Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Home to many November 22, 2016 by Michele Corriel • Published 11/22/16

Montana State University sits on land that has been welcoming to members of all tribes for centuries. According to Blackfeet legend, the Valley of the Flowers, so called because of the great variety of wildflowers found both on the mountainsides and in the valley, has been a welcoming place to American Indians since a maiden and a white flame appeared to warring members of the Sioux and Nez Perce tribes at a site at the top of the Bridger Mountains. In a sweet voice the maiden sang to the warriors:

“There must be no war in the Valley of Flowers, all must be peace, rest and love.”  The warriors put down their weapons and the valley became a neutral ground to all tribes who traveled across it—Blackfeet, Crow, Bannock, Nez Perce, Flathead and Snake.

Because the number of American Indian students has mushroomed in recent years—there are more than 650 American Indian and Alaska Native students currently enrolled at MSU—the need for services for the students outgrew the former American Indian Clubroom in the basement of Wilson Hall. The 900-square-foot MSU American Indian Student Success Center is located along a hall of classrooms on the lower floor of MSU’s Wilson Hall. Native students also congregate in the American Indian Council clubroom in the basement of Wilson Hall, where there are computers, tables and a place for students to visit.

The unassuming spaces contrast to MSU’s rising national status as a leader in Native American education with a breadth of programming and resources that support Native American students. Indian Country Today identified MSU as one of just five “hot” universities for Native students. Yet, the spaces in Wilson Hall lack what Native students need—“(a) tribal place to be”—as author Sherman Alexie called it.

“When students are coming to MSU, they’re coming home in a lot of ways,” said Walter Fleming, chair of MSU’s Native American Studies Department, who first came to MSU in 1977 as a graduate student. Fleming said Gallatin Valley is historically Indian Country.

“This whole area has always been part of the Indian world.”

Yet, coming to Bozeman can be a “culture shock and a difficult transition,” for Native students, Fleming said. For instance, students coming to a university from a reservation suddenly find themselves as part of a minority for the first time in their lives.

“Fortunately, they are able to make their own community when they interact with other tribal communities that share the same traditions and values.”

However, Fleming said that as far as a physical space, “there isn’t really much (here now) to make them feel at home or a part of the MSU community. A building that is culturally appropriate and is designed to help them feel at home will go a long way to increasing enrollment, retention and, ultimately, graduation.”

The solution is the proposed American Indian Student Center, a building to be built on the Centennial Mall’s eastern edge that would be a touchstone for Native students: a safe place to share meals; a gathering room where people come together to share collective wisdom. The AISC is conceived as a much-needed space to practice Native ceremony and culture. Additional rooms may house tutoring, counseling and mentoring areas, a kitchen, a drum room, space for a future Elder-in-Residence, and rooms for students to visit, study or work on projects.

Fleming hopes to see a drum room, where students can practice singing Native music, and a suite for visiting elders from tribal communities who can mentor students.

“One of the things in building a community is bringing multi-generations together,” he said. And he envisions a space for communal meals because, “food is an important component of creating community.”

The American Indian Student Center also will serve as a bridge between Indian and other cultures and will bring a new focus on the Native American community.

“This center is not just for Native students, but for the whole community,” Fleming said. “It will be a place of gathering. There will be academic and cultural activities and space for other types of classes. We think of it as a gift to the state of Montana. Although, it will be privately funded through philanthropy, it will be something everybody can access. The center is a noble cause.”

The late Elise Donohue believed the proposed project was noble. She felt so strongly about supporting MSU’s Native American student population and the importance of sharing American Indian culture that she donated a $1 million leadership gift to get the AISC project underway before she died, making the program a top priority for MSU’s current comprehensive campaign. It is estimated that the project will cost $10 million, Fleming said.

Sam Phares, Donohue’s son, said the project was important to Donohue, who died in 2015.

“I think my mom had a tremendous sense of fairness and she was aware that there had been too many promises broken to Native Americans over our history,” Phares said. “She hoped the center would be able to help a broader base of students, especially Native American students.”

The AISC is also a priority for MSU President Waded Cruzado, who sees the center as a way to keep Native American students enrolled in college.

“MSU is home to more than 600 American Indian students from 53 tribal nations and 15 U.S. states,” Cruzado said. “As one of the nation’s top institutions where American Indian students earn degrees, we have seen Native enrollment double since 2010. More than ever before, our Native sons and daughters are pursuing degrees in nursing, education, agriculture, science, engineering, art and architecture, and are eager to return to their communities as leaders.”

However, Cruzado said, dropout rates nationally and locally are a concern—almost 22 percent more than non-Native counterparts.

“Too many (American Indian students) feel as though they don’t fit in, become distracted, and the pull to return to family is overwhelming. Many leave the university before completing their education. Our Native students tell us that one of the biggest obstacles to succeeding at college is the feeling of separation and loss from being uprooted from their communities for several years. MSU can do better to provide a home away from home for them.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, American Indian and Alaska Native students have the highest high school dropout rate and are least likely to enroll in college. Once they are enrolled, they’re the second least likely ethnic group to graduate on time, just behind black students, facing the challenge of suddenly becoming a minority in an overwhelmingly white environment.

During a 2015 visit to MSU, author Alexie, a member of the Spokane-Coeur D’Alene tribe who was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, was asked what universities needed to do to help American Indian students achieve their goals.

“Simple,” Alexie said. “Buy a house and make it a Native house. Intensely tribal people need an intensely tribal place to be.”

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