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State, UW Join Push for Tribal Center at Riverton College

CHEYENNE, Wyo.  Plans for a long-sought American Indian center at Central Wyoming College in Riverton have gotten a boost with the University of Wyoming joining the project and the state Legislature’s approval of $1.1 million in funding.

College officials hope to start construction of the Intertribal Education and Community Center in spring 2009. The building will serve as a central point for American Indian student services and the headquarters for the school’s Native American Studies classes. It will also house the Riverton campus of UW’s Outreach School, officials said.

Central Wyoming College spokeswoman Carolyn Aanestad said from 17 percent to 20 percent of the community college’s 2,000 students are American Indians. Most of them are members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes from the Wind River Indian Reservation surrounding Riverton.

Preliminary plans call for the building to be designed in the shape of a traditional drum. Along with classrooms, the building will have space for public meetings, career counseling, powwows and a display of the college’s American Indian art and artifacts.

Helsha Acuna, director of the college’s Native American Studies program, said the center’s design also includes a kitchen, which she said will contribute to an atmosphere intended to make American Indian students feel comfortable to visit and study.

“But we don’t want this just to be the Indian place, you know,” Acuna said. “The idea is to make it very diverse, because we do want all students, all community members, to feel comfortable and to know anybody is welcome.”

Aanestad said the college has collected $5.3 million for the project, including federal and state funding and private donations. Those funds should cover the cost of the building, but the college is now raising a minimum of $400,000 more to pay for expenses, including site improvements and excavation costs, she said.

Earlier this month, the Wyoming Legislature allocated $1.1 million for the project. And last week, UW trustees voted to permit the UW Foundation to raise $550,000 for the facility. The state’s academic facilities matching fund will contribute another $550,000, the university said.

Maggi Murdock, dean of the UW Outreach School, said the new building will be a significant improvement from UW’s current building in Riverton, where it offers baccalaureate degrees in programs such as business administration, criminal justice and psychology.

“In this state you have to share as many resources as you possibly can,” Murdock said. “We really welcome the opportunity to make a close connection with Native American students.”

Ryan Tyler, a 24-year-old Northern Arapaho student at Central Wyoming, said the new center will serve as a source of pride and inspiration for American Indian students. He hopes it will persuade more students from the neighboring reservation to attend college.

Acuna said the University of Wyoming’s involvement will help bring a broader cross-section of people into the building.

“We want to be a center from which emanates knowledge and contact,” Acuna said. “That’s so sorely needed here in this community. There’s a lot of that historical conflict that has never been healed between Indians and the dominant culture, which is very typical of reservations and border towns.”

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