With a peg-letter board serving as the office directory and a pendulum clock marking time like a metronome, the entryway to the presidential offices at Colorado State University feels like the set of a stage play about campus life in the 1960s. Even the massive elm trees shading the lawn beyond the building’s stone pillars testify to decades past. Yet I’m here to meet an administrator who’s expected to put CSU on a decidedly forward-looking path: In the newly created role of assistant vice president of Indigenous and Native American affairs, Patrese Atine is charged with improving the university’s rapport with a demographic that hasn’t, historically, enjoyed much consideration at this or other institutions of higher education across the United States.

CSU’s disconnect with Native Americans began with its creation, on land that had been seized from tribes. The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 awarded federal land—including more than 10 million acres of Native holdings—to U.S. states and territories so they could establish colleges of agriculture and industrial arts. Colorado used its share to create the Colorado Agricultural College (now Colorado State University) in 1870, six years after the Sand Creek Massacre, in which some 230 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes that once occupied that land were slaughtered by the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment of Volunteers and 3rd Regiment of Colorado Cavalry Volunteers—both commanded by Colonel John Chivington of the U.S. Army.

The university’s land acknowledgment statement, published in 2019, addresses the school’s use of parcels originally occupied by Indigenous tribes. The statement also recognizes CSU’s responsibility to offer an education that’s accessible to and inclusive of all, which was, in theory, the point of the Land-Grant College Act, even if in practice it almost exclusively helped white students.

Yet just 908 CSU students—or roughly three percent of the student body—self-identified as Native American for the 2023-’24 school year. (Of note: The U.S. Census estimates those who identify as only Native American account for 1.7 percent of the state’s populace.) Meanwhile, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation published by High Country News in 2020 revealed that CSU was among at least 16 land-grant institutions across the nation that continue to profit from appropriated land: Mineral and grazing leases on acreage formerly occupied by Native communities generated $662,596 in revenue for CSU during fiscal year 2019.

With the creation of this assistant vice president position, CSU joins a small cadre of land-grant universities that have decided formal apologies and land acknowledgments don’t do enough to right institutional wrongs against Native Americans. CSU hopes that putting an advocate for Indigenous Americans in the president’s office will allow it to boost recruitment and retention of Native students and staff, develop culturally responsive research initiatives, and steer the university toward healthier relationships with sovereign tribal nations within Colorado and beyond.

By mid-May, when I visit campus, Atine has logged just 10 weeks on the job. “I’ve spent the first two and a half months just listening, learning the history of the institution and hearing from students that are here and that have left,” Atine says. “I’ve reached out to institutions in our area that also serve Native populations to hear their backstories about what works—and what doesn’t.”

Students don’t have to identify as Indigenous to hang out in CSU’s Native American Cultural Center (NACC), a room within the Lory Student Center where colorful posters and bookcases surround long tables that make the space look more like a library than a lounge. But this is one place on campus where Native Americans don’t feel outnumbered: Here, freshmen meet with returning students who serve as mentors and tutors, and groups of young people plan leadership development retreats and awareness-raising events, such as the annual powwow and celebrations of Native American Heritage Month in November.

Established in 1979, the NACC has long been “a big factor” in persuading prospective students and their families to consider CSU, says the center’s director, Tyrone “Ty” Smith, a CSU alum who was born and raised on the Navajo Nation. Other schools may have multicultural centers that welcome students who identify with a broad array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but with those who identify as only Native Americans tallying just 2.9 percent of the total U.S. population, “they may feel they’re not represented, that their voices may not be heard at a multicultural center,” Smith says.

Furthermore, Native Americans already comprise a multicultural demographic spanning various tribal affiliations across rural and urban backgrounds. What they share is a common need for a supportive community—particularly as they adjust to a predominantly white university located within the predominantly white city of Fort Collins. “Some may never have been underrepresented like that,” Smith says, “so they’re not yet comfortable with it.”

While the NACC has provided Indigenous Americans who matriculate at CSU with a more supportive atmosphere and more resources than they’re likely to find at most other U.S. institutions of higher education, it alone cannot reconcile the institution with past—and sometimes continuing—norms based on exclusion and injustice. For instance, in 2010, as CSU’s basketball team prepared to play its rival, the University of Wyoming, a group of students created a Facebook page that appeared to have been sponsored by CSU Athletics (but wasn’t) and suggested that fans re-enact a cowboys versus American Indians battle. Tiffani Kelly, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, was one of the CSU students who raised objections in her posts on the page. “The aggression was horrific,” she says. “I was threatened with being beat up because I was voicing my opinion that this was a problem.”

