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Rock solid support

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BILLINGS, Mont. – As the stones went down, the prayers went up.

That was the process Nov. 13 when about 30 people gathered at Montana State University Billings to create a medicine wheel to honor the hopes, dreams and sacrifices of the American Indian students at the university.

About 45 feet in circumference and constructed of large river rock and stones from around the MSU Billings campus, the medicine wheel, was constructed with dual purpose, said Reno Charette, the university’s director of American Indian Outreach. It was done as part of American Indian Heritage Month celebration, she said, but just as importantly it was done to send a message.

“We want to honor you as our students,” she told the American Indian students bundled against the windy, 20-degree day. “You leave behind access to a lot of your culture, your family and your traditions to be here with us (as a student). That’s a very big sacrifice and I thank you for that.”

The medicine wheel will be located on the lawn on the east side of the water fountain between the College of Education and the Liberal Arts building on the MSU Billings campus. Charette said it will be a symbol of the American Indian presence at the university while also providing an opportunity to recognize the cultural strength that supports the success of our students.

Students, staff and community members who attended the ceremony were encouraged to find a stone that represents their hopes, dreams, sacrifices, burdens or desires for a higher education and place it around the circle of the medicine wheel. As they placed the stone, they were encouraged to say a prayer.

One by one or in groups of two, stones were placed around the wheel. Some people stopped in quiet reflection and prayer.

Dave Graber, who teaches part-time at Little Bighorn College in Crow Agency, made the trip to Billings to place a stone from the Bighorn River in the heart of the Crow Indian reservation on the medicine wheel.

“This needs that kind of connection.”

Tracie Small, a junior Crow Indian who is double majoring in physical education and special education, said the event was important to her.

“It allows me to pray my faith,” she said, noting she offered prayers for her five sisters and a brother.

Many of them are also pursuing higher education, she said.

Small also said constructing the medicine wheel is a good message for American Indian students who are trying to find a sense of community and support at MSU Billings.

Enrollment of American Indian students at MSU Billings has been increasing in recent years and this fall more than 200 American Indian students attend classes at the main campus while another 76 are enrolled at the College of Technology campus. For many of those students, cultural connections are important.

“This is a good start,” Small said.

The symbolism, Charette said, will be important as students walk between classes this winter. It will remind students to be strong and succeed for those who need the skills of higher education.

“The weather and snow might bury it and blow it clean, representing all the changes that happen to you, but it will stay strong.”