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Collaborating with local Native Tribes

Brad Tyndall | Community College Daily | November 16, 2023


Native students at Central Wyoming College visit the base of Mt. Everest, among other locations, to conduct science activities.

At the heart of Central Wyoming College’s service area rests the Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR), home to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

Headquartered in Fremont County, but also serving Hot Springs and Teton counties, Central Wyoming College (CWC) has been on a journey to better understand and partner with the tribes and our Native students, who comprise about 15% of the college’s 2,000 student body. We strive to take the spirit of Native American Heritage Month and live it out every month in our three basic focus areas to create a holistic, nurturing learning ecosystem:

Photo of Ivan Posey, Eric Bennett, Rory Tendore and Lisa Appelhans
  • Outreach and community building through the Institute of Tribal Learning
  • Comprehensive student support
  • Personally transformational academic programs and research

Our four main leaders, each with deep reservation ties, are Ivan Posey, Eric Bennett, Rory Tendore and Lisa Appelhans. I, my presidential cabinet, and all of CWC and our college board join these leaders in supporting our tribal communities as a vital part of the college’s mission.

With the guidance of these leaders and advice from our Wind River Advisory Committee, CWC has learned key lessons and has developed some very good programming and support services.

The Institute for Tribal Learning

CWC’s Tribal Education Coordinator Ivan Posey has helped the college take a much deeper and broader approach to helping our Native community. He established CWC’s Institute of Tribal Learning around 2017 to take the college well beyond its for-credit offerings. By recognizing that the greater reservation and European-American communities have a big impact on our Native students, CWC expanded its educational paradigm to include outreach, seminars and training for the community at large. We all need to understand tribal issues for partnered, respectful solutions. 

November is Native American Heritage Month

The Institute of Tribal Learning offers non-credit seminars and training to staff and the public. “Wind River 101,” as we call it, is required by all full-time CWC employees and is offered to the public. It’s a two-hour crash course on things you need to know about the reservation. Many public groups, such as Rotary and chambers of commerce have asked for this seminar training.

We have also provided a number of speaker series on important topics such as “blood quantum,” how different tribes define what genetic heritage is necessary to be an enrolled member. As people intermarry, many tribes are losing members. The Institute of Tribal Learning respectfully discusses important issues like this.

Ivan Posey brought in the Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) organization to gather tribal people for a few days to define the true challenges and solutions for our Native communities. Topics included intergenerational trauma, challenges with transportation, housing, addiction, math and so much more. We determined that providing better familial and community services could be the basis for addressing all other issues. We decided, for our part, to provide more services and guidance from in-house aunties and uncles, so to speak.

A framework for student support

To gain the necessary resources, in 2020 we advocated to become a Native American-serving nontribal institution. With this federal status as a minority-serving institution, while also pushing for more philanthropy dollars, we had the resources to bring in Rory Tendore and Lisa Appelhans to support “Uncle Ivan” as aunty-like support figures for our students.

An important step for CWC was truly understanding tribal sovereignty. Before we start any major new initiative or meeting with tribal partners, we remind everyone that we are serving sovereign nations who will tell us what makes sense. I like to tell staff to pretend they are discussing ideas with France. We wouldn’t just march on over and start offering classes and community-building activities with predetermined ideas of what is best for the French. We would need to not only get input, but also permission.

To support the WRIR, we recognize that as a community college our role is to help the two tribes as they see fit and not jump to any conclusions from a Western European mindset of what “development” or “progress” should look like. Our college’s mission to “transform lives and strengthen communities” is framed by what the tribes and tribal students tell us. To ensure we do this, we rely heavily on Ivan, Eric, Rory and Lisa and our advisory committee.

In listening to our Native staff and students, we have learned the importance of indigenizing our student experiences and learning. A major example of this was the formation of the Tribal Wisdom Society (TWS), another creation of Ivan Posey. Rather than thinking of the TWS as a leadership development program, which is a Western concept, it is more of finding one’s role in the community. In pre-colonial times, for example, many tribes had societies, groups who took care of certain tasks, and each person was a valued member. As is often said, tribes did not have a social welfare system but instead people were guided into different roles. The TWS works to help students find their role, purpose and meaning in life within their tribe, family and community. By doing so, they each become a servant leader in some way, but those are my Western words for this.

Transformational academic programs

Helping grow future leaders in an appropriate indigenized way is critical for the Wind River Reservation. This reservation, like many others, has social and economic challenges that can only truly be fully understood and addressed by the sovereign peoples themselves. CWC’s tribal faculty have worked with other tribal members to design curricula for programs that work to develop future leaders.

Eric Bennett is the lead faculty member for the associate- and bachelor’s-level programs, and he teaches the classes in our beautiful Intertribal Education and Community Center on the main campus in Riverton. Since 2018, CWC has responded to community requests by offering a Tribal Leadership Option in our new Organizational Management and Leadership bachelor of applied science degree.

Group photo of CWC students in Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park
CWC students in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park.

More broadly, to support more close-to-home education, we have also formally created the CWC-Wind River initiative, with CWC courses now formally offered on the reservation itself. For this, the college established memoranda of understanding with both tribes, once again respecting their sovereignty over education for their peoples.

To create transformational life experiences for our students outside the classroom, CWC has created many outdoor science experiences where Native students can conduct science activities on mountain peaks and trails in Wyoming, across the U.S., in Africa and even at the base of Mt. Everest to ignite their passion for science and culture.

As I reflect on all that CWC has done over the recent years, I believe that we have done some good work, but there is so much more to do. We will need to continue to follow the lead from our sovereign partners and, in the spirit of Native American Heritage Month, learn to better appreciate and grow from their rich heritage.