Opinion

Northwest Indian College builds Lummi workforce, values tradition

For thousands of years, along the shorelines of the Salish Sea, the Lummi people have dug deep into the earth to harvest clams, oysters and mussels. We have set our reef nets between our canoes to catch salmon from the Salish Sea. For many of us, our most important education has been alongside our elders at the beach or on the water, learning firsthand by doing, and doing again, to understand the ways of our people and the history of our tribe.

But even as we hold fast to traditions, we’ve also embraced changing times, new technology and the advanced training that’s needed to support a productive shellfish harvest. What we’ve learned through the years is that a skilled workforce — and a bountiful harvest — are possible if we make the right investments in training and education.

In 1973, our tribe established the Lummi School of Aquaculture as a way to train a new generation of native technicians to staff the growing number of Indian-owned fish and shellfish hatcheries in the U.S. and Canada. From this single-purpose school, a foundation was built for what later became the Lummi Community College that gave Pacific Northwest natives the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree. In 1989, in recognition of the changing and growing needs of students, the community college became Northwest Indian College.

Today, the four-year college provides a high-quality post-secondary education for 1,064 students at our main campus on the Lummi reservation, plus six satellite campuses in Washington and Idaho. We offer bachelor and associate degrees, plus certificate programs in areas that include environmental science, tribal governance, native studies, hospitality and construction.

At the heart of the Northwest Indian College is the understanding that as native people, we must provide for all levels of learning within our own community. According to the American Indian College Fund, fewer than 13 percent of American Indian and Alaska native students earn a college degree, compared to 28 percent of other racial groups. The reasons for this are complex, ranging from poverty and low rates of high school graduation, to students’ perceptions that college is out of reach academically, too far from home, or not aligned with their values and culture. One answer to this challenge is to provide an education for native students on the reservation, where they can have the support of their community and the comforts of home.

At Lummi Nation, we know we have a responsibility to build our workforce and provide an education that is steeped in the values of our traditions and history. As a member of the larger community of Whatcom County and the Pacific Northwest, we’re also pleased to provide a degree to all students, regardless of whether they’re tribal members. We’ve done this, in part, by partnering with Western Washington University and Washington State University to provide an even broader learning experience for our students.

Our strong focus on education is why we’ve been able to grow a small school for hatchery technicians into a college that serves more than 1,000 people looking to further their education and careers. I would love to see the day when the college becomes Salish Sea University, flying a flag printed with the Lummi-invented reef net, where students from across the nation and world come to learn.

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