The Native American Achievement Center, on the Montana State University-Billings campus, helps to recruit and retain American Indian students. Reno Charette, the Director of the Achievement Center, teaches courses in Native American studies and advocates for students by providing academic and personal support. We stopped by the Achievement Center recently to visit with Reno about their role on campus and some upcoming events.
What's your role with Montana State University-Billings?
I'm the Director of the Native American Achievement Center and I also teach.
Tell me about where we're at right now.
We're here at the Native American achievement Center. We're on the second floor where it's all a student space. We're very happy to have this open room for drummers to come and practice their singing, which they do on Wednesday nights. We have a nap room for commuters because we've had students travel to Billings. They get up super early to get here for their morning classes and if they have a wicked schedule where they have to stay here all day until the end of the day to take their final class, I think it's in their best interest for safety to take a nap before they hit the road again. We do crafting all the time, always have some project going. We have a parent's room with gliders and a crib and a changing table and all kinds of bouncy chairs, vibrating chairs and a swing and that's for our students who come to school with infants. We also keep the Native American Studies library here on the second floor and there's a nice desk in that space. We have great wifi, so it's a good place for students to come and study.
On the first floor, we have work space for interns that are connected to the powwow or some other service to the Native student body. We also have a kitchen and you never know when there's going to be cooking going on over here. I make bannock a lot and it’s starting to show on my commod bod.
How long has the Achievement Center been here on campus?
We're on our third year now of being in this building and we've had great fun here. We have craft fairs as we get towards the holiday season. I teach classes in here too, so we have a nice classroom with good technology.
What have been some successes and challenges in your time with the Achievement Center?
Well, getting the Center was a huge success. Before the Center, when the task of running the power was switched from the Multicultural Services, they asked me to take over at the power and I had never run a power before. I didn't know what I was doing. I had to seek help from other people and they would come and we'd work out the agenda and the financing and the judging. Now in the past 10 years of running the MSU-B powwow, I have that powwow spreadsheeted forwards and backwards into five minute increments to know what all is happening every five minutes of running the event and how much it's costing me all the way through, how the money is flowing. That took a lot of work. It's the biggest event we have on campus. The only bigger event that MSU-B does is commencement. That I see as a big accomplishment.
One achievement that happened most (recently) is we made a proposal to the Chancellor that we felt our students needed a sweat lodge here at MSU-B. The things that make them strong in their own community is their connection to spirituality, their connection to their culture and their family atmosphere. All of those things make them strong. Those are all the same things they leave behind when they come to school here. So we need to recreate those. The new Chancellor was like, "yeah, let's do it." I was able to have a tree in the yard cut down so that we have more open space for the fire and fence was removed so we could build a lodge there. I'm working on funding ideas to build a retaining wall around the fire pit. When the willows are ready, we'll go cut willows and we'll build the first sweat lodge.
Tell us a little bit about the students that call this place a second home.
They're usually Native students who are close to graduating, or are graduate students. We get a lot of families that (are) on campus with their kids and we have a playground in the backyard. We have a children's playroom in the basement. So the building is welcoming to students that have to bring their kids along.
Are there any events coming up that the achievement center as planning or is co-hosting?
We're going to demonstrate Native achievement from another perspective. We're inviting all native musicians from any kind of music, from our own tribal music to that hard rock and roll, the metal stuff. We're going to have a jam session. You have an instrument? Bring it, we'll figure it out. While they're doing that downstairs in the classroom, our vendors want to come back, the people who sell beadwork, so we'll have them on the second floor with their booths. Probably have refreshment again because that always helps. The community is invited to come and listen and shop and enjoy witnessing Native achievement. The powwow is April 5th & 6th this year. It gets harder for us to do too many events in the spring semester because the powwow is so demanding.
Of the students that you serve, how many of them are traditional versus non-traditional students?
That's interesting that you bring that up because we actually have a very hard time finding students that have traditional knowledge base. We know of one male who is a powwow dancer. So if he says no to us to be our head man dancer. This year we got to really shake the bushes to find an alumni to take that role on.
Any words of encouragement for any students out there or youth that might be facing some kind of struggle at the moment?
I think that they can trust us to bring that issue to me or Walter Runsabove. I'm glad to finally have a male working here for the young Native men that feel more comfortable talking to another male. I have been here for 11 years and I have connections all across campus. If the student is having troubles, there are other people that I can bring in to solve that problem.
What are some ways that people can help you and be involved?
People could donate money and we run it through our Foundation so they can claim it as a tax deduction. If they wanted to contribute towards that retaining firewall for sweat lodge fire, to help students with scholarships, to help the powwow, we make sure that our donors are properly recognized and that they get the best tax deal they can out of it. If someone is getting new furniture for their house, I could really use a recliner for my nap room. I could use real comfy lounge chairs and table lamps, furnishings like that so there's cozy places for our students to curl up and do their homework. Give me a call. My number is 657-2144 or you can email me at email@example.com and I will certainly entertain any kind of contribution the person would like to make to helping us graduate more Indian students.
A big thank you to Reno Charette for her work and for visiting with us. You can learn more about the Native American Achievement Center by visiting www.msubillings.edu/naac. Thank you to Ben Sounds for the music in this Spotlight. To listen to other Community Spotlights, please visit www.westernnativevoice.org/communityspotlight.