A lost cause can find itself in a noble dream.

- Message taped to a cupboard in the home of Luana Ross' mother

PABLO - What can easily be argued is the most successful tribal college in America officially steered itself into its future Wednesday morning.

Luana Ross was installed as the new president of Salish Kootenai College.

At an inauguration punctuated by Native traditions, Ross told a packed house in the Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Theatre to prepare for change on campus.

"Institutions need to be fluid and dynamic," Ross said. "I find change invigorating, thrilling and exciting. It means you're being provided an important experience."

This, she told the faculty and staff, was their invitation to be a part of it.

"I am all about collaboration," Ross said, "and the belief that we're all valued."

Think of it not as change, said Bob Fouty, chairman of SKC's board of directors, but as part of the continuing evolution of the college.

"Our vision hasn't changed, our mission hasn't changed," Fouty said. "But last year, we approved four new programs and we have two more in the hopper. It's all evolution. You've seen what we can do, and we don't just do things, we do things well."

Ross said she would evaluate every department and program at SKC, which offers bachelor's and associate's degrees in more than 20 professional fields and certificates in several trade and vocational areas, and asked people to be candid with her during the process.

An "eco-friendly" campus is another goal, she added.

"Some people are disturbed by that," Ross said. "Some people are happy, and some haven't figured it out yet. But our mother raised us to be close to the land."

Ross was introduced by her predecessor, Joe McDonald, who helped to found SKC and led the college for more than three decades.

During McDonald's tenure, the college transformed itself from a satellite campus of Flathead Valley Community College that offered a handful of college credits to four dozen students in borrowed classrooms starting in 1977, into the home of more than 1,100 students who study on a 140-acre campus today.

The school broke its ties with FVCC in 1981 to become Salish Kootenai College, and Ross is its third president ever - a fact that only the long-serving McDonald ever seems to remember.

Mike O'Donnell, he pointed out, was the school's first president. McDonald took over in 1978 and served until his retirement this year, at the age of 77.

***

"I was considered a lost cause" at one point in her life, said Ross, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Providing a "nurturing environment for young Native learners" can change lives, she added.

"The best thing to happen to Indian education has been tribal colleges," Ross said.

Tribal councilman James Steele Jr., one of the morning's speakers, said that was true in his case.

Steele said he enrolled at the University of Montana after graduating from Arlee High School, and found himself in cavernous classrooms "with more people than there were in the whole town of Arlee."

"It was culture shock," said Steele, who dropped out of UM, returned home to the Flathead Indian Reservation and started commuting to classes at SKC with his mother.

They made the drive to Pablo each morning, he said, in a 1950 Dodge pickup whose tailpipe was missing.

"It was very noisy," Steele said to much laughter. "We had to keep the windows rolled down so we didn't get asphyxiated."

Steele eventually transferred back to UM and went on to earn a degree in political science, but suggested that might not have happened had he not been able to continue his education at the tribal college in the meantime.

"This," Steele said of SKC, "is where I got my grounding and bearings."

***

Ross, a graduate of Ronan High School, comes to SKC from the University of Washington, where she was a professor and co-director of Native Voices, a graduate film program.

She earned her bachelor's degree from UM, her master's from Portland State University and her doctorate, in sociology, from the University of Oregon.

Ross also previously taught at the University of California-Berkeley and UC-Davis, and is the author of the book "Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality."

"I'm a skilled and committed educator," she told the crowd Wednesday, "and I'm always writing - that's a good thing."

She said the theme of her inauguration - "creating campus community" - should be taken to heart.

"The Lakota have a saying," Ross said, "that ‘we are all related.' It expresses how Indians see our communities. We're always making someone a cousin, sharing life, song, dance and celebration."

She quoted indigenous researcher Shawn Wilson, who says that for Indians, "Relationships don't shape our reality - they are our reality."

That includes not just relationships with other people, Ross said, but relationships to the land and spiritual connections.

"The very identity of Indian people is grounded in relationships," she said, adding that "the transfer of knowledge is all about healthy relationships."

New Montana State University president Waded Cruzado attended the inauguration, and delivered the keynote address to the SKC faculty and staff later in the day.

Wednesday's ceremony included an opening prayer delivered in the Salish language by SKC faculty member Alec Quequesah, singing and drumming by young students of Stephen SmallSalmon from the N'kwusm Salish Language Revitalization Institute in Arlee, and the presentation of a blanket to Ross from McDonald, who is now president emeritus.

"I am committed to making sure Salish Kootenai College remains the flagship of tribal colleges," Ross said at the close of her remarks. "This is exactly where I should be: home, and your next president."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

 

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