Native Americans have been a part of the historical, service and cultural foundations of Creighton University. And, quite literally, the foundation itself. The university, located in Omaha, Neb., is situated on the ruins of an Oto earth lodge. From the 1730s to the 1760s, there was an immense village that extended from the current campus to downtown Omaha. The village was so large that Lewis and Clark remarked about its ruins while on their famous journey.
In more recent history, however, this Catholic, Jesuit institution has enjoyed an even stronger and successful relationship with Native American populations. Creighton is the only Jesuit college or university that has a Native American Studies program of study. Yearly events, such as the All-Nations Pow Wow, help students celebrate their heritage. Since 2000, Creighton has also coordinated service immersion trips during the fall and spring break to reservations in Nebraska, South Dakota and Arizona serving the tributes of the Navajo, Winnebago, Rosebud, Oglala and Cheyenne River. The University also provides health services and free income tax preparation support at reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. However, the most telling measure of Creighton?s dedication and close relationship with Native Americans can be seen in the numbers of students that study at the University and receive degrees.
This year Creighton University will reach a milestone with this population by graduating the largest group of Native American students in the history of the university - 23 at its May 18 commencement. The graduates include 12 from the undergraduate schools and colleges, four from the graduate school, one pharmacy student, three dental students and three medical students. The dental students were partly supported in their time at Creighton with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Dental Pipeline program, to assist universities with recruitment of Native American students into the nation?s dental schools.
Creighton has made an asserted effort to recruit and outreach to Native American students. A Native American program coordinates advocacy outreach programs and resources to support this work, including hiring an outreach and retention specialist.
After graduation, students are pursuing jobs, enrolling in further educational opportunities or giving back to their communities. Two of the dental graduates will begin postgraduate work either for their tribes or with the Indian Health Service (IHS). Through this work, they will be living out the Jesuit value of being "men and women for and with others," an idea emphasized by Creighton's liberal arts education.
One of the dental students working with IHS is Tracy Charging Crow. Charging Crow, originally from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, is affiliated with the Oglala Lakota tribe. Her work with the IHS will be as a staff dentist, providing oral healthcare to the urban Indian population around Rapid City, South Dakota. She believes that her willingness to volunteer is a direct reflection of the Jesuit values embodied at Creighton.
"I am not required or obligated to [work with IHS]; it's something that I want to do," Charging Crow said. "[It has to do with] those values that they instilled in us, giving back and making sure that you are doing something for the greater good, and always reflecting about your actions."
Charging Crow said that she is excited to serve with IHS. And that excitement stems more about her understanding that she has an opportunity to take skills learned and apply them to her own community.
"[I chose to do this] in reflecting about where I come from and the help that I received, and to give back to my people. I'm thankful that I will be providing them with oral healthcare," she said.
During senior week, before commencement exercises take place, a Cedar Ceremony will be held to celebrate graduates' accomplishments and achievements. This event designed as a reinforcement of institutional respect for Native American cultural tradition, undergraduate students will be presented with a beaded medallion and feather plume to wear on their caps during graduation.
"I would not be graduating without the support from the Creighton Native American learning community that I entered into my freshman year," Steele Valenzuela, a senior student in the college of Arts & Sciences, said. Valenzuela will graduate with a B.S. degree in Pure Mathematics with minors in Political Science and Public Health.
This year, 40 Native American students are enrolled as full-time students at Creighton in its undergraduate, graduate and professional schools and colleges.
"Overall, it was pretty welcoming," Charging Crow said.
Valenzuela agrees. He grew up in Decatur, Nebr., and considers himself a "non-traditional Native American student." His mother grew up on the Omaha reservation and his biological father was Mexican-American. Despite suffering from what he calls an identity crisis, Valenzuela always felt at home at Creighton.
"Not only did the Native American learning community accept and welcome me, but Ricardo Ariza, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and his staff, have their arms wide open," Valenzuela said. "Their investment in students is tremendously admirable."
Valenzuela knows first-hand the impact a solid community can have on a student who is facing immense challenges. He struggled with loss during his time at Creighton, losing his mother to breast cancer and his math advisor and close friend to a heart attack. One of the core Jesuit values of Creighton University is Cura Personalis, or care for the individual person.
"The students, friends, faculty and staff, and whoever else has entered my life at Creighton is like a family to me," Valenzuela said. "Without their constant love and support, I would have easily?given up on my dreams and passions. The students at Creighton are some of the most genuine and passionate people I have ever met in my life." Valenzuela said.
Valenzuela has decided to continue his education after his Creighton graduation. He has accepted a one year post-baccalaureate and research position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He one day hopes to receive a doctorate in biostatistics.
Creighton's connection to Native Americans is bound to grow as the University continues to emphasize outreach and retention. If success continues at this rate, that connection will be similar to what Lewis and Clark thought when they first saw the foundation of Creighton University over 200 years ago - remarkable.