Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Making their place November 22, 2016 story by Carol Schmidt · photos by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez • Published 11/22/16

Bucking a national trend of enrollment decline of Native American students, enrollment of American Indian students has more than doubled at Montana State University in the last decade. In 2004, 268 Native students were enrolled at MSU. This fall, that number was 650. The largest enrollment of Native students is in the College of Nursing (6.5 percent, largely due to MSU’s award-winning Caring for Our Own Program for Native nursing students), followed by the College of Agriculture at 3.7 percent. Many of these students are from Montana’s seven reservations, among the smallest communities in the state.

MSU Native students uniformly say they experience unique challenges. They come from tribal cultures that are largely absent at MSU, leading to isolation and loneliness. Their cultures require that they return home during family emergencies, something that doesn’t coincide with university attendance requirements. Many experience financial hardship. And nearly all students profiled here have had to take breaks in their education for personal or financial reasons.

Yet, as their numbers at MSU grow, so do their achievements.

Here are the stories of seven high-achieving MSU American Indian students or recent graduates—one from each of Montana’s seven reservations—and the paths they have taken to success.


Jordan Adams cradles her infant son, Tripp.


Jordan Adams

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe
Senior majoring in animal science, livestock management and industry option

Adams came to MSU right out of high school. However, “the first couple of years were rough.” She had her first child, Ella, now 4 (she also now has an infant son), and transferred to the University of Montana, where she realized that “teaching high school kids wasn’t what I wanted to do.” A year off working full time on her family’s ranch, and tending to their herd of registered Black Angus cattle, helped Adams realize that it was the land and her family that was important to her. Since her return to MSU “my grades have done a complete 180.”

I want to successfully run the ranch (after I graduate). I want to be able to pass the ranch down to my kids and watch my kids and grandkids run it. It’s what drives me.
—Jordan Adams


Ben Pease and Quannah Duke Pease, 2.


Ben Pease

Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes
Senior majoring in studio art

At 26, Pease already has made his mark in the world of Western and Native art. His paintings are commissioned and represented by several regional galleries.

An athlete who played football at Minot State before transferring to MSU to study art, Pease said he comes from a long line of Crow artists. “I have been drawing since I was 4.”

Pease’s paintings, collages that incorporate historical photographs, vintage ledger paper, artifacts and mixed media, are critically acclaimed. He was featured as “One to Watch” in the August/September issue of Western Arts and Architecture.

I haven’t taken the conventional path, but that seems to work all right. ...Every time I go back to school, people say ‘Why go back to school? You’re already successful.’ But, everyone in our family values education. So I’m taking my time to finish. And every time I go back I learn something new and important. Taking my time works for me.
—Ben Pease


Montana Duke Wilson, left, and his mother, Rosella Sky Arrow.


Montana Wilson

Gros Ventre of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes
Senior majoring in political science and economics

Wilson’s decision to take a year off from Dartmouth College, where he had won a scholarship, and his unexpected facility for writing a legal brief when he pitched in to detangle a tribal court backlog, led him to take and pass the Tribal Bar exam at age 21. After terms as tribal public defender and tribal prosecutor, Wilson decided to return to school at MSU, which was closer to family and tribal spiritual ceremonies. At MSU, he has been president of the MSU American Indian Council and was named a Udall Scholar in Tribal Public Policy.

Wilson would like to be an agent of change in the future, and either law school or a master’s degree in economics are possibilities. Ultimately, he wants to focus on economic development for Native nations to better life on the reservation.

I have a sense of duty that has played into my goals. I put in hard work. My philosophy has been, ‘If you want to change something, lead it. If not me, who? And if not now, when?’ People need to find a sense (of) future success so they will invest in their communities.
—Montana Wilson


Thedra Bird Rattler, right, and her daughter Yvette, left, hold 18-month-old twins Kylie and Kolton, at a family gathering. The twins are Bird Rattler’s niece and nephew.


