Wyoming native students seek to improve college experience
By JEFF VICTOR
Feb. 04, 2018
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — As an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, University of Wyoming student Piram Duran plans to eventually return to the Wind River Indian Reservation and use the knowledge he gained at UW to improve the quality of life there.
While in Laramie, however, Duran and other native students are working to make campus a more welcoming place for students like them.
"My whole thing is helping people," he said. "I always wanted to help people growing up. It tends to cause some trouble or get me in trouble because I tend to put others before me."
Aiming for a psychology major and a business management minor, Duran said he hopes to work on the reservation one day as a psychologist.
"I really want to get back home," he told the Laramie Boomerang. "I want to go back and work for the reservation on drug and alcohol relapse prevention."
He added he might face some challenges in trying to serve the native people, who sometimes view psychologists skeptically. Duran said many on the reservation view psychologists as people who simply patronize their patients or just want to "pump you full of medications" — but as a member of their community, Duran said he can overcome that skepticism.
"Psychologists — they're not looked at very well," Duran said. "But there's a lot of people who are like, 'I'm OK with it because you're Piram.' I already have that trust. I definitely don't want to steer them wrong or nothing, but I definitely want to incorporate some new mentalities to better the community."
Before he can return to the reservation though, Duran must earn his degrees. And while he is working toward those credentials, Duran and other interns at the Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center are working to provide support and community to their fellow native students at UW.
"There's not a lot of us," said Christie Wildcat, who also serves as an intern for the center. "Numbers are improving — which is good because you're building diversity, and President (Laurie) Nichols is doing a wonderful job working with the native students — but I think the students, our peers, in general should be more aware of . native students on campus."
The center — opened in September during a ceremony attended by tribal leaders, Gov. Matt Mead and other state officials — is the most visible initiative enacted since Nichols took office in May 2016 and began concerted efforts to attract and support Native American students.
The president has made frequent visits to the Wind River Indian Reservation, meeting with tribal leaders and visiting the high school, and established a Native American Advisory Committee to counsel her on the university's relationship with native students and the reservation's two tribes, Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone.
In June, UW hosted its inaugural Native American Summer Institute — a program bringing native high school students to campus for a weeklong preview of college life. In December, UW hired its first Native American program adviser, who is tasked with aiding native students at the university.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed, said Stephin Littleshield, an enrolled Northern Arapaho student who also interns at the center.
"President Nichols has done so much during her short time here," he said. "It's actually really impressive."
Littleshield began his higher education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire before transferring to UW in 2015.
"Native Americans — they're very familial, they're very close with their family," he said. "So, being that far away, I didn't much like that and I had gone through my own existential crisis, struggling with faith and whatnot. So, it was nice to get home. Once I got home, I decided I wasn't going to go back."
Littleshield enrolled at UW in 2015 and was surprised at the lack of support for Native Americans.
"You have a reservation here, but there wasn't a whole lot going on for native students," he said. "Even when I was at Dartmouth, they had just an impressive center and they had students who live there. Montana, Colorado, Utah — all these places — they do quite a bit for their native citizens. I came to Laramie and it's not what I had experienced throughout my life."
That perception began to shift, Littleshield said, when he found the Keepers of the Fire — a campus group for Native American students — and as the university started doing more for native students.
"I was a little concerned about how I would handle being so far away, even though Laramie's in the backyard," he said. "So, that was a little concerning, but I found the group on campus and they just kept me busy and they're all familial people."
Like Littleshield, Wildcat said she was always planning on going to college. She said her parents were young and still students themselves when she was born, so she grew up partially on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.
"I remember going to chemistry with my dad and just sitting in the back, just playing with coloring books," she said.
This early exposure to higher education helped Wildcat's vision for her own future, she said.
"Right from the beginning, (my parents) funneled me onto that path for higher education and to go to college," Wildcat said. "I don't think I've ever had second thoughts about going to college."
She said she continued on the college trajectory despite the racial tension present at Riverton High School, which borders the reservation, and in defiance of the stereotype that Native Americans don't go to college.
"I wanted to break that barrier and say, 'Yes, I'm going to graduate high school and I'm going to go to college,'" she said. "Here, the barrier — or challenge — I would say, is being one of the few natives in class or the only native in class. You're kind of expected to know the things other students (don't)."
The new center and her internship there have allowed Wildcat to find and help build a community, she said.
"This really has become my second home," she said. "If I'm not around on campus, you can find me here. I get a new motivation when I step into this house."
The center also serves as a launch-off point for collaborations and projects to broaden the experience of native students on campus and enhance Laramie more generally.
Unlike Littleshield and Wildcat, Duran was not always college-bound.
"I went to Riverton High, but I was a dropout," he said. "High school wasn't really my thing, but I'm an intelligent guy, so I just decided to . get my GED (the same year)," he said. "Since then, I just was a line cook basically. I worked at the Wind River Casino as a third-shift chef."
Duran received an associate's degree from Central Wyoming College and transferred to UW in spring 2017, motivated by a desire to one day offer psychological services on the reservation.
A 35-year-old non-traditional student, he is now working to improve his current community of Laramie, attempting to set up regular sweats — religious, stress-relieving ceremonies performed by many Native American tribes — with the Cathedral Home for Children.
"The steam takes the negative energies from us, and when we open up that door, it releases," Duran said. "It's really going to help native members and even non-native members. It helps mentally, physically and just helps keep us grounded to the reservation."
In a similar vein, Littleshield is working to develop talks with faculty and administrators across campus — during which people from different backgrounds can share their stories — though the plan is still in its early stages.
"We're hoping to do some leadership talks with various people across UW," he said.
The Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center houses the American Indian Studies program, as well as the High Plains American Indian Research Institute.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com