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Fort Lewis College builds on Native American, Indigenous programs

School to use $950,000 grant for new staffing, curriculum, student opportunities
Fort Lewis College is building up its Native American and Indigenous Studies Department through a social justice grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College)

Fort Lewis College is stepping up its Native American and Indigenous programming with the help of a $950,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

FLC plans to use the grant money to add new permanent positions in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Department, launch a new social justice curriculum and offer financial assistance to students transferring from community colleges. The expansion is part of the college’s focus on enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion for students and staff members.

“What we really want to do is empower our Native American and Indigenous students to feel like they can shape the world as they leave Fort Lewis,” said Cheryl Nixon, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

The Mellon Foundation reached out to FLC about grant opportunities in January as part of its 2020 goal to direct grants toward social justice causes.

The college responded with a grant proposal to build capacity in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Department, housed within the arts and humanities. The proposal was accepted in June and the money was released Thursday.

Over three years, FLC plans to use the grant money to hire a new cohort of Native American and Indigenous faculty, offering three permanent positions and a rotating, visiting faculty position in the NAIS department.

“The Mellon just was a great opportunity for us ... to try to build our Native American Indigenous Studies Department,” Nixon said.

The faculty cohort will help teach undergraduate classes about Native American studies, classes on language, literature and the college’s boarding school history.

Fort Lewis became a boarding school in 1891 after serving as a military post in conflicts between Native American tribes and Western settlers. Boarding schools forcibly separated Native Americans from their culture, traditions and languages. Fort Lewis boarding school closed in 1910.

“This is an exciting time for FLC and Native American and Indigenous Studies since our Native students have been asking for more faculty who look like them and who can identify with them,” said Lee Bitsóí, associate vice president for diversity affairs and special adviser to the president for Indigenous affairs. “In addition, with more Native faculty, we will be able to provide more curricular offerings throughout the college.”

In the new “Research and Reconciliation” social justice program, undergraduate students will have the opportunity to participate in summer programs, with financial assistance if applicable, then join a subsequent paid research assistantship. They will also have access to permanent new courses focused on Native American and Indigenous language, storytelling and history.

“We were trying to create a program that would get students really involved and excited about doing new types of research,” Nixon said.

The third aspect of the grant proposal focuses on helping students at community colleges attain a four-year degree.

The college will use grant money to offer financial support for transfer students from the Four Corners to FLC. The financial assistance focuses on Native American students, and first-generation college students and other students of color, Nixon said.

As part of FLC’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals, the college is creating training modules for students, faculty and staff members to understand the school’s history as a federal Native American boarding school and the origins of the Native American tuition waiver, Bitsóí said.

“We have a diversity, equity and inclusion plan that includes creating a holistic framework to ensure a strong sense of safety and belonging on the FLC campus,” Bitsóí said. “These training modules will clear up any misconceptions or misunderstandings by non-Native students, staff and faculty.”

With the Mellon Foundation grant, FLC will be able to engage with its history in new ways. Students will have new tools to study connection, reconciliation and what it means to be human in the arts and humanities courses, Nixon said.

“How do we come to terms with that and work it into our curriculum? How do we have students reimagine new futures and possibilities?” Nixon said.

It’s about coming together to come to terms with difficult questions, she said.

“Once students know how to do that, they can leave Fort Lewis and take on anything,” Nixon said.


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