Thedra Bird Rattler

Blackfeet Tribe
Recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition

Bird Rattler said she had a college degree “in my heart” since she graduated from high school at age 18. But, she started work right out of high school in jobs that included contract health assistant, secretary and customer service representative.

A job cooking for 61 young children at Blackfeet Early Childhood Center led to her passion for nutrition and serving others. In 2009, at the age of 46, she enrolled at MSU to earn a degree in nutrition. Last May, she went through graduation ceremonies on the same day as her eldest daughter. She is the first in her family to graduate from college. She plans to complete a required internship and would like to work in diabetes and preventive education on her reservation.

“Being an older student has held its challenges, but overall this college experience has been a great expansion of my academic capabilities and personal growth,” she said. “I have learned to live in two worlds and feel comfortable doing it.”

This summer Bird Rattler was selected for a prestigious Native American Research Internship in Salt Lake City. She said her colleagues, many destined for careers in medicine, inspired her. “And, they told me that I inspired them,” she said. “Isn’t that something?”


Kristie Russette, right, and her mother, Kim.


Kristie Russette

Chippewa-Cree Tribe 
Senior, majoring in studio art and English composition

Russette is following in the footsteps of her late grandfather, who attended the University of Cambridge. She was salutatorian of her class at Rocky Boy High School but said she was “painfully shy” when she came to MSU as a freshman, until she found a mentor in the form of JoDee Palin, assistant dean in the College of Arts and Architecture. Now a McNair Scholar, a tutor in the English writing lab and a writing mentor in this summer’s inaugural Hilleman Scholars Program, Russette plans to earn a doctorate and work with Native students to ease the transition to tribal colleges and universities for Native students.

More (Native students) need to know that you can actually succeed here. We are often told in our high schools that we can’t succeed in a university, that we should go to the tribal colleges, but, I’ve found we can. Even though there are challenges, Native students need to know, need to believe, they can succeed wherever they go. They need to believe they can do the work.
—Kristie Russette



Noah Jackson

White Clay, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
Junior in music technology, freshman in music education

There were no music lessons in Fort Belknap, so Noah Jackson taught himself to play the piano and compose by listening to a broad range of music on the radio. Before transferring to MSU, Jackson graduated in computer information systems from Aaniiih Nakoda College because he was technologically adept and the tribal college did not have a major in music. That led him to MSU’s music technology program, where Jackson is thriving with the opportunity to “live and breathe music.”

This fall, motivated by his eight years of involvement with the Upward Bound enrichment program for educationally disadvantaged populations as both a student and then a resident adviser, he added a second major in music education to help him realize his goal of returning to the reservation to provide music classes and opportunities at his alma mater, Harlem High School.

“My goal is to set up a recording and music studio on the reservation,” Jackson said. “A lot of students back home are musically gifted. Music sends out a better message. It saved my life, and I think it will help others, too.”

Music is the best way to make me feel human, to connect with others.
—Noah Jackson


Vonnda Lei hugs her son Jadrian, 4.

Northern Cheyenne Reservation

Vonnda Lei

Northern Cheyenne Tribe
Senior majoring in nursing

Being in and out of doctors’ offices with a newborn son, who was born the summer after she graduated from high school, inspired Lei to become a nurse. She asked her professors at Chief Dull Knife Community College where she should study.

“They challenged me to come to MSU,” Lei said. “They said that the requirements are high. That made me want to come more.”

Lei is one of 30 American Indian students who participate in the award-winning MSU Caring for Our Own Program (CO-OP), founded in 1999 to help improve the quality of health care in Native communities by increasing the number of qualified Native nurses entering the health profession.

“I’ve loved my experience with CO-OP—it’s such a great support system,” Lei said. She added that her summer internships in public health nursing have inspired her to work in that field in Lame Deer or Billings when she graduates in May.

I tell other (Native students) … ‘Believe in yourself and keep pushing for what you know you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed, because you can. There’s always a way to do it.’
—Vonnda Lei