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Griffin Reilly
The Columbian

Barriers to secondary education come in many shapes and sizes, perhaps most notably in the lack of access to scholarships and financial aid.

For some, that aid can alleviate day-to-day stress and limit future debt — but for students like Duana Johnson, such awards are nothing short of life-changing.

“This is going to let me be able to catch my dream,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a 51-year-old Navy veteran and citizen of the Colville and Lakes Tribes, is one of two recipients of the 2022-2023 Dreamcatcher Scholarship at Clark College. The award grants $500 for tuition and books for Clark students who identify as Native American Indian, Alaska Native, Hawaiian Native or Indigenous to the Americas. It was originally introduced by Becky Archibald and Anna Schmasow, two former Clark students.

“I just wouldn’t be able to afford the books without this,” said Johnson, who is pursuing a business degree in order to one day start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“I was encouraged to apply here at Clark because I’ve got some wonderful elders behind me, one of them being (Becky Archibald). I just want to be able to help others the way they’ve helped me.”

Johnson and her fellow Dreamcatcher recipient — Rory Smith, an 18-year-old recent high school grad and citizen of the Skokomish, Yakama and Blackfoot tribes — will each be formally presented with the awards this evening at the annual Clark College Powwow.

The event will feature speeches from school President Karin Edwards and Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, as well as dancers from the Ke Kukui Foundation, vendors selling Native arts and crafts and more.

A uniquely accessible award

One critical element of the qualifications to receive the Dreamcatcher is that applicants need not be limited to being citizens of federally recognized tribes.

According to Channa R. Blinder-Smith, Rory Smith’s mother and the first recipient of the Dreamcatcher Scholarship in 2015, many similar awards at other schools aren’t available to those who are members of smaller tribes like her own.

“There are a lot of tribes who are not federally recognized,” said Blinder-Smith, who herself is a member of the Skokomish and Yakama tribes. “Like the Chinook population, that’s an example of Indigenous people who are here and have been here in this region and aren’t able to take advantage of lots of scholarships intended for Native people.”

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Johnson agreed, adding that there are many misunderstandings about what access to funding for Indigenous people looks like.

“A lot of people just think that if you’re affiliated with a tribe, you get all this money from the government, and that’s not the case. It’s far from the truth,” Johnson said.

Duana Johnson, who is a 2022-23 recipient of the Dreamcatcher scholarship at Clark College, takes a break on campus Thursday morning, Nov. 3, 2022. The award is given annually since 2015 to a student of indigenous background to help pay for their tuition and books. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

In the years since Blinder-Smith was the first to receive the Dreamcatcher, she said it’s gained lots of traction and attention in the Native community as an example of how schools and institutions can uplift marginalized populations.

“We do a lot of community support toward this scholarship, so when we’re at local Native events, we’re talking about it. And that’s great, because we’re highlighting higher education for our youth and helping to steer them in this direction,” she said. “It’s exactly those type of things that helped Rory come to Clark right out of high school.”

“It would be really nice if more came from the colleges, really like having offices like the (Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) is really where it bridges that gap for opportunity to arise in our community.”

Similar awards

The Dreamcatcher is one of four scholarships provided by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Clark College. Other awards aim to provide similar opportunities for other historically marginalized populations, such as undocumented immigrants, LGBTQIA+ students and Black students.

“We want to encourage more Native American students to continue with classes and pursue degrees,” said Rosalba Pitkin, the Office of Diversity’s director. Pitkin added that during the pandemic, the office was able to get funding from the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington to help provide assistance for these scholarships and to other Clark students who seek resources from the office.

For Johnson, the thought of beginning her education at Clark with the help of the Dreamcatcher quite literally moves her to tears.

“It is kind of intimidating, going back to school at 51, but you’re never too old to learn. I’m really grateful for this opportunity and for those who have believed in me,” she said. “It really means a lot, and it’s going to open the door for other people to attend Clark College regardless.”

More information on the Dreamcatcher and other scholarships within Clark’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion can be found here

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Griffin Reilly: 360-735-4517; griffin.reilly@columbian.com; twitter.com/griflewisreilly