The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Evergreen State College Drops BA Degree Plan For Reservation

Ron Feemster, WYOFILE

An innovative program that has successfully helped Native Americans earn bachelor’s degrees on a number of reservations in Washington State backed away from a plan to begin classes in Fort Washakie this fall, when it saw more problems than opportunity on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

That’s one way to look at what happened in a turbulent month on the reservation.

Here’s another way to see it: A grassroots campaign fighting for the self-determination of tribal education convinced the Shoshone Business Council to issue a cease and desist order against the Wind River Development Fund, Evergreen’s local partner. The protests, confusion and political turmoil forced the Olympia, Washington, institution to strike its tent and go home.

There is some truth to both accounts. A committee made up of Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone members agitated fiercely against the Evergreen program. On the first day that Evergreen representatives entertained prospective students on campus, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council delivered a cease-and-desist order to the Wind River Development Fund (WRDF), requiring it to stop the development of the reservation-based baccalaureate program.

WRDF notes the order is a resolution, and said it is unenforceable.

Yet the council contends WRDF overstepped its authority and acted without tribal authorization to make a deal with Evergreen, the order said. The nonprofit “falsely claimed to be an authorized representative of the tribe.”

“I don’t want a bunch of non-Indian outsiders coming in here and developing curriculum for our two tribes,” said Wes Martel, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. Martel was not entirely happy about the content of the program, but he was genuinely miffed that Evergreen had not consulted with the tribe early in the process.

“When you come in here on a major effort like that without even consulting the tribes, you’re working against us,” Martel said. “When you have a bunch of outsiders trying to drive an issue as important as education, it don’t set too well with our leadership and our educational people.”

Signed and dated March 4, the cease-and-desist order was delivered to the WRDF offices in the Frank B. Wise building in Fort Washakie on March 13, the day the nonprofit first invited potential students for an information session. WRDF went ahead with the session.

Michael Zimmerman, the vice president of academic affairs and provost of Evergreen, then traveled to the reservation to meet with prospective students, his WRDF partners and the tribes. Even after an acrimonious meeting with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, Zimmerman expressed optimism that the difficulties could be overcome and students would be enrolled in the program. But he changed his mind over the weekend and confirmed Monday, March 31 that he had informed both tribes that his college would not pursue the program.

“Moving forward in an anti-Evergreen and anti-Wind River Development Fund environment would do more harm than good,” said Zimmerman. “I don’t see any alternative for us.”


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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Misinformation & assumptions cause bad blood many times. What seems to have happened here was that each group assumed things instead of actually known without a doubt about issues. This could be solved by BOTH groups coming together WITH the tribal communities & get input of what is best for all parties here: Students, tribal communities, instructors & elders council. Many things can be solved when anger lessens in a while & wisdom is sought out. Prayers would also help in this matter for those who are deep into our tribal religions & culture.

bullets's picture
Submitted by bullets on
For what it's worth, I work at another nearby institution and have never worked for Evergreen, but I know several graduates and current students in Evergreen's Reservation-Based Community Determined Program, and have talked about it with them at length when I was considering sending in an application to teach in their program. From what I can gather, the RBCD program used to be great, but has been falling apart for some time, and has suffered even greater decline as of this year. After having asked lots of questions of lots of people, I think this is likely because administrators get comfortable with programs that have some success, and then without figuring out exactly why they were successful, put the programs on autopilot in an attempt to replicate them. That's antithetical to the way that Indigenous leadership and education work; relationships and interrelationships need tending and administrators of non-Native institutions are ignorant about this stuff. Just like the treaty-making days, they put no effort into figuring out who can speak for the community, and they assume that all tribal communities are organized in the same way--like a corporation or municipality. In addition, I have heard nothing but horror stories about the current program director. There is very little about the CDRB program anymore that is "community determined," and though instructors at each reservation site have some leeway when it comes to how they will teach the curriculum, the curriculum itself is NOT subject to community input. Many units replicate white liberal education (unless the instructor is really good at presenting the texts critically and bringing in supplemental material). For example, the assigned readings for a unit on leadership included Macbeth (!), and some interesting biographies of famous leaders around the world, but *no* readings on any Indigenous leader, and certainly nothing specific to the tribal communities that host the RBCD program. Also, there were no readings about leaders who *resist* U.S. domination; only stuff about leaders who replicate U.S. domination and Western values, meaning that this curriculum is a means toward internalized colonization. The curriculum also muddies stuff like identity, as though tribes are simply a minority class and *not* political entities (nations). Since the program has a history of hiring instructors who have little to no familiarity with tribal history, law, or sovereignty, the problems in the curriculum are usually not corrected by the faculty during course delivery, and students at several of the sites have told me they are angry about their experience in the program.