The Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center opened Friday on the University of Wyoming campus during an event attended by high-profile dignitaries from across the state.
The center — now home to the university’s tribally-driven research arm and the American Indian Studies program — will provide a space for Native American students to gather, find resources and study.
The center focuses on connecting tradition and culture with higher education and promotes a more tight-knit community among UW’s Native American population — which is important for students used to the more collectivist community of the reservation, Center Director James Trosper said.
“It’s an accomplishment for all of us,” he said. “I was thinking about all of the people who helped to make this happen and it’s never just one person … There are so many people who came together and helped make this happen.”
The center was first conceived about 15 years
Appointed to the UW Board of Trustees in 2002, Trosper talked to Native American students about their experiences on campus and what UW might do better to make them feel more welcome.
Trosper said opinions often varied, but one issue seemed to be universal: Native American students said they wanted a place to gather and embrace their culture, which is sometimes at odds with the competitive, individualistic culture of a college campus.
The center, now open, represents the most visible initiative geared toward Native American recruitment and retention enacted since UW President Laurie Nichols took office in July 2015. Other initiatives included the establishment of a Native American Summer Institute at UW for high school students and more frequent communication and visits to high schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation by recruiters and administrators.
The grand opening — replete with opening prayer, cedaring ceremony, ROTC color guard, drum beats provided by Herb Augustine and the Eagle Spirit Drum Group and a gubernatorial proclamation signed by Gov. Matt Mead — hosted several speakers, who praised the center’s founding and mission and spoke to the importance of its inclusion on campus.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Laramie, who served on the original steering committee for the center with Trosper, led the event as master of ceremonies.
“This (center) is so much more than a building,” Ellis said. “It is a dream and it is an idea. It honors our ancestors by underscoring the value of knowing your culture and knowing your history for appreciating the sacrifices that so many people made so that we have these opportunities.”
Representatives from both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes — John Washakie and Burnett Whiteplume, respectively — addressed the gathered crowds, speaking to the importance of higher education for the wider Native American community.
“To paraphrase what my great-grandfather Chief Washakie said, ‘Well, I fought for our land, water, our way of life, but now, education is what is needed to protect them,’” John Washakie said.
Mead, Nichols, Rep. Liz Cheney, Sen. Mike Enzi, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, UW Board President John MacPherson and Vanessa Sorrels, president of the Keepers of the Fire student organization, also addressed the audience.
“This facility is going to be a blessing for Wyoming and first people from all over America,” Enzi said. “And I think it will attract a lot of people to Wyoming and make a tremendous difference in their life. It will also be an influence on all of us who are not first people.”
Nichols spoke of the center being a necessary and important step to improving the university’s relationship with residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation.
She specifically referenced a 2015 incident in which six St. Stephens Indian High School students visiting the University Store were initially suspected of shoplifting, had their bags searched by bookstore employees and were then detained by the UW Police Department. An internal university investigation found no evidence of racial profiling during the bookstore incident.
Nichols said she met with local leaders, school officials, parents and students on the Wind River Indian Reservation to apologize, listen and learn.
“You have my promise that we will honor those lessons as we move forward,” Nichols said.
The president noted the high-profile guests to the event, but said the day ultimately belonged to the students.
“I would just like to say to our Native American students who are with us: this day and this place is for you,” Nichols said. “You are why we are here today. We want you to feel welcome on our campus. We want you to feel valued for the unique talents and experiences and perspectives that you bring to our campus and we want you to feel supported here as you learn.”
Nichols signed a memoranda of understanding and exchanged gifts with Clint Wagon, Eastern Shoshone Business Council chairman, and Lee Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho Business Council co-chairman.
The center is located at 200 S. 10th St. in the building that used to house the Honors Program.
UW Department of Art and Art History faculty Brandon Gellis, Patrick Kikut, Margaret Haydon and Bailey Russel donated original art pieces that will hang in the center.