Condit Dam is gone. The fate of the land around it remains in question
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People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.
The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.
“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”
In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.
The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.
The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.
As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.
The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.
Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.
But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.
And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.
The agency is seeking fundraising help from the Foundation for America’s Public Lands, its congressionally authorized charitable partner, Oliver said. This could include individual donations and possibly corporate sponsors. It is also hoping for a financial boost from federal laws like the Great American Outdoors Act, which set aside billions of dollars for access to and infrastructure improvements on public lands.
BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.
The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.
Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.
“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”
Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outdoor Life and the Casper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
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The latest movement, Greater Idaho, seeks to slice off almost everything east of the Cascade Mountains and add it to Idaho, uniting the right-leaning portions of the Beaver State with its more conservative neighbor. Nearly two dozen people conceived the idea over pizza and soft drinks in a La Pine, Oregon, restaurant in 2019.
Organizers frame Greater Idaho as a natural byproduct of Oregon’s “urban/rural divide” — shorthand for how populous cities can sway a state’s politics. The idea is far-fetched: In order for eastern Oregon to become Idaho, Oregon’s Democratic-dominated Legislature, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the divided United States Congress would all have to agree. Still, the campaign has gained attention, garnering articles in national media outlets; in 2021, The Atlantic called it “Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement.”
But less attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.
The movement’s website and leaders echo Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” and lambast Oregon for education programs about Black history and public health measures that prioritize communities of color. During the first year of COVID-19 restrictions, in 2020, Mike McCarter, a movement leader, told a regional website that Oregon “protects Antifa arsonists, not normal Oregonians.” He added, “It prioritizes one race above another for vaccines and program money and in the school curriculum, and it prioritizes Willamette Valley” — where Portland is located — “above rural Oregon.”
In 2021, Eric Ward, then-executive director of Western States Center, a Portland-based pro-democracy think tank, accused Greater Idaho of simply reviving what the Oregon Capital Insider described as a “white ethno-state dream.” The center’s advocacy arm later sponsored anti-Greater Idaho TV ads.
Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.
McCarter pushed back: “Calling us racist seems to be an attempt to associate a legitimate, grass-roots movement of rural Oregonians with Hollywood’s stereotypes of low-class, ignorant, evil, ugly, dirty Southerners,” he said in a statement posted alongside photographs of Ward and Western States Center’s board — who are all Black — and the center’s staff. “(Ward’s) words mark anyone with a Greater Idaho sign or a Greater Idaho hat as targets for violent antifa members.”
Meanwhile, prominent racists were fired up about the idea. White nationalist leader Jared Taylor touted it on his podcast: “People who live out in the continents of rural sanity, they don’t want to be governed by the people who live on those islands of urban insanity,” he said. The audio was repurposed for a video on the far-right social network Gab — where former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is considered a trusted media source and no one would get banned for posting a swastika. Users buzzed about Greater Idaho.
Articles and clips on the anti-immigrant website VDARE also promoted it. One blog post said that Greater Idaho “would free eastern Oregonians from the anti-white, totalitarian leftists who rule the state.” A video warned that Oregon “won’t protect its residents from thugs, illegal aliens, communist rioters and other undesirables.”
Because Greater Idaho is unlikely to become a reality, “people dismiss it,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director with Western States Center. And that, he believes, is dangerous: “People are not connecting the dots,” he said. “The people who want to create a white homeland are backing it.”
WHEN OREGON WAS ADMITTED to the Union, its Constitution contained a clause banning Black people from moving there — the only state with such a provision. Even before its borders were drawn, people floated the idea of creating a slave-owning haven in what is now southern Oregon and Northern California, branding it the “Territory of Jackson,” after President Andrew Jackson. Confederate sympathizers considered several of the new state’s southernmost counties “the Dixie of Oregon.” Later, in the mid-20th century, the State of Jefferson movement emerged in the same area; it nixed owning slaves, but retained a slave owner as its namesake. Driven by people who felt they were over-taxed by Oregon and California, the movement still has supporters.
The secessionist torch passed from generation to generation. The phrasing changed, but the talking points remained the same.
