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A new American Indian Center opening in July at the University of Wyoming will be a resource facility that encourages all UW students, especially American Indian students, to achieve success and optimize their college experience. The center also will honor American Indian heritage and demonstrate respect for Native people’s cultures, traditions, laws and diverse expressions of sovereignty.
The center, located in the facility that currently houses UW’s Honors Program on the corner of 10th and Ivinson streets, will be a “living-learning community” that provides study and technology space important for all educational buildings, and encourages all people using the center to appreciate and work effectively with diverse communities, says Caskey Russell, UW American Indian Studies director.
The center is part of UW President Laurie Nichols’ plan to increase the numbers of American Indian students, including members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation, to enroll in and graduate from UW. The American Indian Center will help UW fulfill its mission of providing opportunities for personal growth, physical health and leadership development for Native American students, helping them connect their traditions and cultures to their education.
UW, the American Indian Studies (AIS) program and the High Plains American Indian Research Institute will work to provide opportunities for the culturally appropriate research and educational building for American Indian students and their families, a place that respectfully represents tribal peoples, particularly those of the Northern Plains, and acknowledges their cultures, histories, contemporary lives and contributions to the world. It also will be a place that will empower tribes and nurture innovation for American Indian sustainability.
Classes, lectures, research, performances, exhibitions, meetings, collaborative work, traditional meals and traditions of Native peoples will be celebrated in the facility. The multipurpose center will serve a variety of educational and cultural functions, and will reflect ancient histories, values and protocols while honoring the responsibilities and privileges of hospitality and spiritual engagement.
“The American Indian Center will strengthen the representation of American Indians in the university and will contribute to UW’s cultural and ethnic diversification,” Nichols says. “It confirms UW’s support for its Native students and their families, and UW’s recognition of its tribal nation partners in the region. It will be visible evidence of UW’s interest in admitting and retaining American Indian students.”
Nichols has made it a priority to reach out to residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the first year of her presidency, Nichols has traveled to the reservation three times to meet with Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal leaders and residents. She also has visited nearly all of the reservation schools at least once.
“I have greatly enjoyed my interactions with the leaders and people of Wind River,” Nichols says. “We have a great opportunity to strengthen the university’s relationship with the Wyoming tribes and others, including growing our Native American student enrollment.”
Former UW Board of Trustees member James Trosper, the project coordinator for UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, was instrumental in first pushing for a Native American Center when serving on the board. He and Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, a UW graduate who was in the AIS program, made presentations at last week’s UW Board of Trustees meeting in support of the center. Ellis and Trosper are both founding members of the American Indian Center Steering Committee. Trosper gives credit to the steering committee under the leadership of Judy Antell, former AIS director, for accomplishing much of the work toward the center.
Trosper says the center is needed to help boost graduation rates among Wind River Indian Reservation students.
The underrepresentation of Native American students in higher education is a complex issue involving several factors, such as lack of financial support and campus resources, cultural beliefs, social stigmas and stereotypes, many of which are intertwined with the tragic history of colonization and Native American boarding schools and their effect on the Native American view of the educational system, he says.
“Many individuals may not trust institutions of education due to the history of boarding schools, in which many Native American students suffered abuse and were forced to abandon their traditional values and adhere to white culture,” Trosper says. “Native American students who attend the University of Wyoming have overcome many obstacles to get to that point. We, at UW, should do everything possible to support this population to be successful. An American Indian Center will help Native American students who come from a collectivistic worldview build a sense of community.”
In the Native American culture, emphasis is placed on giving back to their communities when students graduate, Trosper adds. Giving back is encouraged not only inside the family, but also within the community. It is a reflection of an Indigenous philosophy of putting community before individualism.
“A college education means more than just obtaining a career and financial independence for these students; it is an instrument to provide a service to their families and communities,” he says.
To help with higher education opportunities for Native students, UW is sponsoring the first weeklong Native American Summer Institute for Wind River Indian Reservation students in grades 9-12 in June. The residential precollege program is designed to familiarize reservation students with the UW campus and Laramie.
For more information, visit the website at www.uwyo.edu/aist/2017%20native%20summer%20institute/.
The AIS program, the High Plains American Indian Research Institute, the student Keepers of the Fire organization and other student organizations will be housed within the American Indian Center.
Sara Axelson, UW vice president for student affairs, says her office will provide a retention adviser to support students in the center. The position will report to the Dean of Students Office.
“The role of the position will be to provide direct student support with mentoring, advising, linkages to support services across the university and support for related student organizations,” she says.
Trosper says education offers the greatest opportunity for improvement from one generation to another.
“For many Native American students, education -- especially higher education -- has been the route to an improved quality of life,” he says. “A major focus is on educating graduates who are grounded in their own culture, yet are prepared with the social, civic and work skills they need to live and contribute to a multicultural, global society.”