By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2022 Wyoming fourth graders led the nation in math scores – however, the U.S. Census in 2022 also found that Wyoming has far fewer college graduates than many surrounding states. Education was a major topic of conversation at the Wyoming State Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations’ July meeting; while much of the first day was spent talking about K-12 education, higher education was also an important topic of discussion on the second day.

Marlin Spoonhunter, president of the Wind River Tribal College, explained to the committee that measuring education only in terms of achievement within Western educational systems misses a significant part of the picture. He recalled a conversation with a group of elders in which they discussed how even though he holds two master’s degrees and the elders have significantly less formal education, they have the equivalent of a Ph.D in the “Arapaho way of life” and at the time they were having the conversation, he had the equivalent of a third-grade education in terms of his culture. “Some of the things that I learned in the Arapaho way of life, I would never learn at a college,” he said. “Now I’m probably at ninth or 10th grade.”

Spoonhunter didn’t say this to tell the committee that higher education is unimportant; to the contrary, he clearly believes that education is very valuable. Rather, he used this conversation to illustrate his point about the important role the tribal college can play in helping to teach people to speak the Arapaho and Shoshone languages and make sure that people don’t have to choose between that kind of cultural education and a formal Western-style education. He and others from the tribal college also pointed out that having cultural tie-ins can help students feel respected and stay engaged with teachers and material. 

A major barrier to higher education is often its price tag. The cost of higher education has been an important topic nationwide in recent years, as conversations about student loan debt have brought to light exactly how much a degree can sometimes cost. While the topic of student loans is controversial, that a college degree costs more now than it did 30 years ago, even adjusted for inflation, is fact. Shoshone Business Council member John Washakie pointed out that when he was in college, between the G.I. Bill and the support of his wife, he was able to afford to earn his degree – and this is no longer the case for many students. Many people feel that earning a college degree represents an important opportunity to improve your own life and the lives of others in your community, especially with regard to communities that historically have had less access to higher education. 

Chartered in 1997, the Wind River Tribal College is a tribal college; tribal colleges qualify for federal funding under several congressional acts, making them typically more affordable for low-income community members. Wind River Tribal College initially struggled to form partnerships with other colleges and to become accredited. “‘We’re a land grant school and we don’t need your students,’” was the message from the University of Wyoming at the time, Spoonhunter said. Eventually, the college connected with the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and through that partnership saw several students successfully graduate from the university. It has since expanded its partnerships and programs, and now works with Central Wyoming College and the University of Wyoming and is a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. 

Language isn’t just important to the Wind River Tribal College as an educational tool. Spoonhunter explained that the college receives a large portion of its funding from grants: “I mentioned all the grants that we got; they’re all language grants,” he told the committee. Many of these grants are coming from outside the state. While there is grant money for colleges and college students in-state, he pointed out that “the reservation fulfills the DEI for a lot of grants in Wyoming, [but] for a lot of years we didn’t see that funding coming to the reservation.” In addition to things like materials and salaries, grants are also used to help fund student internships with organizations such as Fish and Wildlife and at the college’s own media archives.

According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, all of this grant money in addition to the federal funding goes a long way toward making an impact on local communities, especially in terms of people who might not be able to afford to attend college otherwise. “The average annual tuition of $2,937 makes a [tribal college] education the most affordable in the nation,” its website states. “[Tribal colleges] are a proven and solid investment: For every one dollar invested in [tribal colleges], the return is at least $5.20 annually, according to an independent study.”

However, grants alone aren’t enough; many students who go on to the University of Wyoming via the tribal college’s partnership still rely on scholarships, including tribe-specific scholarships and statewide programs such as the Hathaway scholarship. Washakie told the committee that the cost of higher education has increased significantly since he earned his degree, but the funds available to Native American students haven’t necessarily kept pace. 

”The cost is eating us up. We only have a limited number of scholarships and a limited amount of money to do that,” he explained. ”All of what we’re talking about costs money … The Shoshone Tribe has very limited funds for scholarships this year. We [were] able to put some funds in for this year, but we may not be able to next year.” 

Washakie asked the committee to consider implementing some kind of waiver system for Native students, to make access to education at the University of Wyoming and other state colleges more affordable for them. “What I am here to ask is for a waiver of some type for our students at the University of Wyoming or at Central Wyoming College. The reason for that is we have some other schools that are doing that, some other colleges – Idaho State University is one of them, Durango was one of them and I believe they still are – but we can get more money for our buck by sending them to Idaho State University than to University of Wyoming. So I’m here asking for a waiver of some type, whether it be for tuition or fees, something that will make it so that we can afford [it], and people can pursue a degree at the University of Wyoming.”

While many people on the Wind River Reservation have been and will continue to work to improve the reading, writing, science and math skills of K-12 students, those such as Spoonhunter and Washakie also value what a college education has to offer tribal members in terms of learning and passing on their own language and culture, career opportunities and learning in general.

“Yesterday, we also discussed Hathaway, so maybe some combination” of changes to the Hathaway program and a waiver system could help solve the issue of scholarship funds for Native students, Representative Ember Oakley responded to Washakie. “We’ll put that on the agenda and look at that and continue to discuss that.” 

While some students on the reservation are lagging behind in terms of their test scores, educators and community members on the Wind River Reservation are not just looking at the current educational scores on the reservation but also to the future educational opportunities of current and former students. The cost of this education, however, may depend in part on the decisions made by the state legislature.