higher education and understanding our rights.”

Ross comes into the position after a year of working for the Coeur D’Alene Tribe as a planning manager.

With the tribe, Ross was involved in matters related to economic development, land use, transportation and sovereignty. Prior, Ross served as chief of staff for Lisa Brown’s 2018 congressional campaign.

Ross has a daughter who now attends EWU. After roughly 20 years of running various Spokane-area small businesses, Ross “wanted to shift directions” at the time when her daughter started elementary school, she said.

“It really seemed like it would be a track that would harness my education, my experience and my passions, and it definitely did that,” Ross said.

After her time at EWU, Ross maintained relationships with the Eastern community, she said. She has season tickets to Eagles football and basketball games, while she’s kept in touch with professors and former students who were also once part of EWU’s mock trial team.

When she heard in March about the job from a friend, Ross said she felt the position “was the next step.”

“The Coeur D’Alene Tribe is a fantastic employer, and I was definitely enjoying my time there,” Ross said. “I just felt like I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be back within the Eastern community.”

EWU interim President David May said in a statement announcing Ross’ hire, “Erin’s combination of political leadership and tribal engagement provides EWU with valuable and significant perspective and capabilities.”

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, worked with DeVon prior to her departure from EWU.

Evans said the tribal relations director plays a critical role in ensuring the university serves the needs of the area’s Native American tribes. One such need, she said, is promoting Native American representation among university faculty and staff.

“That could involve anything from our tribal members being successful at Eastern Washington University to what (the university) can do for our community to help our members become more successful in life,” she said. “Some of that might be coming out and speaking to some of the elementary schools, the middle schools students and the high school students, and really finding out what our tribe provides across the board.”

This is especially so with Native American students, who may need help transitioning from smaller schools in more rural communities to a larger university setting in the Spokane area, Evans said.

Ross said Native American students entering college sometimes lack the information they need to prepare for a postsecondary career. They are commonly first-generation college students, meaning there is nobody else in their family they could ask for advice, she added.

“That’s where support strategies for the students become critical and those support strategies must be informed by tribes. That needs to come from their own communities,” Ross said. “We can’t just assume that we know what they need.”

When it comes to aiding students, Ross said her door will always be open.

“I seek to understand how Eastern can support these students in a way that addresses them as a whole person, that addresses their spiritual, mental, emotional, physical needs,” she said, “so that when they graduate, they feel like empowered individuals that are confident in the skills they have gained from Eastern and feel confident … whatever path they choose.”

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