In 1986, after migrating from California to North Idaho to build a racist refuge for his group the Aryan Nations, white supremacist Richard Butler hosted his annual Aryan World Congress — a national gathering of neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. They agreed that, in the not-so-distant future, U.S. cities would become so overrun by minority groups that white people would be forced to flee to an “Aryan homeland” they envisioned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Butler died in 2004. Eventually, his compound was fully bulldozed and his acolytes scattered, but his ideas remained and evolved. In 2011, survivalist blogger and New York Times best-selling novelist James Wesley, Rawles floated an idea called “The American Redoubt.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, some individuals add errant punctuation to their names to distinguish their first and middle names from their government-imposed or family names.) He encouraged Christians of any race who felt alienated by urban progressive politics to relocate to the Northwest, writing: “I’m inviting people with the same outlook to move to the Redoubt states.” Recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing political think tank, echoed this. “Are you a refugee from California, or some other liberal playground?” it asked on its website, welcoming those newcomers as “true” Idahoans.
Starting in 2015, then-Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R, pushed to sever his state at the Cascades, rebranding the rural eastern half as “The State of Liberty,” which advocated against same-sex marriage, marijuana and environmental regulations. Shea distributed a document calling for Old Testament biblical law to be enacted. On its website, Liberty State organizers suggest that if Liberty becomes a reality, they would be open to merging with Greater Idaho.
Within the last two years, Vincent James Foxx, a white nationalist associated with the Rise Above Movement — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an overtly racist, violent right-wing fight club”— relocated to Post Falls, Idaho. “A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho,” Foxx declared.
Greater Idaho is driven by ideas similar to those behind past movements: fleeing cities, lauding traditionalist Christian values, pushing a far-right political agenda. “Ultimately, I think in some ways, Butler’s vision is coming true,” said David Neiwert, an expert on far-right extremism and the author of The Age of Insurrection.
What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”
Gary Raney, former sheriff of Idaho’s Ada County, where Boise is located, disliked seeing his state “being advertised as an extremist haven.” In response, last year he founded Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee that fights political extremism. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I welcome that discourse and discussion,” he said. “But when people are wanting to overthrow our government or our republic or our democracy … there’s nothing healthy about that.”
What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said.
In 2023, the Idaho House of Repre-sentatives passed a nonbinding proposal calling for formal talks with the Oregon Legislature about moving the border, though no such talks occurred. Raney sees Greater Idaho as “driving a wedge” in rural communities, using resentment over urban power to recruit people to more extreme causes. “The good people of Oregon who are doing this for the right reasons: Be realistic that it’s never going to happen, and be more influential in the Oregon Legislature,” Raney said. “For the extremists who are simply using this to divide and create their right-wing haven?
“Stay the hell out of Idaho,” he said. “Because we don’t want you.”
BY GREATER IDAHO spokesman Matt McCaw’s telling, the movement is born out of opposites that run as deep as the land itself. “The west side of the state is urban. It’s green, it’s very left-leaning,” he said in an interview with High Country News. “The east side of the state is conservative, it’s rural, it’s very dry. It’s a different climate.
“Give me a topic, and I can tell you that the people in Portland feel one way about it and vote one way, and the people in eastern Oregon or rural Oregon feel one way about it and vote differently,” he said. “Stereotype is a word that maybe gets a bad rap.”
To become Idahoans, McCaw explained, would mean “to have traditional values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.” He pointed to Oregon’s liberal voting record on gun control, abortion and drug legalization. “Broadly, the people (in eastern Oregon) are very like-minded, just like broadly the people in the Portland metro area are very like-minded,” he said. “On these issues, Portland has a very distinctly different set of values than rural America.”
Speaking of differences, there are big ones between Idaho and Oregon. In rural Oregon counties, minimum wage is $12.50; in Idaho, it’s $7.25. Marijuana is legal in Oregon; in Idaho, possession can be punishable with jail time. In Idaho, abortion is essentially illegal; earlier this year, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced the state had acquired a three-year stockpile of mifepristone, a drug used for medical abortions. While there are no detailed plans on how Greater Idaho would bridge these gaps, McCaw said that “all of these things can be worked out.”
But is he upset by the white supremacist support for Greater Idaho? “I think that the extremist thing gets overblown,” he said. “In any group, there are going to be extremists that latch on, no matter if you want them or not.”
Nella Mae Parks, an eastern Oregonian, was raised in Union County, Oregon, and runs a farm there. She doesn’t recognize Greater Idaho’s portrayal of her home. “I think it’s a bought-and-paid-for narrative about what it means to be a rural American,” she said.
