BELLINGHAM, Wash. - There are 37 tribal colleges in the country, but only one caters to Native Americans in the northwest. It’s located about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, on the Lummi Indian reservation.
It’s where students come to learn, but to also know more about themselves.
“It’s vital. It’s vital to the future generations that we get an education,” said student Estabon Hayes.
Northwest Indian College is the only tribal college that serves Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Its main campus is in Bellingham, but it has seven other locations throughout the state.
To get to the heart of what NWIC is all about, you need to talk to the students. Miki Ponca-Montoya is a member of the Osage tribe. She left home experience the west coast, she said.
“And then when I came, I found out that Northwest Indian College is graduating the most female Native American environmental scientists in the entire nation,” said Ponca-Montoya.
Estabon Hayes is from the Spokane tribe.
“Originally I was going to transfer to the University of Washington, but the program that’s offered at Northwest Indian College for tribal governance business management is very unique,” Hayes said.
Shannon Hooper said she is from Fallon Paiyute Shoshone tribe in Nevada.
“The way I want to give back to my people is to become a teacher,” said Hooper.
Christian Cultee is part of the Lummi Tribe and is studying native and environmental science.
“I’ve also been extensively involved with Northwest Indian College space center, which conducts engineering projects,” said Cultee.
They’re here to improve their lives, but also their people.
“I want to lead by example. So, to me, in order to run a nation, because that’s what you’re doing when you’re on tribal council, you’re running a nation,” said Hayes.
Some said attending school here makes it feel "at-home."
“The students and the staff, we come from lineages that held on. To me, we’re like a powerhouse group of people. But in that sense, there’s lots of opportunities because there`s not as many of us here,” said Ponca-Montoya.
Throughout NWIC's seven campuses, just over 2,000 people attend. Eighty-four percent of the student population is Native American, with 115 tribes represented.
The college offers bachelor's and associates' degrees, along with workforce education.
Robert Decoteau is the college's workforce director. He said there is economic disparity in the reservation. The college’s workforce program helps those with unique barriers.
“Many of our students are in recovery from alcohol and drugs. Many of our students are currently living in shelters,” said Decoteau.
For student Mark Julius, being in this program means everything.
“It’s been great, it’s been a joy really. I love coming to school,” said Julius.
Raising four kids from 2-18 years old, Julius hopes to one day get into home construction to support his family, and his tribe.
“I think more of our people don’t realize how many programs that there are,” said Julius.
“By being in this program, they’re creating some stability, they’re adding to their resume,” said Decoteau.
But along with helping the tribe, they’re helping the environment. On-campus is the Salish Sea Research Center, a 4,200 square-foot facility that helps research the fish and shellfish that sustain the tribe.
“We also do a lot of outreach in the community. But we have lots of intertidal animals that are in the aquarium and we bring students here,” said Dr. Misty Peacock of the research center.
The students who work in the lab say it’s state of the art.
“I get to work with amazing scientists and to be able to incorporate my culture into my scientific work,” said Destinee Hutchinson, NWIC student.
The college wants to expand down the road to providing masters' and doctorate programs. But first, they have to get through some cultural barriers.
“Historically, there’s a lot of history with the colonization, with boarding schools, where education wasn’t a positive place for native students,” said Justin Guillory, NWIC president.
According to Guillory, Northwest Indian College is different. This college is about healing, educating and building on cultural traditions.
“If anything, we’re survivors. And we’re resilient. And that’s the power of Northwest Indian College is that we’re able to overcome through those negative experiences so that we can emerge stronger in the future,” said Guillory.
Northwest Indian College is not just open to Native Americans. It is open to anybody.
In the near future, the college is working on building a health and wellness center, which serve as a sporting venue and gym, but also a meeting place for special events and gatherings.