Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Arriving at the College of Menominee Nation

We arrived in Wisconsin on this fifth and penultimate leg of our trip to an unseasonably hot and humid climate of Green Bay, then to the thicket of the Menominee Nation. Making our way through the forest, we arrived at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Keshena to meet our our subjects for this project. They were gathered on the steamy afternoon planting their sustainable, permaculture garden under the blue water tower on campus at the entrance to the Menominee Nation Reservation.

Fruit trees, carrots, corn -- all types of veggies and fruits remain from the previous growing season and newly planted foliage are near the walking trail that leads into the forest behind the campus. Some of the beds are plotted to shape out the letters CMN. The garden, set up by a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative, is led by education major Dee Cobb. Using plants that replenish themselves by seed or annual fruit production, this sustainable garden is much like the students we meet to interview, being that they are all looking for their role in what types of seeds they have planted for themselves at this small tribal college.

The college on this reservation and the people here seek to thrive through education to better their community and traditions. One group, coming off a busy day of interviewing from their own video project, hope to learn and study elders' experiences and observations concerning climate change.

We enjoyed a visit with tribal college president Verna Fowler and learned more about the programs at the school and what we could expect from CMN in the future. There is an excitement towards the development of niche, Native American-driven, four-year degree programs beyond the sole four-year major in education currently offered. Many of the students we met are completing their degrees to move on to one of the many other colleges in the state of Wisconsin. Everyone remaining on the campus since classes ended is preparing for their commencement ceremonies on June 5.

One of our highlights of the trip has been the opportunity to talk with Cedar - one of our students featured in our Think Indian PSA campaigns. We found her on campus, no longer a student, but a recent graduate from a nearby university and now employed as an alumni employee of the college. We took time to interview her in a stunning atrium joining Shirley Daly Hall and Glenn Miller Hall in the center of the campus. The glass-paneled room, lined with hand-carved wooden accents, has a large Menominee ancestral bear carving bearing a ceremonial pipe and wearing a headdress, and made from the trunk of a butternut tree.

We also met one of our students and wer honored to be invited to see where he lives. Ironically, we were delayed by troubles with the vehicle he uses to commute to school, underscoring his financial need, but we continued on with our meeting and shared stories and songs along the shores of Legend Lake as he welcomed us into his life.

-Jaime Aguilar and Jonas Greene

Friday, May 21, 2010

Northwest Indian College - Day 2

After an amazing visit in Tulalip, Phillip and I continued north to Lummi where we had the great fortune of taking part in honoring the ruturn of the salmon. During the annual First Salmon Ceremony, the Lummi people celebrate the return of the salmon to the region's rivers. There were hundreds of tribal members and visitors gathered to take part the honoring. The treat of fresh-caught salmon was a delicious detour on our visit to the Northwest Indian College main campus.

In the few years since my last visit, the vision of the new campus has started to take shape. Three of the new buildings across the road from the original sight are now complete. There is now student housing as well as a new cafeteria and student services building.

We met many amazing American Indian College Fund scholars and were graciously welcomed by students and staff. We even ran into Sunny Guillory, who worked with the College Fund several years ago on a public service piece. Sunny has since graduated from Sitting Bull College as well as University of Mary. She now has a beautiful family of five, and her husband, Justin Guillory, Ph.D., serves as NWIC's dean of academics and distance learning.

On our way out, we stopped to admire the buildings and structures on the original campus. It's always natural to stop and admire the beautiful totem pole next to the NWIC library, one of the community's oldest buildings. Phillip was kind enough to take some time to tell us about this historical work of art.

--Jonas Greene

Northwest Indian College Visit

May 19, 2010

This week the tribal college tour continued to Northwest Indian College. We recruited former College Fund Media Manager Phillip Hillaire (Lummi) to serve as a liaison to his Native community. Of the tribal colleges, Northwest Indian College (NWIC) is very well known for pioneering distance learning programs. The college has several tribal locations in Washington and Idaho, making it possible for students to complete degree programs without having to travel to the Lummi campus.

As we made our way north on I-5 we could feel that this would be a very special trip. Our first stop was in Tulalip, where we met with American Indian College Fund scholar, Jennifer Cordova-James (Tlingit), who attends the Tulalip campus of the Northwest Indian College. Jennifer was more than happy to tell how this distance learning actually works and walk us through a typical day at the Tulalip campus.

--Jonas Greene

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Coaching and Investing in Our Students' Futures

Most of us who have achieved a measure of success in our lives had someone special who believed in us—a family member, teacher, coach, or other caring individual who provided encouragement at a critical time.

I was raised by my grandmother from the time I was five months old. We were very poor, often living on less than $50 per month. At times we went without real food for weeks, subsisting solely on coffee and homemade bread.

When I was six years old and my grandmother was in her mid-fifties, the two of us worked as a team, picking potatoes as migrant workers.

My grandmother was well educated, especially for an American Indian woman born in 1899. Although money was extremely tight, every time she got a buffalo nickel, she put it in a can. “This is your college money,” she would say.

My grandmother died when I was a senior in high school. I was devastated. At 17, I thought my life was over. The person who believed in me and cared about me most was gone. But she had sown a seed—belief in the value of an education. And eventually her dream for me was fulfilled.

I worked my way through college cleaning animal cages. I advocated for Indian prison inmates, mentored Indian kids, and worked at the Native American Rights Fund. In 1975, I became the first American Indian to graduate from the University of Nebraska.

Today, as President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Indian College Fund, I help our country’s Native people take the most important step to controlling their destiny and improving their lives. I help them get an education.

