Native Alumni Community Launches with Celebration at Gonzaga

Martin Charlo at Native American Alumni Launch
Martin Charlo of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council. (Photo by Zack Berlat)

October 16, 2023
Gonzaga University News Service

Gonzaga University’s history with the tribal communities of the Inland Northwest is long and complex. And with the launch of a new Native Alumni Community whose mission includes cultivating meaningful and sustained connections across generations of Native alumni and students, a new opportunity will be created to inspire the Gonzaga family, alumni and future Zags.

The Native Alumni Community is a joint effort of the GU Office of Alumni Relations and the Office of Tribal Relations.

The launch was marked with a Sept. 15 celebration bringing together Native alumni and current students, representatives of the Office of Tribal Relations and Alumni Relations, GU administrators, community members and honored guests. The date was intentionally chosen to land near Gonzaga’s Historic First Day of Classes (Sept. 17, 1887), a day that commemorates the beginning of the university’s founding, but is also a day when Native students were refused entry to that first class.

"We are a university that every day has to show up and recommit itself to the values that we talk about a lot...but don’t become real unless they’re lived out."
  – Thayne McCulloh

The Office of Tribal Relations has hosted annual events around the anniversary of Historic First Day for several years, said GU Director of Tribal Relations Wendy Thompson, including the 2020 renaming of the Tribal Relations house to the sčintxw/Native American Cultural Center.

“I think it’s important for us to continue to acknowledge that day,” Thompson said. “Every year since [the renaming], we’ve had an open house at the House. So when we talked about launching the Alumni Community, this seemed the perfect time to do it. We’ve been remembering Gonzaga’s Historic First Day, and now we can also remember all the students who have come to Gonzaga. We’ve been talking about the students who were denied enrollment, but since that day we’ve had hundreds of students who’ve come through Gonzaga who are doing important work.”

The Jesuits were working together with Inland Northwest Native communities at the time Gonzaga opened, GU President Thayne McCulloh explained during his remarks at the launch celebration. But the expectation of the Native community that they would “get to be a part of a college experience” was not made possible for them at the beginning.

"I’m hopeful this is just a small drop of rain that will grow seeds of many great students to come."
  – Martin Charlo

“Our hope, ever and always, is that we can find ways of building trust and rebuilding relationships based on trust so that we can fully live out the meaning and the spirit of our mission as a Jesuit university. We are a university that every day has to show up and recommit itself to the values that we talk about a lot, and that we’ve written about a lot, and that are enshrined in our mission statement and other documents — but don’t become real unless they’re lived out.”

The Community's Historical Connection

Martin Charlo, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council and the Bitterroot Salish tribe that originally invited the Jesuits to the area, recalled playing on campus as a child when his father attended Gonzaga. A guest at the launch event, Charlo recalled the history of the tribe’s relationship with the Jesuits before being forced from their land onto Montana’s Flathead Reservation, a move that caused his tribe to lose some of their language and culture even as they persevered to remain a strong community to this day. “We are one of the most successful tribes, some people say,” Charlo said. “I don’t disagree with that, but it came at a cost. And that cost was our people not being able to speak their language, or not know their culture, or entire generations being affected by the trauma that was inflicted on them.”

The tribal elders of late have told members to “move on and move forward” from the broken deals and government betrayals of the past, Charlo added, saying the launch of a Native Alumni Community is another step in that healing.

“This is a really great opportunity for a lot of people,” Charlo said. “College, it can be kind of hit or miss with some Native kids. This is something that I think can contribute to Native students’ success long- term. And I’m hopeful this is just a small drop of rain that will grow seeds of many great students to come.”

The launch of Gonzaga’s Native Alumni Community follows the recent additions of groups dedicated to alumni of color and alumni with military service.

Learn more about the Native Alumni Community