On the day Parks spoke to High Country News, she and a dozen other eastern Oregonians had just returned home after a 12-hour round-trip drive to Salem, Oregon’s capital, in an effort to get legislators to address nitrate water pollution. In 2022, commissioners in nearby Morrow County declared a state of emergency after high levels of nitrate — which is common in fertilizer and can cause cancer and respiratory issues — were found in domestic wells.
Parks’ group came home unsure if they had accomplished anything. “The governor won’t meet with us on our issues, some of our own legislators don’t care about our issues,” Parks said. “I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.
“When we get blown off, that is widening this rural/urban divide,” she said.
But Parks’ solution is not to leave the state; it’s to fix it. And in May, it seemed like the effort had been worth it: Kotek told eastern Oregon leaders that she had asked the state for $6.2 million to address the nitrate issue. “It has taken a while to get here,” she admitted.
Gwen Trice, who grew up in eastern Oregon, is the executive director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a museum in Joseph dedicated to the multicultural histories of Oregon’s loggers. She won’t call Greater Idaho a movement, or even an idea. Instead, she calls it “a notion.”
“I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.”
Trice founded the museum when she realized that the stories of the region’s Black loggers — including her father — had never been told. The logging industry once thrived in Maxville, now a ghost town. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited skilled loggers from the South, regardless of race, despite laws that had long excluded Black people from settling in Oregon. “We’ve worked hard to tell, honor and even embrace the messy part of our history,” she said, “and really tell a truthful story.”
Speaking as a historian, Trice said there’s no difference between Greater Idaho and the previous, more explicitly racist movements. “It’s repackaged,” she said. “I don’t think that anything is being hidden, and it’s appealing to a certain group of people only.
“It’s symbolic of dominant culture saying, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”
Pauline Braymen, an 85-year-old retired rancher in Harney County, called Greater Idaho ideological, and impractical — a way of going back in time. “The urban/rural divide is an emotionally based state of mind that distorts reality,” she said. “The changes and steps forward in our quality of life in the 20th century, during my lifetime, were amazing. I just see all of that progress and vision being destroyed.
“If I wanted to live in Idaho,” she added, “I would move there.”
ON A MAP OF THE NORTHWEST, Washington and Oregon nestle together in semi-rectangular sameness. Divided in part by the Columbia River, Washington eases its southern border into the curve of Oregon’s north, like two spoons in a drawer. But next door, Idaho asserts itself like an index finger declaring “Aha!” or a handgun aimed at the sky for a warning shot.
McCaw, the Greater Idaho spokesman, often says that borders are imaginary lines: “a tool that we use to group similarly minded people, like-minded people, culturally similar people.”
“That whole statement is absolute nonsense,” said former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen, who wrote a book about the borders in question, titled Inventing Idaho: The Gem State’s Eccentric Shape. The Idaho-Oregon border, he said, simply made the most geographical sense.
In 1857, two years before statehood, delegates from across Oregon Territory gathered to determine the new state’s edges. They decided that Oregon’s border should run from Hells Canyon south into the belly of the Snake and Owyhee rivers, then drop straight down to the 42nd Parallel. Only one delegate championed the Cascade Mountains as the new state’s easternmost edge, fearful that people too far from the capital wouldn’t be effectively represented.
“This grievance that ‘the population is over there, it’s so far to get there, we’ll never have power and influence,’” Petersen said, “hasn’t changed.”
Earlier this year, at a virtual town hall, two of eastern Oregon’s own instruments of power and influence in Salem — elected Republican lawmakers — grumbled that Greater Idaho was actually siphoning authority away from them, making it hard to effectively govern.
“The Greater Idaho people keep saying we need to do this,” said Oregon State Sen. Lynn Findley, who represents people from the Cascades to Idaho. Greater Idaho supporters have proposed ballot measures across Oregon that would force county officials to hold regular discussions about joining Idaho. None of the measures actually call for moving the border. And support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming; the most recent measure, in Wallowa County, passed by just seven votes. Still, by spring 2023, voters in 12 eastern Oregon counties had approved similar measures. “I’m no longer working on gun bills, abortion bills and other infrastructure bills,” Findley said. “It’s taken time away that I think would be better spent working on tax issues, and a whole plethora of other stuff.”
“We understand the intent and we understand the frustration,” agreed Rep. Mark Owens. “But I’m not going to apologize for having not given up on Oregon.”
But by May, it seemed Findley was, in a way, giving up. He was one of a dozen Republican senators and one Independent who walked out of the Statehouse for several weeks to protest bills on abortion access, gender-affirming care and raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles.
