Students gather in a sunny living room in the bright red house that serves as the Native American Center on the University of Wyoming campus. They lounge on couches, feet up on coffee tables, bemoaning homework and all the usual college kid stuff. They say they don't know what they'd do without the homey-ness of this center.
"I probably wouldn't have decided to stay here. If it wasn't here, I would have probably gotten really homesick and went home," Northern Arapaho members Chelsea Bad Hawk admits.
"Yeah, I do find myself kind of heading towards the center like pretty much every single day," agrees Dennis Make Shine, president of the organization Keepers of the Fire that recently organized a march for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. He says groups organize events like that one here, or catch a quick snack between classes or meet up for dinner. To these students, it's home base. Literally.
It's also where they both can also get advice of any sort from the Native student advisor Reinette Tendore. Her office is right off the living room, her door wide open.
"As a native student, when you're leaving the reservation, you look for somebody that can kind of support you through everything because of all the unique needs and challenges that we face as Native people," says Tendore. "Leaving the reservation, first of all, to come to a predominantly white campus, is a struggle."
And for a while now, that struggle has been keeping Native students from applying to UW. In fact, when Tendore was a student here a few years ago, she was one of only six Native students. Then President Nichols came along and made it a priority to increase that. She visited the tribes in person often and set a goal to help the Native student population reflect the state's actual Native population. And it worked. The latest numbers aren't in, but Tendore says Native student enrollment is way up.
But then last spring, the UW Board of Trustees opted not to renew Nichols' contract.
"We were shocked and disheartened due to the fact that she had just worked hand-in-hand with us and really sat down at the table and really just tried to identify barriers that Northern Arapaho tribal members go through when trying to get an education," says Northern Arapaho Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter.
He says, right now, that's a huge issue for his tribe since 40 percent of its members are under 18 years old and in search of workforce training.
Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho member James Trosper is now the director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute, but he was also a student and a board of trustee at UW. In these roles, he's seen a lot of presidents come and go and with them a commitment to Native student advocacy.
"The work and dedication that President Nichols had is off the charts in regards to her support of Native American issues and affairs," says Trosper. "And it's going to be difficult for anybody that follows in her shoes to have that level of support."
Trosper says now that Nichols is gone, the Native community wants to support for Native issues rise above the fluctuating personalities in leadership. He's hopeful that's just what the Native American and Indigenous Affairs strategic plan will do.
"I'm taking it as part of my personal agenda to make this as a matter of fact, this is part of what UW does, Mr. or Mrs. President, whoever that is," says Ken Gerow, the advisory council's chairman. "And get behind this, because we're rolling."
Gerow says the plan got input from Wind River tribes and set big goals to improve things like the faculty's sensitivity training, recruiting more Native Americans, figuring out how best to retain them, conducting more research relevant to tribes and many more. And UW Law Professor Jason Robison says it has grander goals too.
"To be blunt, advocacy suggested in the plan for the appointment of at least one Native on the UW Board of Trustees. Further, advocacy for the appointment of Native colleagues in leadership positions," says Robison.
But Eastern Shoshone Council Vice Chairman Leslie Shakespeare just wants to know that all this great progress isn't going to disappear like it has in the past. The strategic plan is only five years and then another will have to be drafted.
"You feel like, you know, there's a change or that uncertainty that you feel like, well, this isn't really going to mean anything, but it's just going to be words on paper," says Shakespeare. "Because we're not sure if an administrative change is going to share those same goals and values that that plan was created out of."
Angela Jaime, director of UW's Native American Indigenous Studies program shares some of those concerns. She points out that the plan doesn't have any direct financial support behind it, for instance. But she says the plan does take the long view such as planning for the construction of a new Native American Center when it outgrows the red house, which is happening fast.
"It'd be nice to see in five years that we're too big, and we already kind of are busting in terms office space," Jaime says. "But we'll have a bigger building pretty soon. The hope would be, you know, specifically that it is more inviting to all tribes across the country and beyond borders. That would really be my dream."
Jaime says it also ensures the systems are in place to replace her, the student advisor and other positions, rather than let them lapse as has happened in the past.
But the main thing, Jaime says, is that the plan leads to long term, institutional support for UW's Native community.
"The need for there to be an appreciation for the indigenous people of this land is paramount," she says. "And it will only benefit our students or Native students when the state shows, yes, we value you. And we'll make sure that it doesn't go away and we'll make sure that whoever we hire as the president of the university—the only university in the state—we'll support you."
The university board of trustees hopes to select the new president by next spring.