University of Washington welcome sign under snow

OPINION | A Petition for Meaningful Tribal Recognition at the University of Washington

by Michael T. Brett


The University of Washington Land Acknowledgment states, “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.” This statement is often recited at university meetings and even more commonly copy-pasted in emails. However, when I hear this land acknowledgement, I have a nagging doubt whether this is just performative allyship or, even worse, rubbing salt in the wounds of Washington State tribal members who are already well-aware that the land was taken from them long ago and nobody in the Washington State government or University of Washington administration intends to give it back! 

Short of giving the land back, or even paying some sort of monetary restitution for having taken the land, what could the University of Washington do to demonstrate its sincerity? The answer is simple: UW is an educational institution that provides opportunities to advance oneself educationally, professionally, and personally. The university should promise tuition-free education to every member of a Washington State tribe that qualifies for admission to the university. Because many tribal members lack generational wealth and live in smaller communities that are less connected to the resources that enable a more successful transition to higher education, the university should also structure outreach programs to tribal members so that they know which steps to take to plan ahead and prepare themselves for a university education.

The state of Montana has been offering free tuition to tribal members at in-state public universities for approximately 50 years. The University of California system has decided to offer tuition-free education to Native American students who are residents of California starting this fall. The state of Oregon launched a new program to provide tuition, housing, and books for members of the federally recognized tribes within the state, and the state of Utah will offer tuition waivers for students from that state’s federally recognized tribes. Similarly, the University of Arizona will soon offer free tuition to federally recognized tribal members from that state. Portland State and Oregon State Universities will offer in-state tuition to any student who is a member of a federally recognized tribe not from Oregon.

Now is the time for the University of Washington to do what is right and match its actions to its words. Granting tuition-free educations to Washington State residents who are members of federally recognized Washington tribes is only a very small step toward righting some of the many wrongs that were committed against the Indigenous peoples of this country.


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Michael T. Brett is a professor at the University of Washington. He is the former associate chair and the graduate program coordinator for the graduate program of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

📸 Featured image by devynfduvall/Shutterstock.com.

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