On the last day of the semester at the Wind River Tribal College in Ethete, Dr. Tarissa Spoonhunter was in the kitchen cooking a big pot of chicken noodle soup.
"This is kind of my treat to them, for surviving the semester and making it to the end," she said. "And you never send your warriors hungry!"
Spoonhunter is a professor of American Indian Studies at Central Wyoming College (CWC), but she teaches many of her courses at the Tribal College. When she calls her students "warriors," she means it. They come to class to learn about their power as Native people — their sovereignty, their treaty rights — things Spoonhunter said not enough tribal members are formally educated about.
"But yet, it's the foundation of everything that we deal with. We wake up, we're sick, we gotta go to [the Indian Health Service]. That's from our treaty rights," Spoonhunter said. "Aye, my kids say, 'Why do we gotta go to school?' Because that's a treaty right. We want to make sure you're educated so you can protect our home, our land, our children."
That's why Spoonhunter and others at CWC have been fighting hard to get a new degree program accredited: a four-year Bachelor of Applied Science in Organizational Management and Leadership, with an optional concentration in Tribal Leadership. Students on that track would take courses in tribal governance, tribal resource management and Indian law, sharpening the very specific skills required to be an effective tribal leader.
The degree program has been approved through the college's internal evaluation process and by the Wyoming Community College Commission. The Federal Higher Learning Comission is expected to decide whether to accredit the program some time in the spring.
During Spoonhunter's Federal Indian Law class, Latonna Snyder presented on a 1955 Supreme Court decision involving the Tee-Hit-Ton Tribe of Tlingit people in Alaska, and how that ruling impacts life on the Wind River Reservation .
"The reason why I picked this [case] is this is kind of across Indian Country, how they say that the land's not ours. We're free to live here as long as we want, but we just can't ever own the land," Snyder said.
Like many of Spoonhunter's students, Snyder is a tribal employee. She heads up the Human Resources department for the Northern Arapaho Tribe. But much of the material in the American Indian Studies courses she's taken has been brand new to her.
"I felt like every tribal employee should have taken those classes because it gives you an insight on the laws, what we can and cannot do." Snyder said.
She said the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes need more employees who are highly trained in tribal governance. But for a lot of people on Wind River, that kind of education is out of reach. Rose Trosper, who works as a benefits specialist in the Human Resources department with Snyder, explained that seeking a Bachelor's degree didn't feel like a real option for her after she finished her Associate's at CWC.
"Because I have a family. I have a home here [on the reservation]. Everything's here, my job. And it wouldn't be easy for me to just pick up and leave and go somewhere to go to school," Trosper said.
If all goes as planned, CWC's proposed BAS degree will allow students to get their Bachelor's without leaving Fremont County, maybe without leaving the reservation.
Trosper and Snyder are both part of a small cohort who are pursuing Bachelor's degrees through a partnership between the tribal college and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and they're both close to graduating. Otherwise, they say CWC's proposed BAS in Tribal Leadership would've been right up their alley. And they hope other tribal members take advantage.
"We're going to have that option, where our [higher education] options have been limited for a really long time," Snyder said. "This will be an option for us to get our education without leaving the reservation, without leaving our families and relocating to a different lifestyle."
Representatives from the federal Higher Learning Commission visited CWC's campus earlier this month to evaluate whether it's ready to offer this degree program. CWC President Brad Tyndall said they asked a lot of questions about the college's academic master plan, student affairs and how the degree fits in with community workforce needs.
"They wanted to know if we have enough parking lot space. We do. And if we have enough classroom space. We do. We demonstrated all these things. So, overall, I think we have a very high probability of approval. And hopefully I don't have to eat my words later, but I'm feeling pretty optimistic," Tyndall said.
Dr. Spoonhunter and the rest of the American Indian Studies team were part of that evaluation process.
"And there was one question that stumped us," she said. "It was, 'What if you fail?' And it was dead silence. Nobody even thought of failing!"
Because they'd seen firsthand how badly Wind River wants and needs this option. Spoonhunter said she and her team have identified at least 200 people on the reservation who have some level of higher education under their belt, and could benefit from the option to pursue a Bachelor's degree locally.
"As Native people, we have suffered so much that even if we fail, we learn. We get up and we try again," Spoonhunter said. "And to me, one student getting a degree is enough for celebration."
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.