Campus protests led to dialogue with Tony Frank, CSU’s president at the time, who was moved to pursue changes that could improve the school’s treatment of Native Americans. Frank supported the 2011 creation of the Native American Legacy Award, which allows members of tribes that were forcibly removed from Colorado to qualify for in-state tuition rates at CSU. In 2015, the university changed the name of its Pingree Park Mountain Campus to Colorado State University Mountain Campus to eliminate the reference to George Pingree, a participant in the bloodshed at Sand Creek.

But in 2018, a campus tour made national headlines after a parent grew suspicious of two prospective Native American students and called campus police. Officers removed the boys from the tour and subjected them to questioning and a search of their possessions—despite the fact that they’d done nothing wrong. “It wasn’t unique to CSU,” says Kelly, who by then had graduated and taken a position as assistant director of CSU’s NACC. Similar events involving nervous whites calling the police on bystanders of color have occurred across the country. However, Kelly says, “it made [Native Americans at CSU] feel like unless we’re performing at a powwow or prayer ceremony or as a mascot, we’re not accepted into general spaces.”

The incident rallied the broader CSU community around improving inclusion of Native Americans. Frank established a task force that morphed into the current Native American Advisory Council, which examines the challenges faced by Native students and staff. The group also proposes solutions: One was to establish a high-level administrative position that could channel Indigenous viewpoints into the institution’s top office.

“This is not DEI work,” says Kelly, who served as chair of the Native American Advisory Council and helped write the job description for the new assistant vice president position. “We’re talking about developing relationships with tribes, with sovereign nations.” Until now, individual students and staff have assumed the burden of acting as mouthpieces for their cultures and communities. The goal is for the new assistant vice president to collaborate with other Indigenous groups to execute those diplomatic functions, including those that influence research objectives and curriculum creation. Says Kelly: “The position operates at a high level where systemic change happens.”

Its establishment places CSU among the forefront of land-grant institutions that have, since 2018, created similar positions to address Native American relations. The University of Arizona (situated within a state that includes several large reservations, such as the Hopi Reservation and Navajo Nation, for sovereign nations) has already instituted senior vice president and assistant vice provost positions to manage Native American affairs. The University of Minnesota also created two executive positions for Indigenous issues: Most recently, in May 2021, the school appointed Karen Diver as senior adviser to the president for Native American Affairs, a position that was reminiscent of the one she held under President Barack Obama.

Schools that weren’t founded by the land-grant process see value in having an executive dedicated to Native American issues, too. In May 2023, the University of Colorado Boulder began looking for an associate vice chancellor of Native American affairs, and the University of Denver has worked to be more inclusive in recent years, too. “We would love to have a big-picture person like Patrese,” says Chris Nelson, associate professor at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, the Native faculty director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the faculty adviser for the DU Native Student Alliance, a support group for Indigenous students that promotes awareness of those cultures across campus.

Like CSU, DU has also had to reconcile a legacy of unsavory beginnings: Its founder, John Evans, was the governor of the Territory of Colorado and its superintendent of Indian affairs when the Sand Creek Massacre took place. After the university’s own John Evans Study Committee of 2014 found him culpable for the atrocity, DU added positions that could better support Native American students.

Nelson now collaborates with Stevie Rose Tohdacheeny Lee, the school’s associate director for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Native American initiatives (a position created in 2016). Both women spend most of their time supporting Indigenous students’ day-to-day needs, like adapting to campus housing and managing financial aid. “As people on the ground, we don’t have discussions with the chancellor,” Nelson says. “But an assistant vice president would have direct communication to top cabinet leaders and could actually shape policy and outreach.”

For his part, CSU’s NACC director Smith sees the assistant vice president position as delivering the strategic leadership that his office doesn’t attempt. “We’re busy, so having a voice for us at that level is so important,” Smith says. “It has been a long time in coming.”

Sitting at a polished conference table on campus, Patrese Atine wears a gray pencil skirt and matching jacket that looks, I imagine, like something the 39-year-old purchased for her previous job. Before starting at CSU on March 1, Atine worked in Washington, D.C., initially as the government and legislative affairs associate for the Navajo Nation (she is an enrolled member of that tribe) and later as the director of congressional and federal relations for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium as an advocate for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). She learned to read the capital’s pulse and how to sense the tipping point in negotiations there. Now she’s recalibrating those instincts to northern Colorado.

