Conference looks at student development

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Moscow, Idaho – Native instructors, persons working in student affairs and Native students gathered on the University of Idaho campus for a two-day “American Indian Student Development Conference.” It was an opportunity to exchange ideas and look for ideas that might improve existing programs at schools throughout the country.

Numbers of Native students on college campuses is rapidly increasing and schools with particularly successful programs for assisting these students spoke of their programs. The theme was “Balancing new knowledge with cultural wisdom.”


Presenters came from throughout the U.S., members of committees from both the American College Personnel Association and the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators. The local coordinator was Steven Martin who directs the Native American Center at the University. He had voiced the hope that attendance would reach upwards of 75 and those hopes were realized with 98 in attendance.

“We were advocating for our Native students,” Martin commented. “It indicates the University of Idaho’s commitment to Native students by supporting such an event.”

Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, Comanche/Kiowa, provided the opening keynote address. Pewewardy is currently an Associate Professor for Native American Studies at Portland State University with extensive research into many aspects of Native culture and earlier teaching experience at such schools as the University of Oklahoma, University of Kansas, Fresno City College, Comanche Nation College and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Pewewardy deviated from his prepared talk to recognize and complement the students involved in the prayer and drum for learning tribal customs and for stepping up when asked.

“Too many times in classes I go to they forget the ancestors, so seeing the students give homage to those whose traditional homelands are here tells me they have a social memory.”

Pewewardy added that many in the room, himself included, had assumed leadership roles when asked, and that it was important in the field of higher education where numbers of Native teachers was not very high. “If you’re an educator you have to learn how to adapt.”

He spoke of the importance of tribal affiliations, saying the core of American Indian studies is the identity issue. “As you become who you are and then begin to tell your children and grandchildren it’s important they know too. It has much to do with self esteem.”

“There is something wrong with an education and socialization process that leaves us ignorant of our tribal histories, sometimes strangers to our own people,” he commented. “During the past 500 years every attempt has been made to dismember all indigenous educational attempts. … in order to disconnect indigenous people from the legacies of our ancestors. We must maintain our spiritual direction. It’s time to stand up and be what our ancestors want us to be. Do we have the will? Your participation in this conference and the other things you do suggests you do.”

Conference attendees were then offered the choice of several concurrent presentations. The first session’s theme was “What matters most to Native students.” The second theme was “Solutions in Native Student Retention.” The third was “Skill Building for Emerging and Current Native Professionals in Student Affairs” and the final one concerned “Building and Supporting Native American Student Affairs.” Eleven presentations in total were given during these sessions.

There was also a Native American student panel which provided students the opportunity to voice their thoughts on their college experiences, about programs and support services, and what can be done or needs to be done. There was also a panel featuring the conference speakers. “Both panels went over very, very well with lots of good information, good questions and feedback,” Martin commented.

The presenters brought outstanding backgrounds of varying sorts in American Indian education. Dr. Michael Pavel, Skokomish, from Washington State University was the keynote speaker at the closing, regarded as one of the pre-eminent researchers of Indian education. Among his many awards and accomplishments he was named the 2007 Indian Educator of the Year.

Each presenter brought his or her particular expertise, eager to share their knowledge, and represented such far-flung schools as Minnesota State University – Moorhead, Northwest Indian College, South Dakota State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, University of Rochester and University of Idaho.

“We’ll evaluate this conference,” Martin said, “and see what we can do for a second year. This may become an annual event.”