Increasing Native American Representation At UW: 'There Isn't Just One Answer'

Nov 16, 2018

UW graduation cap beaded by Mikala SunRhodes for Lee "Giz" Tendor's graduation.
Credit Taylar Dawn Stagner

Across the country, Native American students are severely underrepresented in higher education . Only 16 percent of Native Americans have a bachelor's degree. That's compared to 42 percent of white students. But a collective effort — that spans from the Wind River Reservation to the University of Wyoming — is helping to close that achievement gap.

From the outside, Wyoming Indian High School looks like the standard modern public school — brick construction, flagpole, sports fields — but as I followed Fremont School District #14 Superintendent Owen St. Claire inside we walked over blue and red linoleum tiles laid in an Arapaho design.

"You won't see anything like that anywhere else," said St. Claire.

As a Native American educator on the Wind River Reservation, he explained he has a duty to teach more than the state standards.

"One thing that people don't realize is we still practice our culture here," said St. Claire. "Our mission statement is . . . being successful in both areas to be a better person. And so we're pushing the academics on one side, and we're pushing our culture and beliefs on the other side."

And Fremont #14's graduation rate went up from 35 to 63 percent in the last two years. But encouraging those high school graduates to pursue higher education is a bigger puzzle.

"I think what we've discovered is there isn't just one answer," said Roy Brown, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.

Brown said one of the big issues is how to pay for higher education. The median income for Native American families on the Wind River Reservation is less than half of what is for households in the rest of Wyoming.

"There's not a lot of historical information that's passed on from generation to generation about how to pay for college," said Brown.

The more Native Americans who go to college the easier it will be for future generations. And Brown said removing barriers — like tuition costs — will help close the achievement gap sooner.

He says, for example, more could be done to help Native American students get the state-funded Hathaway Scholarship. Typically around 40 percent of Wyoming high school grads receive the scholarship. On the reservation that number is consistently below 10 percent.

"The Hathaway is designed as a one size fits all, and it's tougher for our students to fit that mold."

Brown said schools end up feeling torn between test prep and teaching culture and traditions. He suggested the Hathaway could be more flexible so superintendents like Owen St. Claire aren't put in that position.

But Brown said his community is not just asking for changes. They've been taking action. Back in 1987, the Northern Arapaho Business Council established their own UW scholarship. But it hasn't grown big enough to accommodate increasing interest from Native students.

"Part of the work is to come to the university and explain the issues that we're having," said Brown. "And see if there is a way to collaborate."

Brown said the business council has been in conversation with UW about a tuition waiver to further support Native American enrollment. That proposal is still under consideration, but Brown said UW has been doing more to respond to the needs of Native students.

"I think we find ourselves at a really interesting place right now where we have a combination of individuals who care deeply about this topic," said UW Trustee Michelle Sullivan.

"We have the will but how do we really sustain it with a policy." In her role on the academic and student affairs committee, she said that's something they're working on.

Sustaining support for Native students is also a top priority for James Trosper. He's the director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming, and he was a UW student in the 90s. At that time there was an Indian Education Office on campus.

"And I remember that place was just busy and bustling with students coming and going," said Trosper. "Just a lot of activity there."

But Trosper said institutional priorities shifted and that office went away. He said support for Native American students has been inconsistent over the years. And for many in his community that hits on a distrust for educational institutions that runs deep.

"My grandmother told me about the really clear memories that she had when the police came to her home," Trosper described. "And removed her from her home, and took her to a boarding school."

Trosper said at the boarding school kids were punished for speaking their language or practicing their culture and, "That had to have been harmful to their self-esteem and who they were as Native American people."

In those stories, Trosper heard lessons about the strength and resiliency of his family, but also a warning.

"I really do feel like our people are torn, because, on the one hand, they want our young people to get an education, but it was through education that a lot was taken away from our people," he said.

To send a clear message that Native cultures and languages are welcome at UW, Trosper and many others, worked with university President Laurie Nichols to create The Native American Education Research and Cultural Center. Trosper has been advocating for a center like this for years.

"And I think the message the University of Wyoming is supportive of Native American students is getting to the reservation, because we are seeing some really positive things," he added.

Last year only three Native American students came to UW straight from high school. Often they go to community college first to ease the transition. This year that number has tripled. Trosper said that number will continue to grow if support for Native American students sticks around.