Tribal Relations: Living into the Mission

3 Native individuals
December 11, 2023
Kate Vanskike ('22 M.A.) | Gonzaga Magazine Winter 2024

More connections with Native students, their families and the tribes they represent. Greater efforts to recruit students from tribal communities. Deeper exploration across campus of how Natives and non-Natives can engage meaningfully in the shared work of living Gonzaga’s Mission. These are the heart of the Office of Tribal Relations and its vision for the future.

But moving forward in this work necessitates looking back as well.

Greater Historical Context

In 2021, when Tribal Relations moved under the leadership of the Office of Mission and Ministry, then-Vice President Michelle Wheatley said the two departments had a “shared commitment to accompanying the University in better understanding how and why Gonzaga came into being as an institution and how that story shapes the ways we might live into our Mission today.”

The founding story of Gonzaga comes from the work of the Jesuits to develop missions among many tribes of the Northwest – missions that included boarding schools and other practices that today we recognize as assimilation of Native peoples into Western culture, acts that contributed to the loss of their traditional languages, spiritual practices and ways of being.

“We are beginning to live into that context,” says Wendy Thompson, director of Tribal Relations and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Doing just that – living into the context of our history – is an essential component of Jesuit education, says Beth Barsotti, senior specialist for faculty and staff formation in the Office of Mission Engagement.

“This very place ought to inform the way our Mission is expressed; there’s something essential about being on the unceded homelands of the Spokane Tribe and understanding the role Christianity played in colonization,” Barsotti says. “In mission formation, we enter into these tensions without necessarily solving them. But we do have to change how we tell our founding story. We don’t have an option: We either perpetuate the incomplete narratives or we change them.”

One part of Gonzaga’s historical story centers on knowing that the Jesuits intended to build a school in Spokane for Native students, and that this didn’t come to fruition. According to stories passed down from Jesuit and tribal communities alike, seven Native students came to the college during its first weeks and were turned away. Given what we now understand about the impact of Western schools on Indigenous students, Thompson says maybe it’s not an entirely bad thing that they were denied admittance.

For non-Native members of the Gonzaga community, the Office of Tribal Relations helps guide critical cultural engagement and understanding so that the University can experience, reflect, discern and act toward healthy and constructive relationships with Native American tribes.
Morgan Yazzie ('25) and Sydney Abrahamson-Fernandez ('27) enjoy time at sčintxw (Salish for "a place to be”), commonly referred to as The House

Going Deeper

Emerging from a “Faith Doing Justice” discernment series facilitated by Jesuits West, Thompson envisioned a mission immersion that would take a faculty and staff cohort to the Jesuit missions of the West that ultimately led to the founding of Gonzaga University. In 2022, a group of 16 visited sites in Montana and Idaho for such an experience.

Participants hungered for more, so for the following year (and continuing), they’ve gathered to discuss the ways organizations try to bring Indigenous voices or perspectives into their work, and the natural challenge that ensues based on different ways of knowing, being and communicating.

Conversations naturally turn toward Native concerns in national news or occurrences on Gonzaga’s own campus – such as the fall 2022 graffiti brazenly asserting whites have conquered the territories once occupied by Indigenous communities. Also discussed are the ways Native Americans have felt misunderstood and misrepresented, invisible and even erased – especially in places and spaces designed with a Western ideology, including higher education.

Outside the context of this small group, Tribal Relations staffers Thompson and Jeremy Rouse, assistant director for Native student recruitment and initiatives, are engaging in those opportunities for deeper learning with departments across campus. Although their primary charge is to accompany Native students and honor the tribes they represent, they share a broader purpose.

“A lot of our work is with non-Native people on campus,” Rouse explains, “reinforcing the idea that this is part of Gonzaga’s Mission and identity.”

“We want to educate the greater GU community in the hopes of it becoming a more welcoming space for Native – and ultimately all – students,” Thompson adds.

Rouse says their work takes a strengths-based approach. “There are beautiful things our Native students bring – let’s cultivate that.”

a native man talking with others
Martin Charlo, Tribal Councilmember of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, at the launch of Gonzaga's Native Alumni Community.

Educating the Educators

In 2015, the Washington Legislature passed a bill requiring all K-12 schools to teach “Since Time Immemorial” or other tribally developed curriculum so students learn about tribal sovereignty. Importantly, GU’s School of Education embarked on its own journey to determine how to teach future teachers proper ways to use this curriculum, which also requires consultation with the tribes.

James Hunter, professor of education, reached out to Thompson, who responded with questions that required close consideration of motives. “Is it just to check a box? Or to make a difference in how your teachers respond to Indigenous students or talk about them in their absence? That’s the perspective Wendy always brought, and it’s so critical,” says Hunter.

He and fellow educator Anny Case, alongside Thompson, more recently applied for a grant to help fund a course to guide teacher candidates in understanding a different worldview using Indigenous perspectives and languages. With those funds, they brought Joseph Marks (’17), an Indigenous Gonzaga grad and Fulbright scholar in languages, to co-teach a course with Hunter, a fellow linguist.

With Thompson’s perennial question – “How does the tribe benefit?” – in mind, she made sure funding also enabled local Salish language teachers to benefit from Marks’ expertise in language revitalization through a workshop at GU.

“None of this would have happened without Wendy,” Hunter adds. “She’s helping us embrace a form of education that gets to the heart of the questions we need to be asking.”

It’s one effort to address past harms. After all, he says, “the Tribe’s rich language and culture was horrifically removed from them by our stealing their land.”

We want to educate the greater GU community in the hopes of it becoming a more welcoming space for Native – and ultimately all – students.”

two native graduate students
Anthony Finley ('24) and Shane Moses ('24) are graduate students in the M.B.A. American Indian Entrepreneurship program. Read from current and past AIE participants.

Allyship with Native Students, Families and Communities

Aside from helping non-Natives gain better understanding, Tribal Relations staff centers the voices and needs of Native students, providing space for community building, celebrations, study nights and more. A comfortable gathering spot is aptly named in Salish: sčintxw meaning “a place to be.”

This year, the Office of Tribal Relations is opening the doors of its gathering place more frequently to families of Native students to broaden its sense of community, from celebratory meals after graduation to hosting students and families over Welcome Weekend.

This fall, staff launched the Native Alumni Affinity Community with Alumni Relations and, in partnership with Admissions, hosted the first Native American Student Preview Day, a regular Admissions preview day but with programming for Native students. In other efforts to support recruitment, Rouse has been hitting the road to visit tribal high schools and hosting Native high schoolers on campus.

The momentum for growth of Tribal Relations work across campus is unprecedented … and unlimited.

Did you know?

Gonzaga Law School’s Community Justice Project includes an Indian Law Clinic, which contracts with the Kalispel Tribe to provide civil and misdemeanor criminal services to Kalispel members.

The School of Business Administration offers an M.B.A. in American Indian Entrepreneurship. See more here. 

Learn more about Native connections at Gonzaga
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