MOU signed by five colleges and universities.

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SPALDING, Idaho - The sun emerged from behind clouds, perhaps symbolic of the importance of the memorandum of understanding signing ceremony in Spalding on the Nez Perce Reservation March 24.

The presidents of the University of Idaho, Washington State University, Northwest Indian College, North Idaho College and Lewis-Clark State College signed an MOU involving American Indian education, holding importance for Native education at the schools.

Sam Penney, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee chairman, welcomed everyone. ''I think it's truly a historic moment for education in the surrounding states and for students all across this country. One of the most important things is how schools will share their resources together.

By institutions working together, we can further educate not only our tribal students but all students so they'll have a better understanding of Indian people across this nation. I commend the university presidents seated here. We look forward to continuing a working relationship with you.''

Barbara Aston, tribal liaison from WSU, took the podium to thank the Nez Perce Tribe for hosting the meeting. She thanked the school presidents, saying, ''Your presence today demonstrates your commitment to increasing educational opportunities for American Indians. Your presence also represents your willingness to forge collaborative relationships with diverse institutions of higher education for the benefits of American Indian education. We are committing to a work that is as unique as our individual institutions. There is not a template to my knowledge for what we are undertaking.''

Aston discussed some of the goals in the MOU. A committee will be formed to share existing educational opportunities related to American Indians. An organizational framework will be established to serve as key contacts for gathering and sharing information. Long- and short-term collaborations will be developed related to research, instruction and service. They will seek external funding, where appropriate, to further support collaborative projects. She concluded by saying that what can be accomplished by working together will be greater than is currently achieved by working alone.

Various earlier groups and projects had identified areas and concerns relevant to tribes. It was from these sources the thinking and intent of the MOU was developed.

Each institution's president was given the opportunity to offer a few comments followed by signing five MOUs so each school would receive an original copy.

LCSC President Dene Thomas compared this gathering place to an institution, ''which is a gathering place for all the tribal members who seek to change and better their tribes through education.'' The primary impetus at LCSC has been the language and culture of the Nez Perce, ''but we're reaching out more and more to the Coeur d'Alenes and Umatillas. Preserving culture through language is vital,'' she said.

Priscilla Bell, president of NIC, commented, ''North Idaho College is committing itself to work with our sister institutions to expand higher education opportunities to the tribal peoples across this region. It's a commitment we take very seriously. We are also building on a long tradition at NIC of serving tribal people. We want to make sure that your colleges and universities are, and remain, institutions of hope and opportunity and promise for all tribal people.''

Cheryl Crazy Bull is president of NWIC, charted by the Lummi Nation. Speaking of the ''sister institutions'' represented here, she said, ''Wherever our students want to go, they should be able to go. I really appreciate the commitment that's being made to acknowledge that our students deserve educational access. I look forward to the milestones that we will reach together.''

UI President Timothy White talked of the power of partnership: ''Partnership between the tribes, the universities and colleges, where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts, whether it's instruction and learning, research that's applied to Native issues, or our understanding of Native cultures.'' He also spoke of the power of spirituality and ''being blessed at the University of Idaho by being surrounded by so many Native communities.'' He spoke of the power of commitment for creating a different future for tomorrow.

Last to speak was Elson Floyd, president of WSU. ''What a remarkable day this is. We are here on the Nez Perce land and how sacred it is. We have an obligation and responsibility for this generation of students and generations that follow them and generations that preceded them to make sure we continue to provide educational excellence and quality.

''The convergence of the rivers today is symbolic. They symbolize the importance of great universities coming together and pooling the resources that they have, making sure that we give back to the communities we serve and the Native community is an important community.''