An important meeting took place last week on the campus at the University of Montana. Missoulian reporter Chelsi Moy has the story:
For years, the University of Montana has worked to recruit higher numbers of American Indian students, but Montana’s tribal college presidents suggested a different approach during a visit to campus Friday.
Recruit Native American professors, staff and researchers first.
“If you can see people who look like you in the classroom and have had the same experiences, the classroom is more acceptable,” said Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College located on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.
Nearly all of the tribal college presidents from Montana’s seven Indian reservations attended the daylong meeting.
UM President Royce Engstrom invited his fellow presidents to Missoula so he could develop relationships with other higher education leaders in the state, learn more about tribal colleges and look for areas where UM and tribal colleges can collaborate, he said.
“Native American students contribute so much to the richness of our campus,” Engstrom said.
In the next several months, UM will send a team of executive officers to each of the tribal colleges to visit the campuses and learn more about their operations.
Retention rates among Native American students are generally lower than those for UM’s overall student body. There are a number of barriers that tribal colleges and UM face when recruiting Native American students into postsecondary classrooms.
The biggest challenge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is transportation. Very few students have vehicles. Even with the public transportation system, it’s still a challenge, Littlebear said. The college is located in the center of the reservation, but students still travel up to 22 miles one direction to attend classes.
“Even discounted (bus) tickets haven’t worked too well,” he said.
At Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation, a van picks up students, said President Luana Ross. But the four-year tribal college faces other challenges, such as poverty. Students may not have had much exposure to computers and laptops before coming to campus, and therefore need additional instruction.
College preparedness is a challenge at every university or college, but tribal schools such as Pablo’s SKC have fewer financial resources to help students catch up academically, Ross said.
On a bright note, American Indians have made great strides in educating women. Women make up most of the student body at both the Chief Dull Knife and Salish Kootenai tribal colleges. Five of Montana’s seven tribal colleges are led by female presidents, which is unusual, Ross said.
The woman is a stable, grounded figure in Native American families, Littlebear said. If they are attending school and maintaining employment, that sets a good example for the next generation, he said.
Where there’s room for more collaboration is in distance learning, Littlebear said. At Chief Dull Knife, a two-year college, distance learning provides students access to four-year degrees.
At SKC, Ross wants to establish partnerships with UM so students earning baccalaureate degrees on the Flathead reservation can transition into graduate programs in Missoula.
Closer collaboration through research projects and shared faculty between UM and Salish Kootenai will not only help American Indian students make that transition, but also educate UM students about Native American culture and introduce them to different world perspectives, she said.