In the midst of the walkout, just before Memorial Day, as the rhododendrons in Northeast Portland erupted in magenta blooms, McCaw, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. He was participating in a public discussion hosted by Oregon Humanities, which facilitates statewide conversations “across differences of background, experience and belief.” The event was ostensibly about borders, but by the end it was clear that it was really about Greater Idaho. McCaw repeated his talking points: Eastern Oregonians and western Oregonians are fundamentally different; borders create tension.
“We have a permanent political minority on the east side of the state,” he said.
Beside him were two other panelists, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One was Alexander Baretich, who designed the Cascadia flag: a blue-, white- and green-striped banner with a Douglas Fir at its center. The flag represents the larger Cascades and Columbia River Basin bioregion, “a living space — a life space,” he explained. “Once you get into that consciousness that you are interconnected with everything around you … those political borders dissolve.”
It’s the antithesis of Greater Idaho: Cascadia unites, Greater Idaho divides. “That flag is to create that consciousness that we are one with the planet,” Baretich said. McCaw furrowed his brow.
The moderator, Adam Davis, interjected: “I actually get viscerally uncomfortable … when I hear, ‘There’s people on the east side are one way, people on the west side are another way.’” Tension, he said, is difficult, but crucial. “That tension holds what our democracy, if it’s going to be an inclusive democracy, kind of requires.”
McCaw said eastern Oregonians, in 2020, didn’t feel like Oregon was being inclusive when it issued statewide indoor mask mandates. It “super-charged our movement,” he said. “The people on the east side of the state did not want those restrictions.”
“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part.”
“I’m just going to straight-up disagree,” said the other panelist, Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and chair of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Miller lives east of the Cascades on the Warm Springs Reservation, which McCaw told High Country News would be excluded from Greater Idaho, along with the city of Bend, because of their liberal politics.
Throughout the night, Miller repeated one phrase — “societal gaslighting.” She described growing up Indigenous in Oregon, where she received an education that normalized racist policies toward tribes, and where a boarding school built to assimilate Native youth still operates.
“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part,” she said. Miller asked McCaw a question: “Do you really think that people who are advocating for Greater Idaho are the most disenfranchised people in these communities?”
People clapped before McCaw could respond.
“A strong majority of people in eastern Oregon do want this to move forward,” he said.
“But is the answer yes or no?” Miller pressed. “Are they the most disenfranchised?”
“I have no idea,” McCaw said.
Miller got the last word: She encouraged people to “hold onto each other and work it out.” The room erupted in applause.
McCaw didn’t join in. Instead, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.
Leah Sottile was a former correspondent for High Country News. She is a freelance journalist, the author of When the Moon Turns to Blood and the host of the podcasts Bundyville, Two Minutes Past Nine and Burn Wild. Subscribe to her newsletter The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It.
White House takes a page from the Oregon playbook with recent calls to cap child care payments at 7% of a family’s income and other improvements to increase access SALEM, Ore. – During last week’s White House’s States Convening on Child Care in Washington, D.C., State Representative Lisa Reynolds (D-Washington County) highlighted Oregon’s leadership to […]
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SALEM, Ore. — Jaeci Hall completed her dissertation in tears. She was writing about the importance of revitalizing and teaching Indigenous languages, specifically the Nuu-wee-ya’ language and her tribe’s dialects. “I spent months writing,” she said, “just crying while I wrote because of how it felt to not be recognized.”
Hall — who graduated in 2021 with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Oregon — is the language coordinator for the Coquille Indian Tribe.
But Hall is not part of the federally recognized tribe of the Coquille. She’s part of the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, which she described as the descendants of nine women who relocated and returned to the Rogue River after the Rogue River Wars of the 1850s in southern Oregon. Despite their rich history and Hall’s documentation of her heritage, Hall and her ancestors are not acknowledged by the United States government as a tribal nation.
Hall’s status meant that when she was earning her degrees, she didn’t qualify for financial assistance designed for Native students. She would not have been eligible for tuition waiver programs instituted in Oregon last year that reduce or eliminate costs for students who belong to federally recognized tribes.
For decades, a handful of individual states and schools have offered financial assistance to Native students. A new wave of offerings this past year – spurred in part by growing land rights movements and a larger focus on racial justice following the murder of George Floyd – shows the programs are becoming increasingly popular.
The programs are meant to help reduce the barrier of cost for Native students, who have historically faced significant challenges in attending and staying in college. Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And since 2010, Native enrollment in higher-ed institutions also has declined by about 37 percent, the largest drop in any student demographic group. Studies suggest affordability is one of the leading causes of attrition.
