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Higher Ed, Indian Style 

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n a windowless classroom at Gonzaga University's Schoenberg Center, Spokane Tribal Attorney Margo Hill cradles a textbook and teaches her three Native students about the diets of the people who lived on the North American continent before white settlers arrived. On a table beside her sit ears of corn, a squash and a bag of dried beans, staples of that diet.

"We know that our ancestors had an elaborate system of trade routes," Hill lectures. "I might come to you with what I have (passing the corn to a student) and trade for some of what you have. And then I might take that (passing the squash to another student) and barter with you."

Hill's 100-level class, "History of Indians in the U.S.," is taught from a Native perspective. "We'll learn some history out of a textbook," she explains, "but we'll also learn about what's within us, our cultural patterns."

These students, two in their late teens/early 20s and one old enough to be their father, are among the dozen or so students who started class last week at the Spokane Tribal College (STC) branch campus, which occupies a few rooms at Gonzaga's Schoenberg Center -- formerly the Museum of Native American Culture. The college opened in 1995 on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit as a satellite campus of the Salish Kootenai College, based in Pablo, Mont. Two years ago, STC struck out on its own. Its Wellpinit enrollment is about 30; the Spokane campus is targeting the urban Indian population.

"I'm thrilled to death about this. Our tribal council is thrilled about this," says the college's president, Martina Whelshula. "We're trying to meet the educational needs of our community and develop our tribal workforce."

STC, says Whelshula, is like a cultural community college with Native faculty members. "We want to provide our students with a unique learning environment, where they feel at home, that they belong," she says.

"When Native students attend tribal colleges, it increases their persistence rate," Whelshula continues. "We spend the first year helping them build their confidence and in the second year, we help them work on the transition to four-year schools."

Students can pursue one of three associate's degree tracks: liberal arts, computer science or Native American studies. Their credits are transferable to Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities. Or they can take continuing education classes that don't lead to degrees. At Schoenberg, students who aren't ready for college can take -- for free -- pre-algebra and intermediate English classes that will help them improve their skills enough to allow them to tackle college-level courses.

"Federal law says at least 51 percent of our students must be enrolled in federally recognized tribes," says Whelshula. "But our classes are also open to descendents of tribal members and people of other ethnic backgrounds." Tuition, she says, is comparable to that at the area's community colleges. Elders -- 60 and older -- can attend for free.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & G & lt;/span & onzaga agreed to donate space to Spokane Tribal College because "we want to support their efforts to provide culturally relevant education to the urban Indian population," says Wendy Thompson, GU's Indian education specialist. "There's been a real effort the last few years to go back to Gonzaga's [historical] mission of working with Indian people."

Gonzaga officials say STC is using four Schoenberg classrooms, plus a language lab in the administration building -- a "Basic Salish" class is offered -- and a teleconference classroom in the Foley Center, which allows GU faculty members to interact with students in Wellpinit.

Whelshula says she's working to make STC an accredited institution. She says that could come in as little as two years. She's also pursuing a partnership with a four-year institution that offers a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies.

That could ultimately be Gonzaga, hopes Raymond Reyes, the university's associate mission vice president for intercultural relations.

"With Gonzaga's focus on leadership development, I can envision this as a resource for tribal communities, to help tribal leaders develop their natural resources and their economies," says Reyes. "And with the other institutions in the area having their own Indian education programs, I even dream about a regional center for indigenous studies that shares faculty members."

He concedes that's probably years away. For now, Hill's class and the half-dozen others offered at Gonzaga are giving Spokane Tribal College a foothold here.

The Spokane Tribal College will hold an opening celebration Friday, Oct. 12, at 10 am at Gonzaga's Schoenberg Conference Center, 800 N. Pearl St.
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