NWIC students descend on D.C.

From the inauguration, to an environmental rally, to tribal higher education funding, students got involved in the political process

The last month has been busy for Northwest Indian College (NWIC) Students, especially those who – while keeping up with their school work – decided to hop on planes headed across the country to join and observe the political process.

Students sit down with lawmakers
In early February, NWIC students headed to the nation’s capital for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) winter student congress meeting, during which “AIHEC Capitol Hill Visits 2013” also took place.

The Capitol Hill visits gave students the opportunity to sit down with and tell their stories to lawmakers and their representatives, and to ask for continued support for tribal higher education.

NWIC student Aissa Yazzie (Navajo) said the idea of speaking with these lawmakers was more than a little intimidating.

“I was so nervous that another student and I stayed up most of the night before practicing our speeches,” Yazzie said. “We rewrote them about 10 times.”

When it actually came to sharing her story, though, Yazzie said her words came naturally. She didn’t even end up using her prepared speech.

The NWIC representatives, along with all of the AIHEC members who participated, were there to tell their stories and the stories of their colleges. They were there to ask these lawmakers not only to maintain funding for tribal higher education, but to increase it.

Yazzie said she was surprised to learn just how limited funding is for tribal colleges and universities. Victoria Retasket, NWIC’s Dean of Student Life, was also surprised by this.

“During this process, I learned how grossly underfunded tribal colleges are compared to other minority-serving institutions,” Retasket said.

Yazzie said she felt that discussions with lawmakers went really well and that those from Washington were especially supportive of tribal higher education.

“Many said that stories of the tribal students were highlights of their years, or at least their months,” she said.

Yazzie shared with them how important her tribal college experience is and has been for her.

Yazzie went to high school in Bellingham in a class with only one other Native student, but she didn’t realize how much she wanted to be around other Native students until she spent more time at NWIC. Only when she was in a place that understood her identity did she realize how much racism abounded at her high school, and how normalized it was.

Yazzie said tribal higher education has helped her gain a greater understanding of her own culture and that she knows it will enable her to give back to her community.

“Tribal colleges provide us with an opportunity to express our identity through education,” Yazzie said. “I feel that Native students can get a lot more out of a tribal college experience than they could at a mainstream institution. Taking in your own cultural beliefs allows you to use your own connections to your people to educate yourself.”

Students spoke with the following members of congress, or representatives of the members: Representative Suzan Delbene (D-WA-1); Representative Raul Labrador (R-ID-1); Office of Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID);Office of Representative David Reichert (R-WA-8); Office of Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA); Office of Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-9); Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID-2); Office of Senator James Risch (R-ID); Office of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA); and Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA-6).

Retasket said there were a few bottom line requests in the discussions that included proposed amendments to current bills that affect tribal higher education institutions, via funding and governmental relationships.

Sequestration was also mentioned several times as a possible scenario, Retasket said.

“We were sure to share with the lawmakers the effect it would have on our small campuses,” she said. “Because tribal colleges are so underfunded already, it seems illogical to continue to reduce costs in our arena. We were sensitive to the fact that it is a possibility, and assured our lawmakers that not cutting costs in higher education will be an investment in the long run.”

Retasket and Yazzie (NWIC main campus student and Miss AIHEC 2012-2013) were joined in D.C. by Forrest Callaghan (Tulalip site student and AIHEC Mountain Pacific Regional Representative); Jenny Hawker (Nez Perce site student); Kristin Kinley (NWIC Board of Trustees Chair); and Dave Oreiro (NWIC VP of Campus Development).

Rallying for the environment
On Feb. 17, between 35,000 and 40,000 people demonstrated in D.C. in what some have called the largest climate-change rally in U.S. history. Participants were there to demand that President Obama take immediate action on climate change, and many to demonstrate against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Among those in attendance at the Forward on Climate Rally were NWIC student Cathy Ballew (Lummi) and Colleen Berg, NWIC health program coordinator. Their trip was sponsored by an anonymous donor associated with efforts to stop the proposed Cherry Point shipping terminal.

Ballew said she attended the rally as a tribal member of the Lummi Nation concerned about the Gateway Pacific shipping terminal.

“I was asked by a confidential individual after she overheard me speaking at the scoping assemblies concerning the coal terminal; she paid for eleven people to travel with her to dispute the coal export,” Ballew said. “I was honored to join strong, powerful women in such a valuable and meaningful cause that honors our environment, with so much spirituality.”

Ballew and those she was travelling with distributed 4,000 flyers about the shipping terminal.

The Inauguration of a president
NWIC Student Executive Board President Sheila McCoy (Tulalip) was one of two tribal college students to attend the Collegiate Presidential Inaugural Conference in Washington D.C.

The conference provided scholars with the opportunity to interact with historians, political experts and leading decision makers to discuss campaign strategy and presidential politics. They also watched the Inauguration from the general public area, which McCoy said was overwhelming.

“The Inauguration was a madhouse,” McCoy said. “I got claustrophobic, and the event was outside and I’m not even usually claustrophobic.”

The highlights for McCoy were hearing Reverend Jesse Jackson speak and meeting scholars from around the world.

Overall, though, McCoy said the event itself would be better suited for students studying political science, foreign policy or economics. She would also recommend it to middle school and high school students.