Native American Students Demand Accountability from Western Washington University by Michaela Vendiola & Tahlia NatachuTweet
On May 23, 2016, Native students from Western Washington University’s Native American Student Union met with the colleges administration to address the college’s failure to both support Native students and its lack of engagement with local tribes. Students issued a set of demands that included: implementation of a tribal liaison, the building of a traditional Coast Salish Long House on campus, Government-to-Government Training between WWU government and the local Tribal Governments, and more. Below is the students letter to administration.
President Bruce Shepard incoming President, Dr. Sabah Randhawa, and Western Washington University’s Board of Trustees,
CC: Paul Dunn, Kunle Ojikutu, Brent Carbajal, Stephanie Bowers, Eileen Coughlin, Richard Van Den Hul, Steve Swan, Becca Kenna-Schenk, Paul Cocke, Brian Sullivan, Darin Rasmussen, Rick Benner, John Furman, Linda Teater, Ted Pratt, Renee Collins, Michael Sledge, Eric Alexander, Linda Beckman, Tim Szymanowski, Manca Valum, Steven Vanderstaay, Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, Vicki Hamblin, Craig Dunn, Jack Herring, Kit Spicer, Steve Hollenhorst, LeaAnn Martin, Catherine Clark, Francisco Rios, Mark Greenberg
We, the Native American Student Union at Western Washington University, formally request that five additions be prioritized in WWU’s current strategic plan to address and provide solutions to the current and historical issues that American Indian students face on WWU’s campus:
1. Implementation of a Tribal Liaison Position who will connect WWU with the local Tribal Nations
2. A traditional Coast Salish Longhouse
3. Requiring students to verify tribal enrollment or descendancy when applying to WWU and scholarships that are allocated for American Indian/Alaskan Native students housed within WWU
4. Full funding for the Annual Spring Pow Wow
5. Government-to-Government Training between WWU government and the local Tribal Governments facilitated by the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs
In order for these solutions to be successful, an understanding of sovereignty is required. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “Tribal sovereignty refers to tribes’ right to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property, and regulate tribal business and domestic relations; it further recognizes the existence of a government-to-government relationship between such tribes and the federal government.” In addition, Washington State’s 1989 Centennial Accord mandates the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to provide training to state agencies on information with which to educate employees and constituent groups as defined in the accountability plan about the requirement of the government-to-government relationship (goia.wa.gov).
It is important to recognize that other higher education institutions in Washington, Oregon, and across the U.S./Canadian border (British Columbia) have allocated resources to fund programs and positions that support American Indian/First Nations students with academics, retention, opportunities, and their well-being by providing students with Tribal Liaisons and traditional Coast Salish Longhouses. We would like WWU to join the vision that the programs listed below represent:
• ʔaʔk̓ ʷustəƞáwt̓xʷ – House of Learning (Peninsula College)
• wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House (University of Washington)
• Nespelem Longhouse (Washington State University’s Colville Reservation Extension)
• Sgʷigʷialʔtxʷ – The House of Welcome (Evergreen State College)
• Central Washington University/Yakima Nation Longhouse (under development)
• First Nations House of Learning (University of British-Columbia; B.C., Canada)
• Native American Longhouse Eena Haws (Oregon State University)
• Many Nations Longhouse (University of Oregon)
• Native American Student and Community Center (Portland State University
WWU is the only large institution on the I-5 corridor that does not have a position dedicated to the success of American Indian students or recognize and honor the sovereign Nations whose land WWU occupies.
We understand that funding can be an issue when allocating resources for student support. However, the other universities and colleges we mentioned above have prioritized their American Indian student population. Since WWU says it is prioritizing support for students of color, we want to hold the university accountable to providing the support that your diversity mission statement claims. As mandated in the Centennial Accord, each state agency shall, “establish a procedure by which the government-to-government policy shall be implemented. This procedure shall be called the ‘Centennial Accord Plan’ and will be developed by each state agency in conjunction with the tribes. In the development of these plans, the guiding principles and critical elements identified above in this Section should be utilized i.e.: programs, funding, definitions, and consultation processes/procedures” (goia.wa.gov).