I wanted to share my story to help inspire others. I also want to let all of you know--students, donors, tribal college faculty and staff--that I am proud and grateful to have you as a partner in this important work.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Salish Kootenai College Visit


We arrived in Missoula, Montana on Sunday May 9 on this leg of our video project. It is Mother’s Day and we headed north to Polson to set up our base camp for the next three nights on the southwest side of Flathead Lake. We were only 80 miles away but took longer than expected through the rain and stopping to take the time to capture the picturesque landscape going along roads lined with Salish and Kootenai-translated street signs leading to the reservation. Between the rustic structures surviving in the valley between the mountains to the lake that frames the land in-between, we took the time to photograph the atmosphere. Standing outside the car after trying to photograph an eagle we spotted, I am filled with awe as my senses are filled to the point that the shutter is not taking photos anymore, and I find myself looking up with sprinkles of rain tapping my head.

We finally arrive at the KwaTaqNuk Resort hotel on the lake and are greeted by the warm welcoming smile obscured by a burly mustache of Tribal Council Secretary Steve Lozar. The active tribal member and avid hockey player gave us the run-down of the reservation’s history, the present-day activities and the future of this culture-rich setting in Western Montana. Lozar addressed issues that spanned water management, the hydro-electric dam, ecology, historical treaties, claiming back tribal lands, relations with neighboring tribes, the importance of St. Ignatius hospital, energy production, economics, gaming, healthcare, SKC, the confederation of the tribes and much more useful information. He was absolutely informative to us and spoke with ease as numerous people passing by respectfully greet him or wave as they walk by.


The wind is howling and crashing the waves on this brisk, gusty morning. We wake up to the magic hour of freezing temps, only to be warmed by the dramatic light of the sunrise with Glacier National Monument way far in the horizon’s haze. Jonas, looking for more on the lake, finds his way onto an airboat vessel with Captain Dave Kluttz and a group of researchers studying the invasive plants, fish, shellfish and barnacles plaguing the body of water in the middle of the reservation. I remained on dry land planning our Monday, which started with rescheduling and weather delays.

We received a heartwarming welcome to the SKC campus, a gem of the Tribal College system dug deep under the canopy of 60-ft Ponderosa Pines in the town of Pablo (also known as Little Blackfeet, a reference to the small village of Blackfeet tribal descendants.) Lois Slater, Tracy McDonald and Alan Addison gathered our selected students for us and treated us to Indian tacos and an informal meet-and-greet for us all. We walked and toured our way through the campus and the student housing facilities. We met non-traditional students enrolled to “make themselves a better opportunity and to make (themselves) better Native American women.” We had a traditional straight powwow song performed on a hand drum for us by a Native student, a single parent who teaches children lessons in powwow and tradition while attending classes, a grandmother learning how to work on a computer, and a non-traditional college student starting with history and language to cover “basics” towards a degree. No matter what the field, the common theme among the students here is success, and success comes within and within the family. As they see the college grow within the community and course offerings expand, they believe Salish Kootenai College is a place where they can complete their dreams of accomplishment and leave with confidence, evincing pride for their school and for who they are.

After the final interviews we head towards the River Honoring ceremony at a camp 20 miles south of our location along the Flathead River. The river that brings life, power and energy to the people of these confederated tribes is lined with teepees as the days-long event receives its kick-off blessing. We took the time to talk with some of the elders, introducing ourselves, sharing stories and sharing our Think Indian shirts. The cool evening was late but we took the time to harvest every bit of that’s evening’s light; pushing every ray until we could only rely on the ambient light of dusk to guides us back to pavement through ranchland on gravel-topped dirt roads.


After a long Monday, we are up early in anticipation of the morning’s wonderful light along the lake and mountain range, only to be greeted by overcast skies and a great breakfast. This morning we go to the Tribal Council offices, located within walking distance to the school, to sign up for their twice-a-week meeting agenda for the day so we can introduce ourselves. We sign in and are introduced by Tracy within the neatly designed council chambers. It is much like any other council benches, with the exception of the towering, vaulted design. From the outside, the tall cylindrical architecture looks like a drum and inside, the pine lodge-poles tower up like tepee poles, meeting at a skylight centered directly above the aesthetic, glazed stone d├ęcor and floors that sat a stone table beneath where we spoke to the Council from our seats and microphones. We thanked the members and told them bout our video project and they responded by expressing their appreciation what we do at the College Fund and what do to make the life of Native American students better.

It is our last full day in Montana and we had a great opportunity to meet environmental scientists, chemists, counselors, student leaders and those inspiring to do so. We had a great interview with Tribal College President Dr. Joe McDonald, future educators, an aspiring nurse and single parents making the grades in advance courses while including their children with them in their extracurricular activities of school and life.

We learned that people are here to make a difference; to be themselves as they move through academia. With top-notched facilities, this place is well ahead and well on its way to bigger and better things. Many of these students we met will continue on to post-graduate studies and pursue their relative fields of interest. We wish them all the best and it was an honor to meet everyone on this trip.

We chased eagles, stopping the rental car for interesting vantage points as we headed out. Jonas and I have had some time to drive together and get to know each other more. (Jonas works at a location in Portland, Oregon, so we don’t normally have this opportunity.) We ate at strange hours and work really long days with a lot to do in a short amount of time. It was worth the effort, even with the failed attempts to photograph animals and birds that caught our eyes. I feel blessed that we did capture the essence of what makes this place special. We are now leaving, but learning, as we work to provide what we can do make a difference. Educating the mind and spirit.

To the students, staff, community, tribal members and the State of Montana--thank you for your incredible hospitality, kindness, beauty, inspiration and assistance. It was you combined with all the elements of communication, willingness and weather that all come together to make this a memorable and remarkable experience.

-Jaime Aguilar,