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Paying it forward to benefit Native American students

OSU’s Eena Haws assistant director offers students the guidance she once received

Luhui Whitebear has been closely connected to Oregon State University’s Native American Longhouse Eena Haws in different ways during her academic career.

She visited frequently as an on-campus undergraduate student in ethnic studies in the early 2000s. A decade later, while pursuing an anthropology bachelor’s degree online with Oregon State Ecampus, she would drop in whenever she came to campus to pick up books.

Now, as the assistant director of the Eena Haws, she is paying forward the guidance, nurturing and sense of belonging she received as a student.

“My approach is very student-focused. I want to find out, What is it that’s important to the students? What do they want to learn?” Whitebear says. “I really try to give them the space to learn how to plan a community-based event. They learn how to budget. They learn how to work with the Global Community Kitchen, on how to make recipes for a few hundred people. They learn a lot in the process.”

Helping students find — and use — their voice

Eena Haws student leaders and staff, as well as the Longhouse’s broader community, come from Native American tribes across the country. While they bring different individual tribal cultures and traditions, they share the common bond of a shared history and many of the same challenges.

Whitebear, a citizen of the Coastal Band Chumash tribe, helps these students navigate the waters of a large university, find their place and give them a voice.

“I encourage them to use their voices as students and understand how important that is, especially when it comes to these (cultural resource centers),” she says. “If it wasn’t for the OSU students back in the late 1960s, early ’70s, these spaces would not exist.

“I try not to let anybody lose sight of that because that’s what we’re here for. It’s important for students to get through their college experience and have this space as their own.”

A mission to celebrate and share tribal histories

Whitebear has worked to make Eena Haws truly representative of Native American histories and cultures. When she became assistant director of the NAL, the fish for Oregon State’s annual salmon bake were purchased from a corporate food purveyor. She later decided to work with a local tribal member to harvest salmon from Native waters in the Columbia River.

There’s a lesson that comes with this new approach, she says.

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“This year, we ran out of salmon because that’s all we could catch. Dams on the river and climate change are impacting the salmon population, so there’s going to be less to eat,” she said. “The salmon bake also provides us an opportunity to share Oregon tribal history and the fight to preserve our treaty rights.”

In 2019, Whitebear won Oregon State’s Outstanding Diversity Advocate Award for her ongoing work with Native, LGBTQ and other underrepresented students. But the greatest reward, she says, is witnessing Native American students develop the self-confidence to carry forward the nurturing and sense of belonging she received while learning on campus and online at OSU.

“What gets me up in the morning is the students,” she says. “I really enjoy working with them and watching their leadership grow – watching them figure out what’s important to them and how they want to contribute back to their communities.”

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