To build relationships for the betterment of American Indian higher education at WWU, the NASU is collaborating with the Washington State Governor’s Office on Indian Affairs Director, The Program Supervisor of the Office of Native Education under the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Washington State Tribal Leader Congress (WSTLC). The WSTLC specifically focuses on: “Educating the citizens of our state, particularly the youth who are our future leaders, about tribal history, culture, treaty rights, contemporary tribal and state government institutions and relations and the contribution of Indian Nations to the State of Washington to move us forward on the Centennial Accord’s promise that, ‘The parties recognize that implementation of this Accord will require a comprehensive educational effort to promote understanding of the government-to-government relationship within their own governmental organizations and with the public’” (goia.wa.gov).
As a state institution, WWU has a responsibility to American Indian students and the unique sovereign education rights recognized in the government-to-government relationship. The American Indian youth from the surrounding tribes, as well as across the nation, are potential future students of WWU, and as you know, American Indian’s are the lowest percentage of any population enrolled here at WWU or across the US. We are passionate about promoting education success for our communities since we have not historically had access to higher education. However, It is not the NASU’s responsibility to increase the enrollment of American Indian students to WWU, but it should be a goal of this university to admit the tribal youth whose land this campus rests on and ensure their success and retention at WWU.
Appointing, funding, and supporting a full-time Native Tribal Liaison would allow for the collaboration between Tribal Nations and the university while ensuring the retention of American Indian students. We have begun to create a position description, plan to be a part of the Native Tribal Liaison hiring process, and need the Native Tribal Liaison to begin working by the beginning of Fall Quarter 2016.
WWU claims to have the highest rate of enrolled American Indian students in the United States. The NASU has not observed those successful claims and statistics reflected in our experiences, individually and as a club, here at WWU. We have seen several members of the NASU leave WWU because of the lack of support. WWU continues to pride themselves on being “leaders in diversity” and having impressive statistics around Native education success, specifically graduation rates. We find it necessary for students to verify their tribal enrollment and/or descendancy in order for student demographics to truly reflect who is admitted into higher education institutions. When American Indian students are not required to provide tribal enrollment or descendancy verification, skewed and immoral data may be collected in place of the actual statistics on American Indian’s in higher education. According to Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, “This call for self-identification influences the way that colleges and universities examine issues of identification in the admissions process and may push for stricter ways of determining whether or not potential students and faculty members are committing ‘ethnic fraud.’ Additionally, this requires institutions to keep better records of who has identified as American Indian, rather than placing the figures under the dreaded catchall ‘Other’ category” (Brayboy 2005).
We see that full funding for the Annual Spring Pow Wow is necessary because WWU’s recent admissions video included multiple video images of the NASU’s 2015 Spring Pow Wow. The NASU’s 2015 Pow Wow pamphlet explained that the recording of videos and taking photos of the Pow Wow, dancers, and/or singers must first be approved by the singer(s)/dancer(s) who are featured in said videos/photos. Permission of these images were not obtained. Since Western’s Admissions Office is taking it upon themselves to utilize the NASU’s Pow Wow footage as an admissions tactic to attract more students of color, the NASU sees it as Western’s obligation to fully fund the Annual Spring Pow Wow. This Pow Wow is completely planned, organized, and fundraised by volunteer American Indian students. This effort has required our time, energy, money, and personal sacrifice. Project and event planning, which includes grant writing, is a full-time job. We are also full-time students. The American Indian students on WWU’s campus should not be subjected to working the equivalent of two (2) full-time positions just to bring awareness and representation of our culture to this predominantly white institution.
Not to mention the Admissions Office using our efforts to bring money and students to WWU. Unfortunately, the NASU was unable to host the Pow Wow this school year because there were not enough American Indian students to do the work. The few students who were wanting to plan the Pow Wow were unable to due to cultural obligations. American Indian students on this campus are hurting.This Pow Wow is very significant to the NASU and the Native communities who attend. It shows the tribal communities that WWU is supportive of American Indian student success. Most American Indian youth in attendance have never set foot on a university campus and it gives them an opportunity to see what they can be involved in. By not having the Pow Wow this year, it is very telling of the type of climate that WWU fosters for American Indian students. In the interest of supporting American Indian education, the NASU sees it as the university’s responsibility to fully fund and support the Annual Spring Pow Wow, this will be essential to the academic and spiritual success of American Indian students and their communities.
