University of Wyoming senior Ashlee Enos is in a crowded campus ballroom, watching a hip-hop artist from the Crow Nation who goes by the name ‘Supaman’ do his thing.
“I think it’s awesome that we have someone who’s so into the culture, and wants to give cultural awareness to the public,” Enos says.
Enos is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. She says there aren’t many others at UW.
“It’s a very small number,” she says. “Maybe less than five.”
Less than one percent of total students here identify solely as American Indian—just 91 of more than 13,000.
Next month, Laurie Nichols will take over as UW President. She says one of her priorities is building deeper relationships with the tribes on the Wind River Reservation. Many hope that new leadership means UW will do a better job recruiting, retaining and graduating Native American students.
Enos is part of UW’s ‘Keepers of the Fire,’ a campus group that promotes Native American heritage and culture through events like this one.
“I would like to let people know that we are here—that there’s Native Americans here, says Enos. “We would like other Native students to come approach us, too—to let them know that we’re here, and we’re all together.”
Debra Littlesun coordinates Keepers of the Fire in her spare time. She says the group is one of few beacons of support for Native students. Littlesun’s full-time job is at the financial aid office, but as a Native on campus, she often finds herself filling a void and offering social or academic guidance to a struggling Native students.
“If they didn’t have me as that voice, that student would have probably dropped out or gone home, which is some of the advice that they’ve received in other offices,” Littlesun says.
Retention rates for Native students remain below the campus-wide average. Despite a handful of scholarship opportunities, there are only half as many American Indian undergrads here today as there were 25 years ago.
In the past, the tribes pitched in for UW to employ a Native American support person to work specifically with Native American students.
“Somebody who is Native and maybe who comes from a reservation understands these complexities and these difficulties and barriers and struggles that we experience as UW students,” says Reniette Tendore, a now graduate student who finished her undergraduate degree in 2007.
But UW’s Multicultural Affairs Office cut that position in 2009. Since then, enrollment has tapered off.
Back in Tendore’s undergraduate years, she says that position was a godsend when two of her family members died in the middle of the semester.
“My first instinct right away is to just drop out,” says Tendore. “Because it happened in the middle of the night, and I had to just leave. And I got the phone call the next morning from that Native support person that they already had emailed my professors and said, ‘Don’t worry about it—do what you need to do on the reservation and when you come back, everything will be okay.’ I probably wouldn’t have came back if that wasn’t the case.”
Today, UW’s Multicultural Affairs Office has consolidated down to just two people, and it no longer provides support people for each domestic minority group.
Another thing missing for Native Americans on campus, Tendore says, is a place to call home.
“Culturally, we’re very community oriented,” says Tendore. “We identify with our community and our peers, and that’s what makes us unique. A majority of us come from the reservation and come down here to go to school and we’re leaving our comfort zone. And we need something that can be in place of that.”
There has been a decades-long push to build a multipurpose American Indian Center on campus, a feature found at most of our neighboring state’s universities. An architect drew up a floor plan a few years back, UW added the project to its capital facilities plan, but it’s been on pause.
“We’re ready to roll on our side, but I just think it’s been dead in the water at higher levels of administration,” says American Indian Studies director Caskey Russell. “We haven’t heard anything about it.”
Russell’s American Indian Studies Program offers a few degree programs and some cultural opportunities, but doesn’t really deal with things like recruitment and retention.
“Really, pure student support, we don’t have that, unfortunately,” says Russell. “The program doesn’t have a position like that. So it’s more of informal student support.”
Russell is looking to bridge the gap between the University and the tribes. He’s developing a program that allows students to earn bachelor’s degrees without leaving the Reservation. UW is also collaborating more with Central Wyoming College to prepare more tribal high schoolers for University life.
Incoming UW President Laurie Nichols says she wants to build on these efforts.
“One thing I heard a lot when I was interviewing is that there is really a desire to take whatever has already taken place—and I know there has been some good work—and really take that to the next level,” Nichols says.
Nichols says some of her best work as South Dakota State University provost has been coordinating with tribes to get more Native students into the college pipeline.