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Native American Scholarship Gala is Bittersweet Success

The Flame of Hope Gala, an annual event to raise scholarship money for Native American students, brought in $300,000 and honored Elouise Cobell.

From the flute music of R. Carlos Nakai, Navajo/Ute, to tributes and good-natured banter, the 2011 American Indian College Fund (AICF) Flame of Hope Gala offered something for everyone.

Presidents, board members and students from 33 tribal colleges donned formal and traditional wear to attend the event October 20 at a downtown ballroom of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where Hattie Kauffman, Nez Perce, an award-winning CBS reporter, was mistress of ceremonies.

All was not glitz and glamor, however, as AICF president and CEO Richard B. Williams, Oglala Lakota, honored the late Elouise Pepion Cobell, who will not see the fulfillment of the $3.4 billion settlement she wrested from the U.S. government for violating its trust duties to individual Indian beneficiaries.

Eight years ago, Williams recalled, he discussed a permanent education endowment with John Echohawk, Pawnee, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which represented Cobell at the time. Echohawk shared Williams’ vision of Native Americans becoming the best-educated people in the country.

“Eloise, I know you’re going to win this case,” Williams remembered telling her and suggesting that they ask for a permanent education endowment as part of the settlement: “She really liked the idea and said that she would include it in the settlement.” As a result, there is $60 million for a permanent fund for Native American students, he noted.

“She’s not going to see her dream come true, but we’re going to make it come true for her,” Williams said. He announced a $25,000 Elouise Cobell Scholarship Fund from the AICF board of trustees and an honor song was sung by Cetan Wanbli Williams.

Paula Bremner, a student at Blackfeet Community College, in Browning, Montana accepted a Pendleton blanket in muted colors on behalf of the Cobell/Pepion family, and will return the blanket “to the people to whom it belongs”—Bremner is Elouise Cobell’s third cousin.

Williams said the presence of AICF donors “means that you understand the many problems that American Indian people face,” including an average reservation income of $8,000 per capita and the nation’s lowest education attainment rates juxtaposed with the highest unemployment rates that reach 80 percent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The country is facing “unprecedented economic challenges” and people are protesting “right here in Denver, about four blocks away, ” he said. “To the extent that people are protesting in our city and other cities across the nation,” America “needs solutions for a sustainable and competitive global economy.”

“We need jobs at the tribal colleges such as call centers and help centers that are currently being outsourced overseas,” he said. “Let’s change that and bring them home to help the First People of America.���

Aranesa Turner singing at the San Francisco audition for American Idol.

Loretta Chavez, Diné, a greeter at the Flame of Hope Gala, with an American Indian College Fund poster promoting “Think Indian.”

Tribal colleges prepare students for graduate school and for a variety of professions, including nursing, he said. “In the Pine Ridge IHS service unit, 62 percent of all nurses are graduates of Oglala Lakota College.” The graduates “not only hold a college diploma but carry with them a deeper understanding of their culture and traditions.”

Twenty percent of students attending tribal colleges are non-Indian, he said, noting that although the colleges are providing a high quality education that is affordable, only five percent of students on scholarships can afford their books.

Designing childhood education for an early college start has been made possible through a $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a major AICF supporter, for administering four 2011 Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” Early Childhood Education Initiatives, Williams said.

Under the initiative, four tribal colleges were selected to be awarded up to $800,000 over four years: the College of Menominee Nation, in Keshena, Wisconsin; Ilisagvik College, in Barrow, Alaska; Northwest Indian College, in Bellingham, Washington; and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, according to the AICF annual report.

Student speaker at the gala was Danielle Denton, a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and an Osage descendant, who graduated magna cum laude from Haskell Indian Nations University in 2010 and who said an AICF scholarship “definitely turned things around for me.”

She is one of three students to participate in a summer internship at Wal-Mart Inc.’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters, and received her degree in business administration with an emphasis in tribal management. Her presentation was the last of the evening.

The annual gala funds need-based scholarships for Native American students at tribal or other colleges; it raised approximately $300,000 this year, about the same amount as last year.

The event began with soothing flute music by Nakai and a silent auction that allowed leisurely conversation. Drum songs ushered in livelier chatter as people mixed and mingled and a curtain was drawn back to reveal city lights below. Dinner followed, with Williams’ address and honoree awards until the evening closed as it began, with music and muted conversation.

Among gala sponsors were USA Funds, Coca-Cola Foundation, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.