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Patty Talahongva
Indian Country Today

Diné College President Charles Roessel talks about how the tribal college is faring during the pandemic. He describes how the students and the community pointed out disparities they were facing, like not having running water or electricity. Tribal college leaders are breaking down barriers to reimagine what education can look like and their conversations are now focused on the meaning of equity, he says.

Indian Country Today's national correspondent Dalton Walker is also on the newscast to start rounding out our 2020 primary coverage. He's been keeping tabs on Native candidates from Oklahoma to Hawaii leading up to November. He also has the latest on NDN Collective's President and CEO Nick Tilsen, who faces upwards of 15 years in prison for his involvement at a direct-action protest on July 3rd at the Black Hills. 

A few comments

Charles Roessel:

"I think at first we were lucky that our calendar actually aligned to spring break. So we extended spring break at the time to get ready and then we shifted everything online. I think with not having any history with this, everything was new for everybody all across the country. So there was no roadmap and that was a good thing. You couldn't really compare yourself to anybody else at the time. So we're able to make the transition, it was difficult and we had challenges. Others do not primarily that's around broadband or lack thereof but I think the biggest thing that we saw was the tenacity and perseverance of our students and faculty to make sure that we could finish the semester."

"We did not have a virtual ceremony or anything like that, we just tried to provide an opportunity to tell and share the stories of our graduates. We had a webpage that had them be able to post messages. We had people that from across country that posted messages of congratulations and advice as you normally would get. So we didn't have one commencement speaker, we had many, many commencement speakers."

"I don't know what we would have done if this would have happened in January or February that had happened in March and April. At least the deadline was pretty close. We knew that the end of the semester and we could make it happen and make it work but we still are trying to find ways to, to honor those students and their achievement."

"In the summer we had all of our summer school online and so that was the first step. And while we were doing that, then we started looking at ways that we could try to come and transition to a more normal opening in the fall. We realized that a lot of our classes, a lot of our professors we provided training for them through the summer and continue now to get them a little more acclimated to online learning, online teaching."

"At the same time, we surveyed our students and faculty and looked at those classes that needed to be face to face. And we started whittling those down. Currently we have probably around 40 classes that are face to face. They're primarily our labs, chemistry and biology but they're also some of our Navajo traditional classes and culture and language. So we started then looking at different ways. What are the classes putting caps and safety measures in place but also then capping like no more than 10 students in a classroom. Most of them are probably around five right now. And we started looking at a lot of other safety measures. We've purchased an awful lot of plexiglass."

"We work with an architect on-call and he helped us with traffic flow. In terms of classes, one entrance, one exit. We have hand washing stations outside every entrance to all of our buildings all across our six campuses in two states. Stickers on the floor that say, this is the flow of traffic, stay six feet apart and things like that, we mandated everybody on campus has to wear a mask. We also then did something that's really hard for us and that is we closed our campus. So the community is not welcome, just students and faculty and staff. And that's kind of a hard thing."

"We are making a big investment, $8.4 million investment into technology upgrades, but also a lot of safety upgrades also."

"Yeah, they did. We did a couple things. One we had a lot of our Navajo faculty would integrate that into our courses, no matter what that course would be. And also even our other faculty would then look for the advice from our traditional faculty. But one of the things we also did and this really came from the students and we always focus on an awful lot on the faculty and staff but the students are really the ones that drove our college forward and moved us forward because of their perseverance, because of their ability to say, 'We want to continue our education.' They also then said, we need to take care of ourselves. So they hosted their own. Brought in our faculty, they hosted seminars online to talk about COVID-19 and traditional teachings."

"One of the basic teachings there of course, is that everything is living. So even this COVID-19, it's not something that's new in the sense of a pandemic or this type of virus. This is something that has been happening throughout the ages. And so how do you look at this and say, this is not a terrible thing, it's something that we have to learn to live with. And how do you learn to live with that? And what does our culture teach us about learning and overcoming some of those viruses, some of those monsters as we called them on Navajo."

"We have to prepare for everything. You have to be adaptable and you can't be rigid and saying, 'This is what we're going to do, no matter what.' And a lot of that is driven by the new information we get but also by the attitudes. And so I think one of the things we've had a couple of students say, 'I don't want to wear a mask' but they when talked to they put a mask on."

