Reflections as a Husky

Owen L. Oliver
5 min readSep 3, 2020

I never thought I’d actually be a student at the University of Washington. Not because I’m an Indigenous student who doesn’t have a sense of pride or a poor upbringing. It was because I practically grew up on the campus. My mother and father both had graduated from the University of Washington, my dad ended up becoming an emeritus professor in the American Indian Studies department and associated curator for the Burke Museum. During my childhood I remember going to the art building every week and sitting in his classes. He would always introduce me as a future husky and I every time I thought I can’t wait to go to college out of state. Now looking back at it, during all those classes my dad taught me what it meant to be an Indigenous person in higher education and what it meant to be proud of what you were teaching. I began to carry this to its fullest when I became that husky, he always wanted me to become.

There’s a club on UW campus that means everything for many Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and non-native allies. That club is First Nations. First Nations is an inter-tribal RSO that promotes Native wellness, academic success, and cultural values. It initially started in 1971 when Native students demanded a powwow on campus. Next year we will have put on our 50th annual powwow. When I initially joined First Nations, I noticed a lack of coastal representation. I was confused because our club was located on Coast Salish land yet where were the traditions and cultural values that I grew up with. As a began to show my interest in running First Nations I began to make relationships that would change my life. I began to learn that I could work as a teacher, engaging with people in First Nations with appropriate coastal knowledge systems. As First Nations grew so did my engagement with the Indigenous community in and outside of the University of Washington.

One of the proudest moments serving First Nations as Coastal Chair wasn’t the events I helped put on that have fed over 200 people or the thousands of dollars we donated to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples’ movement or even the pride of being the smallest minority group on campus that puts on the largest student run events. The proudest and most impactful thing I’ve done in First Nations was connecting my academic track of being an American Indian Studies major, being an educator, and most importantly bringing it all back to my coastal community.

Recently I pursued to start the first all-Indigenous student run Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. The ASB program I developed with educators and advisors enables Indigenous students in higher education to spend their spring break at a compact tribal school to promote higher education. The takeaway message for youth is that ‘Natives belong in higher education and they will succeed’. Before developing this program, the University of Washington had a similar program called ‘Pipeline’ which is a K-12 outreach program designed to connect undergraduate mentors with underrepresented and marginalized communities. The work done through this program culminates into a curriculum that the University of Washington students teach at one of many tribal compact schools for a week. Initially, I reached out to be a part of the program, but it was not long before I noticed that it was a predominantly white space with no Indigenous college students involved in the projects. I took it upon myself to create a program designed in collaboration with educators from Pipeline for Indigenous students by Indigenous students. I wanted to create a program that privileged and acknowledged Indigenous educational systems. I began by reaching out to some of the shyest and smartest Indigenous students at the University of Washington. I wanted them to have the opportunity to share their stories, without hesitation, at a tribal K-12. The first Indigenous Pipeline project took place in March of 2019 when five University of Washington Indigenous students went to the Quileute tribal school in La Push. Through this program, I learned that this opportunity for learning and community building was just as important to the college students as the children at the tribal school. While in La Push, the Indigenous college students learned about traditional values in the Quileute Tribal School and were exposed to what it means to be in a classroom that focuses on Native and non-native relationships from kindergarten. The Indigenous students also taught the Quileute students about what it means to be a Native person in higher education, how to succeed, and be a teacher. Before the program, if I would have asked any of them to help me with being a guest lecturer or if I remarked that they were a teacher, all of them would have said, ‘Owen, you know I can’t be a teacher. I don’t know anything. I don’t know where to start. You should just do it’. I understood that they were insecure and filled with trepidation, but I wanted this program to strengthen their convictions as Indigenous people and empower them as educators for all students. The program is proof that even the shyest students can become teachers and leaders. First Nations has expanded its ASB program and this year Indigenous students will be going to Quileute again along with the Makah Tribal school in Neah Bay. I will not be leading any of them because the students I initially took were the ones who wanted to take the initiative to lead it themselves. Is just one way, agency and empowerment are strengthened and fortified in our Indigenous students through Indigenous knowledge systems.

I didn’t think this was an important achievement, nor did I think I had to tell people what I do because ultimately its for my community and for the goal of getting into higher education and succeeding. However, as I sit on it and begin my new position as one of five newest Champion for Change I’ve ultimately learned that teaching needs to come within the community and the University of Washington has one of the strongest and most resilient Indigenous communities. I can’t thank all the teachers, faculty, peers, and community members I got to engage with at the University of Washington. As a Champion for Change I will be working alongside Washington D. C’s senators, representatives, policy makers and all between. Working to promote Indigenous education across North America and serving as a community leader for more than just kids in Quileute to look up to. It took a lot of steps to get my impact outside of the University of Washington, but it was all worth it to feel like an actual teacher while still in my undergraduate degree. In the future I hope that I can bring my kids to class to teach them exactly what it means to be a husky and how being boundless stretches in and outside of the community.