SHERIDAN — A thoughtful, emotional discussion regarding Native Americans and education occurred Feb. 1 at the Sheridan College Thorne Rider Campus Center.
The college hosted a roundtable discussion about facing challenges and creating opportunities for American Indian college students. John Foster Dulles, president of the Human Rights Consultancy, moderated the 10-person discussion. The panelists included educational leaders, tribal representatives and a Wyoming legislator.
The roundtable is one of many events this semester geared toward making Sheridan College a more equitable, welcoming environment.
The initiatives are in response to racial slurs directed toward Native American students on campus last September. The investigation into who wrote the slurs is still ongoing but there have been no new updates since November.
Audience members also spoke and asked questions. Several Sheridan College Native American students shared the challenges that go along with receiving a secondary education.
Aubrey Meiwald, a first-generation student from Hardin, Montana, said she came to Sheridan College because it is close to home.
Madisan Chavez said her family expected her to attend college and also chose Sheridan because of its proximity to her home in Hardin.
They both expressed their willingness to continue in school amidst obstacles.
“Education is what we’re going to succeed with,” Chavez said through tears.
“A lot of us here are fighting,” Meiwald said, also holding back tears. “I’m just here to make myself better.”
Teanna Braine expressed similar sentiments and said it is really difficult to attend college where she looks different than the the vast majority of students, something the panelists echoed throughout their discussion.
Matthew Makomenaw, an administrator with the American Indian College Fund, gave a presentation on American Indian/Alaskan Native education. He presented data that showed that American Indian students have less access to higher education, are less likely to graduate high school and college and account for less than 0.5 percent of faculty in colleges and universities.
Makomenaw also said accurate data can be difficult to find because American Indians are about 1 percent of the country’s population and often are overlooked or lumped in with other minority groups.
The panelists discussed some of the numbers and data more broadly. Kyle Ethelbah, director of the University of Utah TRIO programs, said the numbers are important for people to understand the challenges facing American Indian students, but added that he doesn’t always like quantitative data because it negatively reinforces expectations. It is important not to lose humanity in the data, he said.
Several panelists emphasized the need for a physical location for students to meet and feel safe. Leslie Shakespeare, a councilman on the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, attended the University of Wyoming, where he said he felt like a raisin in a bowl of rice and questioned if he belonged.
Angela Jaime, chair of the University of Wyoming American Indian studies department, said the UW Native American Education Research and Cultural Center, which opened last September, has helped build a sense of community and an increase in self-confidence for students.
Sheridan College does not currently have a physical location but is in the process of securing funding to eventually have a multicultural center on campus.
Sheridan College President Paul Young said the college is also planning to address language and orientation barriers for incoming students. The college will write a report from the roundtable discussion with recommended steps going forward. Young also said he is proud to have courageous students willing to speak up on important issues.
Makomenaw said hiring faculty and staff who care about American Indian students helps create a welcoming environment. Unfortunately, Jaime said, there aren’t many non-American Indian teachers willing to learn about American Indian culture in Wyoming and around the country.
Similarly, another student said Sheridan College needs to look at its faculty policies and procedures, citing a bad experience when a professor made her cry in class due to insensitive comments.
The panelists said these types of discussions must expand beyond the college. Jaime said it is important for the larger Sheridan community to come together and commit to change, which includes learning more about different cultures and occasionally being uncomfortable.
Roy Brown, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, concurred.
“It’s everyone’s problem,” Brown said.
Dulles said the first step toward improvement is acknowledging that racism and other problems exist, and most communities have trouble admitting that.
Crow Nation veterans coordinator Paul Little Light also mentioned that American Indians have generational trauma and find it disrespectful when non-American Indians don’t recognize the historical atrocities committed against American Indians.
Jaime agreed, saying people must take responsibility and apologize for past actions. Without talking about the past, it is impossible to move forward.
“You have to acknowledge the pain,” Jaime said.