A prominent Native American leader left her post at Montana State University Billings on July 12. She says she was demoted for bringing awareness to missing and murdered indigenous people.
Wednesday was the first time Reno Charette was on campus since she left her job directing the Native American Achievement Center earlier this month.
She said she's a visitor when she comes to campus now.
“That’s a little different,” she said. “But it’s OK.”
For the past decade, Charette, who is Crow, has provided American Indian students with academic and emotional support. She taught Native American studies and ran the university powwoww every spring.
The Achievement Center’s mission is to help recruit and retain American Indian students, which accounted for four-percent of students at MSU-B this past year. That’s lower than the state average at 6.6 percent Native American and the number of Native students who attended MSUB as recently as 2011.
On June 13th, Charette said MSU-B Provost Melinda Arnold stripped her director title and offered her a more than $20,000 pay cut to teach full-time.
“She caught me totally off guard,” Charette said. “Pulled the rug right out from underneath me.”
She said support for the Achievement Center from the university has sometimes been strong, but has varied from administration to administration.
She said her working relationship with Provost Arnold was usually productive and healthy.
“She said the reason why they decided not to renew my contract was because of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's March,” Charette said. “She said that I put the University at risk by doing that.”
She said she never heard any negative feedback from MSU-B about the march until her June 13 meeting. She wonders if she’s being punished for her activism.
MSU-B declined to comment on why the terms of Charette’s employment changed, citing a policy to not comment on personnel matters, but its mission is to deliver, “a transformative education that empowers students from diverse backgrounds to succeed.”
A university spokesperson confirmed that Charette was offered and accepted a position as a lecturer and project coordinator for the Achievement Center. The spokesperson wrote that she resigned within two weeks.
This April, MSU-B promoted the march hosted by the Achievement Center and a handful of nonprofits. A university press release invited the community to, “Please join us in raising awareness about our missing and murdered Native sisters.”
More than 300 people marched down North 27th Street in Billings, wearing red and with red handprints painted over their mouths.
“Nothing bad happened at that event,” Charette said. “In fact most people that I talked to said it was a very positive experience for the university and also for our community.”
Michaela Talksabout graduated from MSU-B last spring and interned for Charette. As a Native student with three kids and a learning disability, Talksabout said Charette and the Achievement Center helped her get through college.
“If you go into that building, you’re at home,” Talksabout said. “She’s smudging. She’s there to talk, there’s food, she’s trying to feed you.”
Her sister, who’s also a single parent, is supposed to start at MSU-B this fall.
“I was so excited because I was like, 'Reno’s going to have your back,'” she said, “'and support you and help you through this journey,' and she won’t.”
Maddison Wilhite has collaborated with Charette before, including on the march last spring.
She’s a community organizer at the Native American Development Corporation in downtown Billings but was new to town last January. From the moment she arrived, she says, “Everybody mentioned this name Reno, and they said, ‘She might be a great resource or someone you’d want to ask that.’ So before I actually met her, I heard her name all the time.”
She found out about Reno’s decision to leave MSU-B on Facebook. Her first reaction was disappointment.
“I realize the university lost a fantastic leader, role model,” Wilhite said. “Somebody who gets things done, somebody who’s extremely caring, supportive.”
She said she’ll continue to reach out to Charette for advice.
Charette recently accepted a better-paying job for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, a non-profit that advocates for tribal colleges.
She said she initially took the demotion to keep her healthcare.
She said she’s not angry at MSU-B, and finding new work quickly helped with that.
Still, when I ask if she wants to go visit the Achievement Center, she said she can’t. To see all the lights off, and the parking lot empty, just makes her sad.
Joe McGeshick, the Tribal Liaison for MSU Billings, will fill her shoes in the meantime. That’s according to a university spokesperson, who also said that a search will begin for a permanent director this fall.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America Corps Member.