The University of Montana’s new Native American Center will inspire a new era in leadership, vitalize American Indian studies and become a cornerstone of tribal community, said author and educator Gregory Cajete.
“The commemoration of the Indian studies center here at the University of Montana is so important to the overall development and evolution of Native studies, nationally, as well as internationally,” he said.
Cajete, the Native American Studies director at the University of New Mexico, provided the keynote speech Saturday at a groundbreaking ceremony for the center, which will be the first of its kind in the nation.
Community is the foundation of identity, he said, and UM’s new Native American Center will provide a “new expression of indigenous community.”
The 19,900-square-foot building will house the Native American Studies Department, Native student services and related campus programs.
Construction on the nearly $10 million building is expected to begin this summer. About $2 million is still needed to complete the project by fall 2009.
On Saturday, major donors, tribal leaders, politicians, students and community members shared tobacco offerings and stories about what the new center means to current and future generations. They also acknowledged past generations, namely the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people, who once had an established community on what is now the sprawling UM campus.
Speakers at the event said more needs to be done to recognize the tribal knowledge that has sustained Native people for thousands of years. The task will get a boost from a proposed pantheon of tribal initiatives to be housed in the Native American Center.
“Over the years, the university has developed a number of programs recognizing its heritage and responsibility because of its location in the heart of Indian Country,” said UM President George Dennison.
The university ranks 19th nationally in awarding bachelor’s degrees to American Indians and “can and must do much better,” he said.
“This center reflects our commitment,” he said.
Dennison announced Saturday that the university had created a new position to strengthen Indian programs on campus. He said Kate Shanley, of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana, will become an assistant to the UM president and provost to set a new course for indigenous education on campus.
“I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity to create an overarching vision with goals and points to make ourselves more effective in serving Indian communities,” said Shanley, a UM Native studies professor.
“It will be an important position within the university,” Provost Royce Engstrom said. “We have so much energy and enthusiasm around Indian education. It will propel us to a leadership role in the country.”
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