On March 9, 2016, Governor Jay Inslee of the State of Washington proclaimed March 9th as ‘Billy Frank Jr. Day’. Also, in Fall of 2015, Bellingham renamed ‘Indian Street’ to ‘Billy Frank Jr. Street’. Due to the importance of Tribal relations, Washington State is making efforts to acknowledge the traditional Coast Salish tribes and their members. The Coast Salish Longhouse is the optimal opportunity for WWU to take part in the acknowledgment of the relationships between Tribal people and Washington State while simultaneously supporting American Indian student success.
The NASU that developed due to the organization of our amazing alumni including:
- Bill Demmert (Tlingit/Haida, activist/educator)
- Michael Vendiola (Swinomish, Director of OSPI K-12 Native Education for WA State)
- Michelle Vendiola (Walker River Paiute, activist/educator)
- Louie Gong (Nooksack, artist)
- Matt Remle (Lakota, activist/counselor/editor and writer for Last Real Indians)
- Dian Million (Athabascan, activist/tenured professor at UW)
- Bernie Thomas (Lummi, Director of Education for the Lummi Nation)
- Shasta Cano-Martin (Lummi, Councilwoman/ WWU Foundation Board Member)
As well as many more who have gone on to do significant work for Native communities. Our alumni, as well as other influential American Indian government officials, offices, and associations have expressed their support of the NASU in our efforts to attain these necessities. It is dishonest for WWU to attempt to take the credit of the individual successes of these alumni because the NASU alumni were forced to create their own support systems and spaces due to the lack of support from WWU in order to survive on this predominantly white campus. It is time for WWU to do their part in American Indian education success.
The NASU is providing you and the university with the opportunity to participate in a revolutionary movement. Inequalities and innately unjust systems that are embedded within society and institutions are being challenged by students all across the nation. WWU could be one of the first institutions to actually make effective efforts towards “diversity, inclusion, and equity.” Doing this work to reach equity is something that is very significant to the NASU. We are tired of hundreds of years of empty promises and WWU saying they need to do more for American Indian students. We are ready to see action. We are strong, intelligent, and resilient individuals who are working for a better future for our communities. This is not just for the few current American Indian students on WWU’s campus, but for future American Indian students, our elders that carry our teachings, and our tribal nations that we come from. We invite you to come meet with the NASU to discuss our visions, necessities, and the role you and the university will play to make our plans a reality.
We look forward to your response and collaborating in the next process of our requests. Please respond with an outline of how you will meet our needs to our NASU email (email@example.com) by this Friday, May 20th, 2016. We then invite you to meet with the NASU on Monday, May 23rd, 2016 at 6pm in the Center for Education, Equity, and Diversity (MH 005) to discuss the plans.
The Native American Student Union Tribal Council
Michaela B. Vendiola
Tahlia K. Natachu
Kylie N. Gemmell
Michaela B. Vendiola is an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada and a descendant of the Swinomish Tribal Nation near La Conner, WA. She and her younger brother grew up on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, WA. She is currently a junior at Western Washington University and is designing her own major titled: American Indian Health and Policy, through Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Study while simultaneously working through the prerequisites for medical school. Vendiola works for the Lummi Indian Business Council at the Lummi Tribal Health Center as the Community Health Representative. Post her undergraduate, she plans to go to graduate school specifically for American Indian health. Vendiola is currently on track to attend medical school in two years. Vendiola’s future goals include working with Tribal nations in their tribal health centers and evaluating and updating policies and acts that influence and change the quality of healthcare that American Indian/Alaskan Native communities receive. Her life goals focus around helping to fight for the rights of American Indian/Alaskan Natives specifically in health related topics.
Tahlia Natachu is an enrolled tribal member of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. Her clans are a frog and a child of the sun. She has a BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Secondary Education along with two minors in American Indian Studies and Education and Social Justice from Western Washington University. She will be starting her Graduate program at Portland State University where she has been accepted into the American Indian Teacher Program where she will receive full funding for her Master’s degree and teaching license. This program will focus on Native pedagogies and epistemologies in order to create effective Native teachers for Native students. She plans to move back home to the Zuni Reservation when she is finished with school to begin teaching in the school district she grew up in.