A conversation with WWU's Tribal Liaison Laural Ballew

Laural Ballew-Ses yehomia/tsi kuts bat soot, WWU’s Tribal Liaison, shares thoughts and insights on what this season means to her as a person of Native descent and how universities and tribes can constructively work toward a rewarding and collaborative future for their communities. 


Why does this time of year make you reflect more on your Native heritage? 

Autumn is a natural time to reflect on bigger questions as the days grow shorter and we retreat indoors. The falling leaves remind us that an old year is being shed and a new year is fast approaching. But more specifically, it’s a season that is punctuated by holidays and recognitions that bring up Indigenous people and what it means to be Native in what is now the United States: Indigenous People’s Day in October, Native American Heritage Month in November, and of course, Thanksgiving Day.  


As our Executive Director and Tribal Liaison, where do you see the most opportunities for WWU to engage with our Native communities? 

Native communities and institutions of higher education can be natural partners. From developing new academic programs rooted in Native knowledge and expertise to developing new forums for community dialogue, service and learning, the biggest opportunities lie in continuing to develop the way we work together. We also need to acknowledge that while these days and months of heritage celebration and recognition are important, our work continues every day and every month. A big part of my office’s mission is to find constructive opportunities for both reflection and action. 


What are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned working as liaison between WWU and our Native neighbors? 

First, it’s vital to listen to our Native Students. Western’s Native American Student Union (NASU) is an organic example of effective student leadership at WWU. Back in 2016, NASU sent a formal request advocating a series of actions for the University President and Board of Trustees to take in support of the Native community. Among these was creating the Tribal Liaison position, building a Coast Salish Longhouse as a gathering space for the Native community, including our Native students and leaders, as well as investments in training and enrollment. By the power and actions of the NASU group leaders, along with support from Native faculty and staff at WWU, all five of the NASU requests have been met by the administration of WWU.  

Second, on the academic side of things, a major lesson for our community and for other institutions of higher education is that there is an opportunity for collaboration on the development of academic programs. There is a world of knowledge and Native ways of being that we see here locally that can be tapped into for academic program development. Cultural values and traditions, sustainable methods of cultivation and aquaculture, mitigating impacts on the land – all of that is being further integrated into our academic offerings, with faculty and staff working closely with Native leaders and students, and is really augmenting the quality of education. 

And third, invest in the long-term. An important future forum for exchanges that will enable Native empowerment and vital community building is the future Coast Salish longhouse that is being developed. It will serve as a “house of healing” to acknowledge the past trauma and distress affecting Native peoples and be a place where Native people can come together to share generational cultural practices and ceremonies as well as western academic knowledge to navigate a contemporary world. It will honor the historic importance of place within the Lummi territory, which WWU currently sits on, and acknowledges the University’s responsibility to promote educational opportunities for Native students. 

We have full funding for the building from the state as well as from generous donations from the Jamestown S’Klallam, Muckleshoot, Swinomish, Stillaguamish, Nooksack and other tribes, along with the support of the Mt. Baker Foundation, WECU and Whatcom County. Planning is already under way, and we hope to break ground on construction within the next year. 

I would really like to recognize and commend the WWU Native American Student Union for their leadership and perseverance in fighting for a dedicated space for the Native students on WWU’s campus.  


Final thoughts as we enter a long holiday weekend? 

Although there is much to learn with regards to building Indigenous leadership, this is my contribution to academic knowledge for building successful leadership.  As a Native mother and grandmother, I use my teachings and knowledge to share with my family, students, faculty, staff, and community to develop Native nation building. My hope is to recognize the desire from community members who wish to learn and share the knowledge to continue building a unified and healthy Native community of learners. 


Learn more about our activities and initiatives this Native American Heritage Month at www.wwu.edu/nahm 


For more information on WWU’s Tribal Liaison, visit https://www.wwu.edu/tribal-relations.