The nine federally recognized Native Tribes of Oregon and the University of Oregon signed a memorandum of understanding Friday afternoon in the university’s Many Nations Longhouse. UO and the tribes have been working on the understanding for the last three years.
“I believe this is a historic day for UO and native students across the state and abroad,” Austin Green from the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs said about the understanding. “I really think this is a great step forward on behalf of education.”
The memo is a symbolically significant achievement for everyone involved, UO President Michael Schill said. While the understanding doesn’t lay out any specific steps, it creates a framework for how the university and the tribes will continue to work together in the future.
Schill told the crowd of about 30 that he believed UO is the number one university Native students in Oregon consider. He hopes this understanding will cement that belief in Native students across the state.
Beginning in fall 2017, Native students will have a new academic residential community, or ARC, a service that other minority students and people of color have had for years.
“When I was in the dorms, I didn’t have it,” Mitchell Lira, a member of the Warm Springs tribe and sophomore at UO said about the new program. “I was the only person of color on my floor … I feel like if I had it I would have done a lot better.”
Lira said that coming to the university from the reservation was a big culture shock. He said having Native resident assistants and classes for Native students is a “big deal.”
A memorandum of understanding was last signed between the tribes and UO 12 years ago, when the tribes signed on to build the Many Nations Longhouse. That understanding took five years to complete.
“This is just a cog in the wheel,” Chief Warren Brainerd said. “We are building on things that were started years ago … I think it’s a great thing and going to help all Native people to get educated. And the better educated we are, the better it is for everybody.”
Chief Brainerd said he is happy that a dialogue is opening between Native people and non-Native people and he’s happy to get his people’s story out.
“We’ve been here all the time; we are a part of the community, and we will always be a part of the community,” he said. Brainerd is happy to have a conversation, even if he knows that what he has to say is sometimes unpopular.
“We were here before you got here,” he said. “We’re here now and we’re part of a community, and we’ll probably be here after you’re gone.”
The U.S. Census Bureau and UO Office of Institutional Research don’t report numbers of Native Americans specifically. Native Americans and Native Alaskans made up 1.8 percent of the population in Oregon in 2015 and 0.6 percent of students at UO in fall 2016.
Native students are not represented in large numbers on campus but are hopeful for the future.
“It makes me happy, and it’s good to see that it’s coming to play,” Lira said. “It’s something that has been talked about for a long time but it’s never happened, so it’s good that it’s finally making progress toward this and listening to what we have to say as Native people.”
Christopher Trotchie contributed reporting.
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