She’s also asked tribal nations about past injuries and possible grudges against the university. “You have to address wounds,” Atine says. But she also says that simply initiating a dialogue builds brand-new bridges between Native American communities and Colorado’s institutions of higher education. “I’ve been asking critical questions about our engagement with tribal members,” Atine says. “What do tribes want? And are we doing what’s best by tribes? And I don’t know that institutions of higher education have historically asked that.”

Growing up in Provo, Utah, Atine was drawn to Brigham Young University, which conducted “a lot of outreach and recruitment in my community,” she says. She felt comfortable on that campus, in part because BYU had amassed a sizable group of what Atine calls “urban Indians.” Her uncomplicated adaptation to college life isn’t typical of Native youth. “One thing that I commonly hear from Native students is that they don’t feel like their cultures, their identities, or their communities are reflected in their coursework,” she says.

Consequently, some of the tribes’ most bookish kids gravitate toward TCUs, which are also land-grant institutions, but ones operated by the tribes themselves. These schools—none of which are located in Colorado but are scattered across other Midwestern and Western states—are chronically underfunded, Atine says, and typically lack sophisticated laboratories and other high-dollar, high-tech facilities. But, she explains, they let Indigenous students learn in culturally centered environments that train them to occupy careers that are needed on reservations: teachers, veterinarians, and natural resource managers, among others.

Becoming a teacher was Atine’s initial goal while at BYU, but her experience in Provo, and later at Boston University (where she earned a Master of Arts in education, policy, planning, and administration), afforded her broader horizons that eventually led her to the Beltway. “The best resource we have in the United States is our higher education system,” Atine says. “I’ve been telling Native students, ‘Be a specialist so you have a passion that you can carry on through your adult life.’ I feel that can happen with higher education.”

There are so many needs in Indigenous communities, though, that it’s difficult for Atine to know where to begin. Some tribal communities have told her they need help improving K–12 education so that higher education actually becomes a realistic option. The University of Arizona, where the Office of Native American Advancement and Tribal Engagement is three years old, has already begun to partner on agricultural research spurred by tribal needs and interests. With Atine’s diplomacy, CSU could develop similar collaborations with Colorado-based tribes seeking insights into crop development and natural resource management.

The new assistant vice president has also been tasked with making CSU friendlier to incoming students who come from tribal nations. That includes hiring more Native American faculty and staff to bolster Indigenous voices across campus. Curricula might also change to become more representative of Indigenous experiences and traditions. “We’ve heard that to be successful, students need to see themselves reflected in coursework,” Atine explains. “What does that look like? I don’t 100 percent know.”

Atine also isn’t completely sure how she will spend the money she’s allotted. Each year, Atine will create a budget and will have the ability to recommend up to $500,000 in annual expenditures—taken from CSU’s land-grant income—to benefit Native American and Indigenous people. University spokesperson Nik Olsen says scholarships are a likely target.

Data illustrating the prosperity gap between Native Americans and the broader U.S. population is scarce, because the U.S. government does not track Native American wealth, and the statistics that do exist can be misleading. What little information there is, however, suggests that the gap is wide. Thus, even CSU’s $12,702 in-state yearly tuition for students from tribal nations can seem unattainable to many Indigenous Americans. Several Colorado schools (such as Metropolitan State University of Denver and Fort Lewis College in Durango) offer tuition waivers for enrolled tribal members. And last year, the University of Arizona developed the Arizona Native Scholars Grant to assist Indigenous-identifying Arizona undergraduates by paying for any tuition and fees that aren’t covered by Pell grants.

Money has also dominated Atine’s conversations with Colorado’s Native communities. “Financial aid and scholarships remain at the top of the list of needs,” she says. Closing the wealth gap for Colorado’s Native Americans would be job enough. Helping the institution see and hear those populations is less quantifiable and, thus, potentially more difficult.

But amid nationwide declines in college enrollment (Colorado’s college-going rate for high school seniors in 2021 was 49.9 percent, more than 10 percent lower than the national average, and declines are projected for 2025 and beyond), CSU is motivated to pay attention to Native American populations. Atine says the consideration is long overdue.