The Native American Student Union sent a formal letter detailing five requests for Western’s administration, including a crackdown on “ethnic fraud,” the construction of a longhouse and additional funding for cultural events.
The requests advocated for progress in regard to current and historical issues that Native American students face on campus; these requests were presented by the Native American Student Union, or NASU, on Monday, May 16.
Two of NASU’s requests ask for a “Tribal Liaison Position” to be created to work with the Tribal Nations and for Western to administer training between student governments and the local tribal governments.
Tahlia Natachu, a recent Western graduate and a member of the Zuni Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico, was one of the NASU members facilitating the meeting.
Natachu thinks a Tribal Liaison would help Native American students transition into higher education.
“I think the few Native people on this campus are forced to be our counselors or our mentors,” Natachu said. “They want to and they love us, but they are forced by the institution to do it because we have nobody else to turn to.”
The letter, addressed to President Bruce Shepard, incoming President Sabah Randhawa and the Board of Trustees, asked the administration for a response by Friday, May 20, and invited them to attend the next meeting, which was on Monday, May 23.
Three members of the administration came to the meeting on behalf of President Shepard.
Eileen Coughlin, the vice president of enrollment and student services, Karen Dade, the associate dean of the Woodring College of Education, and Nick Sanchez, Western’s employment inclusion manager, were present in discussing NASU’s requests throughout the meeting.
Dade and Sanchez are members of the President’s Task Force on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. All three were supportive of NASU’s needs.
On a regular night, there are usually less than 10 students attending NASU meetings and an estimated 70 people were in attendance on Monday, Natachu said.
Natachu said she was overwhelmed with joy at the turnout of the meeting. “I felt the love and support of the people that we asked to be there,” Natachu said.
NASU said many of their members leave the university due to lack of support. Western claims to have the highest rate of enrolled Native American students in the U.S., according to NASU’s letter.
Director of Communications Paul Cocke said he was not aware of any such claim by Western and that the school doesn’t appear to have the highest, or lowest, enrollment of Native American students in Washington state. In spring of 2016, there were 49 self-identified Native Americans enrolled at Western and 408 who self-identified as “Native American, as well other ethnic groups,” Cocke said in an email.
Both Cocke and Shepard said several of NASU’s requests were already being considered.
“NASU’s proposals are complex and nuanced, deserving of thorough, thoughtful, and broad-based consideration,” Shepard responded in a letter. “That will take time.”
“If we support Native students on campus, that works towards the betterment of all students on campus.”
Michaela Vendiola, Fairhaven student
Michaela Vendiola, a junior majoring in American Indian health and policy through the Fairhaven College, grew up in the Lummi Tribe in Bellingham.
Not having a Tribal Liaison is a missed opportunity for Western and many colleges in the Northwest already have them, Vendiola said. Tribal Liaison’s work with the tribes surrounding the school and within the state to best figure out what Native students need.
Vendiola said her mother started NASU when she was a student at Western.
“She tells a story to us all the time about how there was one professor here at Western, a Native professor, who she would go to for advising, counseling, just lunch, whatever,” Vendiola said. “One person. One Native person out of the entire campus that she would cry to, laugh with. We need somebody to do that.”
Coming to Western’s predominately white campus from her reservation was a culture shock and at first she felt like she didn’t belong, Natachu said. She considered finding a campus that was more diverse.
“I just couldn’t adjust to seeing my cultural beliefs and morals of love and support and community not being displayed here,” Natachu said.
She was often the only Native American in her classroom, she said. She felt ignored and invisible, especially in the lesson plans, yet hypervisible at the same time, Natachu said.
It was the support of the NASU that convinced her to stay and fight for future generations of Native American students at Western, Natachu said.
“Though it’s been a really incredible journey and has helped me discover who I am and find my strengths, it shouldn’t have been that hard,” Natachu said. “It shouldn’t have brought me to the edge. I just think that Native students in the future don’t need to go through that struggle.”
Additionally, NASU is asking for a Coast Salish Longhouse, similar to those found on other college campuses in the Northwest, though it is not clear if this would be on campus.
The University of Washington completed the construction of its longhouse in March 2015, according to its website. The longhouse, a Lushootseed word which translates to “Intellectual House,” took about six years to plan and construct.
]The 8,400 square foot building cost $6 million to build and was paid for in part by donations and pledges from private individuals and tribal nations and state funding. UW calls it a “multi-service learning and gathering space,” and expects it will “increase Native American enrollment and graduation rates.”
Freshman Madeline Brown, majoring in international business, said she has concerns about NASU’s requests.
“I think the priority of [the requests] isn’t as detrimental as other aspects on campus that could be improved,” Brown said. “But I do think that there is a lack of representation of Native Americans on our campus and putting a traditional Coast Salish Longhouse would be very informational and culturally beneficial.”
NASU would like to see a requirement for students to confirm their tribal enrollment or descendancy.
Junior Nariyan Krsnadas, majoring in business and marketing, was able to get his schooling fully funded through his tribe, the Tulalip. Krsnadas supports ethnic background checks for scholarship applications.
“I think it’s necessary,” Krsnadas said. “I feel like there are a lot of people that may not even know they are Native American that may be eligible for great scholarships.”
Although Western does not currently require students to verify their identity as a Native American, the school will investigate responsible methods that other universities use to verify tribal affiliations, Cocke said.
NASU is requesting its annual Spring Pow Wow to be fully funded by Western, rather than the group’s previous fundraising efforts. This year’s Pow Wow was cancelled due to lack of funding.
Video footage of one Pow Wow was posted on YouTube by Western in April 2015. The union claimed the footage was used against their wishes and without consent.
“Western’s Admissions Office is taking it upon themselves to utilize the NASU’s Pow Wow footage as an admissions tactic to attract more students of color,” the group said in their letter. “The NASU sees it as Western’s obligation to fully fund the Annual Spring Pow Wow.”
Cocke said in an email Western followed the standard process of getting release forms for the event before filming.
“I feel like there are a lot of people that may not even know they are Native American that may be eligible for great scholarships.”
Junior Nariyan Krsnadas
Natachu said this shows a lack of respect toward Native American social celebrations.
“These are sacred things we hold in our hearts and our spirits,” Natachu said. “A piece of paper saying that they legally can take a picture, it’s just not going to work.”
The union’s letter comes nearly three months after the Student Assembly of Power and Liberation presented its petition to the administration and listed several demands, including a new “College of Power and Liberation.”
The Student Assembly of Power and Liberation petition recognized Western occupies Nooksack and Lummi land and said the university must continuously think about the legacy of colonialism upon which we stand.
Although NASU’s letter was separate from the demands made in February, a representative for the Student Assembly of Power and Liberation said on Facebook that the group is in full support of the union’s requests and they are “nothing less than a claim to their humanity.”
Native issues should be considered equally important to school issues because the two are intertwined, such as with economic or environmental issues, NASU member Vendiola said.
“If we support Native students on campus, that works towards the betterment of all students on campus,” Vendiola said.
NASU and the administration discussed plans for a follow up meeting, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, June 7. To find out the time and location of the meeting, check the WWU NASU Facebook page for updates.