Montana State University Billings announced the opening of a sweat lodge on its campus Tuesday. It’s part of the university’s effort to retain indigenous students.
About twenty-five people gathered in the backyard of the Native American Achievement Center, listening to MSU-B Chancellor Dan Edelman as he dedicated the new sweat lodge. It’s a dome used for prayer by some Great Plains tribes. This one has rocks from Snake Butte on the Fort Belknap Reservation and is made of cedar.
"We definitely work very hard to try to improve the educational access and success for our Native American students," Edelman said.
Although research says Native Americans are the least likely racial demographic to attend college, MSU-B says its Native student enrollment has grown in recent years. This fall, the University says its Native student body grew to 345 students total across its two campuses.
"Now we’ve got to make sure not only we retain them as well, and this is part of the retention effort," said Edelman.
The university has also hired a tribal liaison to travel to different tribal nations and recruit students. This sweat lodge is part of that. It’s the only one located on a non-tribal campus in Montana and took about $10,000 in private donations to build and bring up to Billings fire code.
Joe McGeshick, the interim director of the Native American Achievement Center, raised the bulk of that money. He says a sweat lodge is helpful to retain Native students.
"But it’s not essential. What’s essential is having faculty, staff, administration, who understand where Indians are coming from and what they’ve been through," he said.
He says the sweat lodge is another tool to help faculty and administrators understand Native students and support their success.
McGeshick replaced former director Reno Charette this summer, in part to help get the ball rolling on the sweat lodge, according to an email obtained from a public records request between Provost Melinda Arnold and Chancellor Eldeman. It says that McGeshick was hired to “hit the ground running” with fundraising and community-building for the sweat lodge, powwoww and program expansion efforts.
Robin Begshisown, an Assiniboine and Sioux student at MSU-B, sweats twice a month at a lodge outside Billings. He says it helped get him sober over a decade ago.
"It helps me through school. It helps me through a lot of things in my life. If I feel down, if I’m depressed, if I go in the sweat, by the time I get out of that sweat, I feel much better," Begshisown said.
He says the MSU-B sweat lodge will help bond Native students and create a sense of community.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.