"We have a lot of contingencies that are built on contingencies that are built on contingencies in terms of being able to try to prepare for whatever might happen and maintain the safety of our students and our staff and our faculty and the community. One of the things that we look at in terms of a lot of the stories we heard from students and the community about the tragedy they were dealing with. So a lot of people talk about equity and a lot of people talk about, okay, we need to increase the bandwidth across Indian country but when you have 30% of a population on Navajo not having water, not having electricity, how do you even get to the point where you can begin to really, truly talk about equity? And I think those are the kinds of things that we're looking at is how do we expand that definition?"

"We have an almost weekly meeting. We had it weekly in the beginning by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium that all the presidents get together in the beginning it was a weekly meeting. Now it's a biweekly meeting. So we get best practices from different colleges, what they're dealing with, how we can try to help and help each other. I think one of the things that we've recognized is that this has actually given us an opportunity to redefine higher education in Indian country that goes beyond boundaries."

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"One of the things that you think about in education across the entire country is that everything is siloed. K-12 is here, early childhood is over there, higher ed is here and never shall anybody talk to each other or work with each other. I think this has created an opportunity for us to say, in order to really address these issues, we need to go beyond those boundaries. And I think Indian country is leading that way because we don't have another choice. We have to find creative ways to address this situation at this time."

"I would call it the responsibility of an opportunity and I think that's how I would look at it."

"We created a 50 percent tuition grant for everybody that has enrolled in our campus. And so we're really excited about that. Our enrollment is very close to last year right now and by the end of this week, there were a lot of people that were lined up at the end of last week, online and on the phone. So we hope that we're going to be at a certain level. And I think that goes to the idea of what we're talking about in terms of the perseverance of our students. They know what's going on and yet they still say, I'm not putting my future on hold."

"It's amazing time for all of our colleges to try to work together, to try to find a way that we can keep our community safe. Our students learn from that they can come back and help build that nation even stronger than ever. And we certainly need it right now."

Dalton Walker:

"Primary season is almost over as we head to the general in November and on Tuesday night, we're keeping an eye on Oklahoma. The state is hosting its primary runoff and includes the Cherokee candidate we're keeping an eye on Shane Jett who is hoping to return to the Oklahoma Legislature by defeating an incumbent state Senator in a Republican primary."

"He held off this, I believe from 2004 to 2010 and the house of representatives. He chose to seek the Republican ticket for Congress and he didn't get it. So now it looks like he's on his way back. And this is Oklahoma's runoff. So in June he actually got the most votes of three candidates to be part of the runoffs. So he has a path to getting back, come Tuesday night."

"There's only a few left and this is one of the last few that has a Native candidate we're keeping a close eye on. With Oklahoma we're going to be watching them pretty closely come November. They have a dozen candidates on the state and even national level."

"We've been watching the Dine citizen, Mark Charles since early last year, like many independent candidates, ballot access has been a priority for him and his campaign staff have been working pretty aggressively virtually through the pandemic for ballot access in all 50 States, including Washington DC with mixed results. So his name currently appears on two for the general election. And there's a, roughly four states that are still in play but the majority 30 plus states he'll be a write in candidate."

"He already announced that there's 10 states that he cannot be a write-in candidate and he didn't make the ballot."

"NDN Collective President and CEO, Nick Tilsen he appeared in court Friday in the latest development but is the court appearance was a preliminary hearing. So it's very beginning stages of a process that can include a jury trial."

"Another part of Friday is that the group presented two petitions to the state's attorney Mark Vargo in Rapid City, South Dakota. He's the prosecutor in the case in one petition asked for all the treaty defenders who received misdemeanors nearly two dozen for the charges to be dropped, and the second specifically focused on Nick Tilsen, who was also charged with a few felony charges and if convicted could be sentenced up to 15 years."

"This is related to July 3rd when President Donald Trump visited Mount Rushmore for a holiday weekend celebration and there was nearly 200 treaty deffenders up by the monument, protesting his visit and calling for the Black Hills to be returned to the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people."

"Basically the report was that Tilsen grabbed one and didn't give it back and then they gave it back a few minutes later. So it'll be interesting to see what happens."

"We're just trying to keep our head above water on the election season, the primary Tuesday's one of our last primaries, as we just head towards the big one, we have a lot of national candidates we're keeping an eye on. It's pretty safe to say there will be a Native Hawaiian candidate in Congress come general election."