An innovative program that has successfully helped Native Americans earn bachelor’s degrees on a number of reservations in Washington State backed away from a plan to begin classes in Fort Washakie this fall, when it saw more problems than opportunity on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
That’s one way to look at what happened in a turbulent month on the reservation.
Here’s another way to see it: A grassroots campaign fighting for the self-determination of tribal education convinced the Shoshone Business Council to issue a cease and desist order against the Wind River Development Fund, Evergreen’s local partner. The protests, confusion and political turmoil forced the Olympia, Washington, institution to strike its tent and go home.
There is some truth to both accounts. A committee made up of Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone members agitated fiercely against the Evergreen program. On the first day that Evergreen representatives entertained prospective students on campus, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council delivered a cease-and-desist order to the Wind River Development Fund (WRDF), requiring it to stop the development of the reservation-based baccalaureate program.
WRDF notes the order is a resolution, and said it is unenforceable.
Yet the council contends WRDF overstepped its authority and acted without tribal authorization to make a deal with Evergreen, the order said. The nonprofit “falsely claimed to be an authorized representative of the tribe.”
“I don’t want a bunch of non-Indian outsiders coming in here and developing curriculum for our two tribes,” said Wes Martel, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. Martel was not entirely happy about the content of the program, but he was genuinely miffed that Evergreen had not consulted with the tribe early in the process.
“When you come in here on a major effort like that without even consulting the tribes, you’re working against us,” Martel said. “When you have a bunch of outsiders trying to drive an issue as important as education, it don’t set too well with our leadership and our educational people.”
Signed and dated March 4, the cease-and-desist order was delivered to the WRDF offices in the Frank B. Wise building in Fort Washakie on March 13, the day the nonprofit first invited potential students for an information session. WRDF went ahead with the session.
Michael Zimmerman, the vice president of academic affairs and provost of Evergreen, then traveled to the reservation to meet with prospective students, his WRDF partners and the tribes. Even after an acrimonious meeting with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, Zimmerman expressed optimism that the difficulties could be overcome and students would be enrolled in the program. But he changed his mind over the weekend and confirmed Monday, March 31 that he had informed both tribes that his college would not pursue the program.
“Moving forward in an anti-Evergreen and anti-Wind River Development Fund environment would do more harm than good,” said Zimmerman. “I don’t see any alternative for us.”
“The how, not the what”
The cease-and-desist order came as a surprise to Evergreen and the WRDF, according to Lorre Hoffman, a staff member at WRDF and a former registrar at the Wind River Tribal College.
“There is nothing to cease and desist,” Hoffman said. “Wind River Development Fund is not developing the program. Evergreen is bringing in a program that it has offered for 20 years. We are just giving them classroom space.”
The Evergreen curriculum centers on tribal government, tribal sovereignty and the sustainability of tribes and reservations.
Zimmerman echoed this point of view at a press conference on March 26, the day after his meeting with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council: The program would belong to Evergreen. WRDF was offering to be a point of contact on the reservation.
“The Wind River Development Fund has agreed to help us recruit students,” Zimmerman said. “We are thrilled by that, but we are also looking for any other partner who will help us recruit students, traditional-age and non-traditional-age students. The Wind River Development Fund has also agreed to provide us some teaching space.”
The press conference came the day after Zimmerman’s meeting with the Shoshone Business Council. The timing was a problem for Harmony Spoonhunter, education director for the Eastern Shoshone tribe.
“We met with Michael Zimmerman and told him that we would evaluate the program and let him know if we would partner with Evergreen,” Spoonhunter said. “We told him that we would get back to him in a couple of weeks. And when he left the meeting he said he really wanted the programs and the partnership. Then the next thing we knew, the next day, there was a press conference. He was going ahead without the partnership.”
Spoonhunter is also a member of a higher education steering committee that wants to get a similar baccalaureate program off the ground on the reservation. The committee wants to start with a two-year tribal leadership degree from Central Wyoming College. The committee is inviting the University of Wyoming as a partner for the final two years of the degree.
Echoing Martel, Spoonhunter said the steering committee was upset that the Wind River Development Fund forged a partnership with Evergreen to offer a reservation-based BA plan without seeking input from the reservation community.
“Wind River Development Fund did not reach out to the steering committee,” Spoonhunter said. “It was the how, not the what. Wind River Development Fund was working with Evergreen with no collaboration with the tribes. They didn’t get approval from both tribes. To meet with the tribes is very important.”
Zimmerman and the WRDF both seemed to be operating on the assumption that the nonprofit did not have to seek approval from the tribes.
