It is rare for the leaders of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes to all congregate in one location, but on May 5 they did just that at the University of Oregon to sign a momentous agreement to strengthen support for Native American students.
Leaders from the tribal nations joined President Michael Schill to sign a memorandum of understanding that will enhance collaborative efforts on academic and cultural initiatives. The document builds upon years of collective work between the tribes and the UO to make the university an environment where Native students can succeed in their pursuit of a college degree.
“This MOU will maintain and strengthen our relationships with the tribal nations so we can work together to support Native students,” said Jason Younker, a member of the Coquille Tribe and the UO’s associate vice president and advisor to the president on sovereignty and government-to-government relations.
“This reflects the success of several other joint initiatives between the tribes and the UO that have helped make the UO an institution of choice for Native students,” he said.
Younker’s position, which helps foster strong relationships with the tribes, is one of these successes, as is the Residency by Aboriginal Rights Program, which provides in-state tuition for all members of the tribes and bands that have a historic relationship to the land that became Oregon. Other successes include providing support for the UO’s Many Nations Longhouse and the raising of the flags for each of Oregon’s nine U.S. recognized tribes, which help Native students feel at home on campus and recognize the significance of the First Peoples.
“The flags are a symbol of unity, a symbol of inclusiveness, a symbol of how much Native Americans mean to this university,” said Schill, during his address at the signing ceremony. “With this MOU, we will create many more exciting and barrier-breaking programs.”
This memorandum of understanding is the first-of-its-kind in the state of Oregon and a rare arrangement in higher education.
“It recognizes and respects the sovereignty of Oregon’s tribal nations,” Younker said.
While on campus, the tribal leaders also toured the UO’s new residence hall that will house the newly established Native American and Indigenous Studies Academic Residential Community. It has been a priority for the Native community for years and is representative of the kind of support the tribes hope to see from the UO.
“This academic residential community will provide a sense of community and culture, as well as a strong academic support system for the students who will live and study together,” said Jennifer O’Neal, a UO historian and archivist and a member of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
O’Neal, also a Native studies, history and Clark Honors College instructor, is one of the Native faculty members responsible for spearheading the development of this initiative.
The Native academic residential community, a unique offering in Oregon, will begin hosting students this fall to help with the transition to college life, which can be a tough time for any student, but tends to be especially hard for Native students coming from their respective reservations and tribal communities.
“There are generally few opportunities to access higher education, and students are often the only one from their community,” Younker said.
The new housing is positioned next to the Many Nations Longhouse, which will enable students to easily access its many cultural, social and academic events. The Many Nations Longhouse, where Friday’s memorandum of understanding was signed, was constructed with timber and donations from the tribes. It is considered one of the most impactful collaborations between the tribes and the UO.
It was the Many Nations Longhouse and this growing support for the Native community on campus that helped Beth Dyea, a Laguna Pueblo and Navajo undergraduate student, decide to attend the UO.
“When I first came to the state of Oregon, I hated it here. I felt like no one understood me. I didn’t see any other Natives,” she recalled.
When someone introduced her to the Many Nations Longhouse, she found the support system she needed. “Now, I feel happy and supported. I found my people, found my community,” she said.
The supportive community for Native students, she said, has both enticed her to attend the UO and has kept her on track to graduate. She’s found resources like the dedicated Native American academic advisor and student retention specialist immensely helpful throughout her academic career.
“They’ve helped me realize a college degree is something that’s really going to change my life,” she said.
Dyea now spends a significant amount of her time at the Many Nations Longhouse, helping to boost the community that’s played a critical role in her college experience.
On Thursdays, she serves as a peer advisor during study hours for Native American students and then attends a Native American Student Union meeting, where she assists in planning events like the annual Mother’s Day Pow Wow. Her day ends with a potluck at the Many Nations Longhouse, where up to 100 Native Americans from the UO community – and beyond – gather every week to share an evening meal.
Dyea is studying ethnic studies and Native American studies, which became a new minor at the UO in 2013 and has offered the Native community a hub for intellectual activity. There are also monthly research colloquiums in which students and faculty in the field of Native American studies share their research and solicit input from peers to further their projects.
The Native Strategies Group has spearheaded many of these initiatives. Its membership of faculty, staff and students meets regularly to collaborate on ideas and initiatives that build on this momentum for the Native community.
“The UO has become a good place to be a Native student and Native faculty member,” said Brian Klopotek, a Choctaw professor in ethnic studies and director of Native studies.
“Almost anywhere you go in academia, Natives are going to be a small part of the population. The Native Strategies Group has created camaraderie, community and an intellectual space that’s nourishing to Native Americans, and very hard to come by in the academic world.”
The few Native faculty members at the UO have voluntarily assumed instrumental roles with building and maintaining this community on campus. In addition to their own teaching and research, they serve as active members of the Native Strategies Group, faculty advisors during Native study hours and leaders for the new Academic Residential Community.
“We want to give back and make sure our students are taken care of,” O’Neal said. “That’s what you do in the communities we come from.”
While Native faculty members, staff and students are eager and enthusiastic to help create a supportive environment for the Native community, there is a common sentiment that everyone benefits from increased numbers of Natives on campus – as faculty members and students.
Many hope the new memorandum of understanding will help this growth. During the signing ceremony, a number of tribal and university officials expressed the belief that the agreement will boost recruitment and retention of Native Americans as it facilitates a stronger partnership between the tribes and the UO.
“When we come together and work together, amazing things happen,” said Brenda Meade, chairwoman of the Coquille Tribe. “When our young people are looking for an education to do great things, the University of Oregon is the school for them.”
—By Emily Halnon, University Communications