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Maine tribes and colleges seal education partnership

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - A meeting between tribal leaders and educators has sealed a partnership that will unlock opportunities for Native students and educators and for American Indian studies at three of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country.

On May 18, leaders from the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs met the presidents of Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges at Indian Island to formally establish a long-term relationship that will provide recruitment of and full tuition for Native college students, an expansion of Native studies courses and opportunities for Native educators to teach them.

In addition to providing full tuition - around $45,000 a year per student at each of the colleges - the plans include a commitment to work with young Native students in elementary grades to motivate them toward higher education, and to recruit Native professionals as faculty, counselors, lecturers and museum curators for exhibits on Maine indigenous culture, performers, artists, environmental scientists and researchers, and as advisers at the colleges.

An exchange of letters following the meeting expressed enthusiasm for the initiative.

''May 18, 2007 will be remembered as a historic day when we all came together to share our mutual aspirations for stronger Wabanaki Nations and liberal arts colleges. We look forward to working with you and everyone associated with your institutions more closely as we achieve our mutual and respective goals,'' the tribal leaders wrote to the college presidents.

''We have some challenging work ahead of us as we discover new ways to prepare Wabanaki children for a college education. Bowdoin College staff, in collaboration with Colby College and Bates College, stands ready to work with tribal representatives in this historic project,'' Bowdoin College President Barry Mills wrote.

''Governor Nicolas [Gov. William Nicholas of Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkokmikuk] commented that it was a historic day when the oldest colleges in Maine met with the leaders of the oldest governments on earth. We in the colleges have a great deal to learn and we hope to have much to contribute,'' Bates President Elaine Tuttle Hansen wrote.

The meeting was the culmination of months of discussions initiated by Paul Bisulca, Penobscot and the chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

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The commission monitors the economic, legal and social relationship between the tribes and the state, Bisulca said.

''And part of the social relationship is education and, fundamentally, I've always felt that one of the things you've got to do is have an educated populace and Indians need to be better educated than they are now,'' Bisulca said.

The problems aren't just limited to access to schools, but also to motivating Indian students to go to school and keeping them there, Bisulca said.

The three colleges have the added advantage of being close to home, Bisulca said.

''Indian kids don't like to leave home. This is not something I can quantify; it's kind of a qualitative remark, yet it seems to me and to others too that if they go out of state, their chances are greater that they will [drop out] than if they stay in-state where they can come home on weekends and go hunting and do the holidays very easily,'' Bisulca said.

Instructor Bill Hiss, Bates vice president for external affairs and lecturer in Asian studies, said the Indian Island meeting was ''terrific.'' It was the first time he'd been there and the first chance he'd had to meet the tribal leaders.

The colleges, which normally compete with each other in recruiting students, will be working cooperatively to recruit from the Native communities, Hiss said.

''I think that's an important piece - to realize that if we're going to enjoy some success and be of more visible support to the Native communities in Maine we need to do it cooperatively, and at the same time the tribal communities are saying, 'We see recruiting students as one piece of a mosaic,' that there's also having the colleges know more about the Maine communities, having more representation on their staffs and faculties, and more in their curriculum, more in their libraries - all of that makes sense to us,'' Hiss said.

Hiss has submitted an application for a $933,000 Native American Student Recruitment Initiative grant from the federal government on behalf of the three colleges for a three-year recruitment program.