“I took official approval from the Wind River Community Fund to mean that it had approval from the community,” Zimmerman said. “Their board has members from both tribes. I assume they are well respected members of both tribal communities.”
WRDF is sanctioned to do many things without the approval of the tribes, in particular to make small commercial loans. From its perspective, education is a natural extension of the mandate to do economic development work. “Education is economic development,” Hoffman said.
The tribes, as Martel and Spoonhunter noted, see the WRDF role differently.
Another point of contention was Evergreen’s description of the reservation-based BA as a “community determined” program. The college, according to Hoffman, sees the community as the students and faculty engaged in the educational process. “The students learn to be a community and to shape their education,” Hoffman said.
The tribes and the steering committee see a larger role for the reservation community in fashioning the curriculum and creating a culture of education. Zimmerman said at the press conference that Evergreen faculty were the final arbiters of the BA curriculum.
But at the same time, the website of Peninsula College, one of Evergreen’s partners in the reservation-based BA program, offers a broader understanding of the concept:
“The program is ‘community determined’ by operating in tribal communities at the express invitation of tribes; by relying on tribal advice for assistance in broad curricular and policy decision making; and by utilizing community knowledge,” according to the website.
Hoffman voiced a frustration with the quality of information about the Evergreen program. And while Zimmerman remained upbeat about the program’s prospects during his visit to the reservation, in a phone interview on Monday he noted what he called “an outrageous amount of misinformation about Evergreen and the program.”
“He [Zimmerman] came out here to dispel all of the misinformation that the tribes have received,” Hoffman said in an email to WyoFile. “The Shoshones were very disrespectful, even vicious to him, and the Arapahos are very strongly in support and treated him with respect.”
The Northern Arapaho Business Council told WyoFile it was “neutral” on the Evergreen program, but in favor in general of any program that gave additional educational opportunities to tribal members. “The Arapaho Business Council is not endorsing the program, but it is not opposing the program either,” said a person who was at the Business Council meeting.
Loss or Victory?
For many students, Evergreen’s decision to abandon the program represents an immediate lost opportunity. One of the highest costs of a bachelor’s degree has always been leaving the reservation. Going away to college can create a more painful parting for tribal people than the typical goodbye to parents and siblings. Reservation students give up, at least temporarily, a life centered on community, ceremony and ties to the land.
Many families tell of young people with academic or athletic promise who enrolled in colleges far from the reservation, only to return without a degree when they felt unable to fit in at school. Others come home for funerals or other ceremonies but stay so long that they cannot make up the schoolwork they missed.
The Evergreen program represented a way to keep these students on track. It also offered a rare road to the BA for non-traditional students whose job or family commitments keep them tethered to the reservation. The average age of Evergreen’s reservation-based BA students is 38, according to the Evergreen website.
According to Zimmerman, about 20 students on the reservation expressed interest in attending the program this fall. Thirty students were enrolled in reservation-based programs through Evergreen at the end of 2012, according to the college website.
Zimmerman told WyoFile and, according to Martel, he told the Eastern Shoshone Business Council that he believed the Wind River Development Fund acted as an approved agent of the tribes. Zimmerman says he made contact with WRDF through Mitchell Stone, a higher education consultant who has worked with colleges in Indian Country for two decades. Stone also brokered contact between the Wind River Tribal College and University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Zimmerman served as a dean when a UW-Oshkosh education BA program first came to the reservation.
“We are not preventing anyone from offering any other programs on the reservation,” Zimmerman said while he was visiting the reservation. “If the University of Wyoming wants to come in here and offer a BA, we welcome them. We want to offer an additional option for students.”
Stone also helped Oshkosh bring a higher education program in Human Services to the Wind River Development Fund classrooms on the reservation. He said in an interview over the weekend that the entire controversy came as a surprise to him. He could not be reached after Evergreen dropped the program. “I’d like to see them salvage it,” Stone said on Sunday, March 30. “At the end of the day, this is about students.”
But for many on the reservation, the controversy was about the role of community in higher education.
“I would say it is a success on our part,” said Caroline Mills, a member of the steering committee and the director of the Learning Center in Fort Washakie. Mills graduated from Evergreen State in 1978, but opposed Evergreen’s reservation-based BA program. “Our goal is to make sure the community has input. We want to make sure the tribes have input. We want to do something similar with CWC and UW. We were concerned that with Evergreen here, there would be duplication of programs.”
Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at email@example.com.
WyoFile is a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. Reprinted with permission.