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When the starry-eyed freshmen and older nontraditional students gathered Wednesday at the Payne Family Native American Center for orientation, they may as well have been strangers on the street.

By the end of the morning, however, the University of Montana’s newest group of Native American students had made new friends and settled some frazzled nerves, just in time for the start of fall classes next week.

Carmaleta Bird In Ground, a Crow elder who sat among them, signed up for writing and several classes in Native American studies. Not only is she a grandmother twice over who started but never completed college, she also speaks Crow, the language of her people, and she’s happy to demonstrate her skills.

“My parents spoke Crow, my grandparents, my siblings,” she said. “I’ve been talking Crow to my daughter’s kids. I’m hoping they would at least understand it and keep it.”

Bird In Ground gave a traditional prayer in Crow on Wednesday to kick off the fourth annual “Moving Camp” orientation for this year’s incoming class of Native American students.

The class has grown in size over the years, making UM a far different place than when Steward Schildt first arrived at campus from Browning several years ago.

“When I got here, only me and a handful of other Indian kids from Browning came to school here,” he said. “I come back and see this new building and these new services. It makes it so much easier for these kids to transition into college.”

Schildt said it may be cliché, but it’s not easy leaving the reservation. Yet in the past few years, he said, it’s become more common to hear other Native Americans discuss the possibility of attending college and following through with their goals.

He sees it as a positive trend and one that continues growing each year. He’s pleased with the ongoing changes taking place at UM, from the new Payne Family Native American Center to the school’s growing American Indian Student Services.

“I can’t believe how many kids just from Browning are going to school now,” said Schildt. “When I graduated, it was a totally different kind of climate. Now, at least in Browning, Indian kids have accepted that other Indian kids are going to go to college.”

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Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services, said about 250 new Native American students were admitted to UM this year. Not all will attend, but about 130 are expected to start classes Monday.

Hunter and her staff look to make the transition to college, both culturally and academically, as easy on students as possible.

“They’re coming from a very tight-knit community and we want to provide those support resources to them,” Hunter said. “Just navigating campus can be difficult – the registration, the financial aid. You don’t know the process and sometimes you miss the deadlines and timelines.”

UM President Royce Engstrom welcomed the students to campus, accompanied by members of his administrative Cabinet, including the dean of students, the vice president for student affairs and the provost.

Engstrom said as many as 700 Native Americans attend the university at any given time, making it the largest gathering of Indian students in the state. He named student success as the university’s primary goal.

“This is such an exciting time of year,” Engstrom told the group. “This university thrives on diversity of thought and student ideas. We’re delighted to have people who can bring different voices to the table.”

Arriving at campus to face their first semester at UM filled some with angst, including Donelle Williams, a Montana State University-Northern transfer student from Fort Belknap.

But Wednesday’s “Moving Camp” for Native Americans included anxiety-easing sessions on handling money, community life, student services and activities aimed at team building.

After a session of games on the Oval, the students were more at ease, even if their parents were not, including the mother of John Marshall.

“It’s just the distance, but he has a friend from town that’s going to be a sophomore here, and that’s a little anxiety relief right there,” said Barbara Marshall, whose lineage ties her family to the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma.

“He chose Montana based on an interview he had at a college fair,” she added. “He’s into the outdoors and wanted to go out of state.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260 or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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