But in nearly every iteration of these programs — old and new — only some Indigenous people benefit.
That’s because the U.S. government does not formally acknowledge the status of an estimated 400 tribes and countless Indigenous individuals, thus shutting them out of programs meant to reduce barriers to higher education. Tribes have to meet several criteria in their petitions for federal recognition, including proof they’ve had decades of a collective identity, generations of descendants and long-standing, autonomous political governance.
As a result, thousands of Native students aren’t getting the same opportunities as their peers in recognized tribes and are left with a disproportionate amount of debt. Affected students say the disparate treatment also leaves social and emotional wounds.
“I made it through it,” Hall said, adding with a laugh that she did most of her dissertation work remotely during Covid, often with her toddler playing around her. “And I would have made it through it better if I had had more support.”
Hall is now paying off about $190,000 in student loans, the cumulative cost of her undergraduate degree from Linfield College in Oregon, her master’s at the University of Arizona and her doctorate from the University of Oregon. A loan forgiveness program through her work will cut her obligation to roughly $50,000, but the total harms her chances of receiving a loan or improving her credit.
Hall’s children, who has Native status because of her father’s enrollment in a recognized tribe, will likely have opportunities Hall did not. If her daughter, for example, a Eugene middle schooler, maintains a 3.0 grade-point average, she will be able to attend the University of Oregon for free.
There are “so many people that are stuck in poverty and stuck in situations where they can’t get an education,” Hall said. “I started thinking … how hard their lives are, and how much of a difference could be made.”
Individual schools and states across the country have instituted varying forms of these tuition programs over the years. The University of Maine, for example, has had a tuition waiver option since the 1930s. The program helped the school retain its Native students during the pandemic at higher rates than the national average, according to Marcus Wolf, a university spokesperson. Michigan and Montana have had waivers available for Native students for almost half a century.
Oregon joined this list, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, when then-Gov. Kate Brown announced the introduction of a statewide grant fund. The Oregon Tribal Student Grant covers tuition, housing and books at public institutions and some private universities for undergraduate and graduate students belonging to Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. The money is awarded only after students apply for federal or state financial aid.
In its first year, 416 students received the grant, according to Endi Hartigan, a spokesperson for the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Oregon lawmakers allocated $19 million for the first year — based on an estimate that 700 or more students would receive a grant — and this legislative session, they codified the program in state statute and allocated $24 million for the next two years.
Several state universities – including Western Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and Southern Oregon – also began providing an additional form of financial aid. Last year, these schools extended in-state tuition prices to members of all 570-plus federally recognized tribes in the U.S., regardless of what state they live in. The same is true for the University of California system, the University of Arizona and other institutions across the country.
Western Oregon started its Native American Tuition program last fall. It’s been a slow start to get students interested, with public records requests revealing that fewer than 10 students applied for or participated in the program in its inaugural year. However, the impact it has on those students is substantial: The university estimates the program saves participating students nearly $20,000 per student per year.
Anna Hernandez-Hunter, who until June was the director of admissions for Western Oregon, said the numbers are low because the program is new and the university enrolls few students from out of state (only about 19 percent of undergraduates). She said the university has made the application process easier for next year, published more information online and made sure admission counselors are sharing the information with prospective students.
But eligibility for that program, like the vast majority of such tuition offerings, requires enrollment in a federally recognized tribe.
Western Oregon’s Office of the President, as well as communications and admissions officials with the University of Oregon, declined to comment specifically on why unrecognized tribes are excluded from the programs. One university official said on background that, generally speaking, program staff at any university have to follow federal and state guidelines, as well as standards for who qualifies for the resources.
Institutions typically validate a student’s enrollment by requiring a federally issued tribal ID or a letter from a recognized tribal council confirming enrollment. Native advocates said some students don’t have this kind of documentation even when they are enrolled in a recognized tribe. Documentation depends on the information families can access to prove their lineage. Enrollment requirements differ from tribe to tribe, and after generations of forced removal and assimilation, such documentation can be limited.
Limiting which Native students get financial assistance is especially significant, given the rising cost of post-secondary degrees. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year school was $10,940 for in-state students in 2022-23 or $28,240 for out-of-state students. And research by the Education Data Initiative shows Native students borrow more and pay more per month in student loan debt than their white peers.
Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Some colleges or states have agreements with specific unrecognized tribes. Oregon, for example, allows members of Washington’s Chinook Indian Nation, which is fighting to regain its federal recognition, to at least access in-state tuition because the Chinook have tribal boundaries in Oregon.
Jason Younker leads the University of Oregon’s Home Flight Scholars Program, which is one of the school’s many assistance programs available for Native students. Launched last October, Home Flight not only works to recruit more Native students to the university but also provides funding, mentors, culturally specific programs and support to help Native students adjust to life on campus.
Younker said students can prove their eligibility for the program by showing a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) instead of enrollment records. Blood quantum, or the measurement of someone’s “Indian blood,” has a long, controversial history in the U.S. And certificates are only available to people related to members of recognized tribes. But Younker said this allows someone to show they are Native without enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.
Younker, who is part of the Coquille tribe, said the university allows students to show blood quantum via a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) — which is only available to people related to members of recognized tribes — instead of enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.
Program leaders also allow students, even those from unrecognized tribes, to apply to Home Flight via letters from council members, in an attempt to extend this support to at least some of Oregon’s unrecognized students pursuing undergraduate degrees.
Younker said the question should no longer be: “Can I afford to go to college?” The question should be: “Where can I go to college?”
“Each and every one of us has had an ancestor that sacrificed and survived so that they could have the choices that they do today,” he said. “I always tell students: ‘It doesn’t matter where you go; it matters that you do go.’”
But he said tuition assistance isn’t enough to attract and retain Native American students. To succeed in this, colleges must also recruit on reservations, provide academic counseling, cultural support and a community of peers, and include Native leaders in major decisions at the university. “If you don’t have those kinds of things, you’re not a very attractive school — no matter how much tuition you waive,” he said.
For students and parents like Yvette Perrantes, the lack of support affects multiple generations.
Perrantes wanted to go to college as an adult so she could move into a higher income bracket. She’s a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe, who lived on the land that is now South Seattle, Renton and Kent, and have been called Seattle’s first people. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today.
Without tribal status and consequent financial aid, Perrantes owed $27,000 in student loans after finishing her associate degree in clean energy technologies at Washington’s Shoreline Community College in 2014. She deferred her loan payments until she no longer could. Threatened with having her wages garnished, she filed for bankruptcy. Her credit score took a hit. She had to keep making payments, but now had no chance of leasing a car, getting a credit card or exercising other opportunities.
Her son was looking into college at the same time Perrantes faced these financial hardships. He hoped to receive an athletic scholarship, but when he tore his ACL, the young student-athlete stopped pursuing higher education altogether. In his eyes, Perrantes said, all it would lead to was debt.
The effects of exclusion from federal recognition and benefits are compounded, Perrantes said, for those who come from families, like hers, with intergenerational trauma and parents who are “doing a lot of healing themselves.”
Not “being included in this process with the federal government and not having equal access to student loans and money for education, and more interest rates, you know, everything that comes along with federal recognition,” she said, “it’s pretty crushing to the spirit.”
Perrantes now works as a program manager for Mother Nation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on cultural services, advocacy, mentorship and homeless prevention for Native women. She worries that students who go out of state for school may be disproportionately denied aspects of their identity. If someone isn’t a recognized tribal member, she said, they aren’t allowed to participate in certain cultural practices such as burning, smudging, harvesting certain trees or having an eagle feather. Those barriers are even more pronounced when the person is from a different state.
“[H]ow are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”
Yvette Perrantes, a member of the Duwamish tribe and a leader on its council
“Being Native and being grounded in your ways, traditionally, and being out of state, outside your family, outside of your tradition, outside of your culture, and then you’re not being able to practice your cultural ways. You know, I think it’s impactful on your emotional, spiritual and mental health,” she said. “We need those to sustain ourselves as students.”
Perrantes still encourages Indigenous students to pursue education at all costs. That way, she said, they can be the ones making laws and the ones teaching their history in the classroom. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she said. “I know that sounds so cliche, but how are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”
As states and institutions expand tuition waiver programs, Hall, the doctoral graduate from the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, would like to see different ways used to verify a claim of being Native and for resources to extend to unrecognized students. Her advice for Native students is to be as stubborn as they can, to believe in themselves and to remember that any kind or any level of education will improve their lives and that of their community.
“We all have some history. We’re survivors. Regardless,” Hall said. Education “is an answer to the prayers of our ancestors, no matter if we’re recognized or not.”
This story about Native American tuition waiver programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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