Photo by David Rooks
Some of the Native students at Montana State University pose with the university’s mascot, the Bobcat.

Montana State University Makes Native Students Feel at Home

David Rooks

When a student is going away from home for the first time, it really helps to like school—and for that to happen, they have to feel comfortable. Judged by that standard, Native students at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman say their campus is a great place for them. “When I first came here, I fell in love with Bozeman. It’s beautiful, it’s friendly, the community is very welcoming to Native people,” says Francesca Pine, Northern Cheyenne/Crow, and a graduate student at MSU. Another Native student at MSU points out that, “Bozeman is so close to so many reservations that, for many of us, it’s not that far from home.”

Native American Studies professor and Department head Walter C. Fleming, Kickapoo, says, “Our student-support folks take really good care of our kids the whole time they’re here. Our Native studies and academic program has been here since 1974. I’ve been here for 37 years—as an instructor, and I’ve been the department head for 13 years.

“Part of our success is we’ve had a long-term commitment to the growth of our students. We have about 40 programs on our campus for them.”

The department has five instructors along with support staff. “When I started,” says Fleming, “we had 52 Native students—now we have 570, and I’m told our freshman enrollment is up.”

As part of its drive to increase understanding among all students, MSU President Waded Cruzado points out that all MSU students are required to take a diversity core of classes that includes introductory courses in Native history and cultural life. She also points with pride to Professor Fleming and the Native American Studies Department, which she says is one of the finest in the country.

“Montana State University has long been committed to improving and expanding opportunities for American Indian students and communities,” Cruzado says. By the university’s count, there are 53 tribal nations and 15 U.S. states represented in its student body, faculty and staff. Students who spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network included Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Flathead, Salish-Kootenai, Blackfeet, Ojibwa, Lakota, and more.

With such a long and deep relationship to the young indigenous men and women coming from area tribes and beyond, it’s no surprise the annual MSU Pow Wow that takes place on campus during the school’s annual spring break is one of the largest in the country. In 2017, it will be held on April 14-15. The gathering draws participants nationwide and typically features more than 700 dancers and 15 to 20 drums.

“One of the things that has really grown has been help for our students interested in going into areas of study outside our department,” says Fleming. “There used to be two or three programs to help them. Now, every college writes in a component for Native students and their communities for every grant application and proposal for review.” He says this funding provides added impetus for those university departments to reach out and help Native students when they arrive at MSU.

The overall environment of a college is important, and Bozeman’s seems particularly friendly and inviting for Native students, but the key remains academics, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM. “Over the years MSU, Bozeman has developed a strong reputation for its outreach and partnerships with area tribal colleges. A big part of that is our participation in a program called Bridges that brings Native students here for eight weeks every summer,” says Richard White, Director of American Indian/Alaska Native Student Support.

According to the University’s website: “Bridges is a partnership between Montana State University-Bozeman and Montana’s seven tribal colleges. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the program’s goal is to build a seamless educational experience between Montana's seven reservation-based colleges and MSU [and to] increase the number of Native American students successfully transferring from two-year tribal colleges to MSU and pursuing academic studies in the biomedical and other health related sciences.”

“Our philosophy is, we don’t care where our students are coming from when they get to MSU, we’re committed to their success when they’re here,” says Fleming. “We’ve built all our student support services around ensuring they succeed.”

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