In a season of historic firsts, Gov. Bill Ritter has appointed the first Native American trustee in Fort Lewis College's nearly 100-year history.
Medical researcher and former executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs Karen D. Wilde will take over a seat on the Fort Lewis Board of Trustees vacated by Patricia Noyes, who has one year remaining on her term.
Ritter made the announcement Jan. 20, the same day Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's first black president.
Wilde, who works at the University of Colorado at Denver Anschutz Medical Campus as a project coordinator, said she is excited to bring her experience working with tribes across the country to Fort Lewis. She said the college, with a Native American enrollment of nearly 20 percent of FLC's 3,746 students, can do more for Native American students.
"Just because they get free tuition doesn't mean their lives are easy," she said.
She described rising housing and textbook costs and other financial constraints that hit Fort Lewis students after tuition is paid. She said with a deepening recession, a shrinking state higher-education budget also is going to present problems to the nine-member board.
For eight years, Wilde headed the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. Her work included coordinating with other state Indian Affairs offices and in-state projects such as the development of the American Indian Scholars Colorado license plate. The plate's $25 fee goes to a scholarship fund for Native American students.
Yvonne Bilinski, director of Fort Lewis College's Native American Center, said she is glad there finally is a Native American at the highest level of Fort Lewis governance.
"She's Muskogee, from Oklahoma, so she's far from her land base, but so are a lot of our students," she said. "We've been missing this for a while."
Bilinski said between 100 and 125 native nations are represented at Fort Lewis out of 758 Native American students, according to fall 2008 enrollment numbers. She said she thinks Wilde's experience at the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs will complement her service on the board.
Through his office's spoke-man, Evan Dreyer, Ritter said his appointee has the right amount of national Indian-affairs experience mixed with local familiarity. Her ethnicity, he said, was not as important in his decision as her work history.
In 1878, the federal government established Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs as a post to maintain a military presence near the Ute nation. Two years later, a treaty established the Southern Ute Indian Reservation with land set aside for a reservation school near Hesperus.
Fort Lewis functioned as a reservation school in various forms until 1911, when the school began offering professional courses in agriculture. Fort Lewis College moved to its present location in Durango in 1956, and in 1971, a U.S. District Court ruled that the terms of the 1911 treaty included a provision guaranteeing free tuition to all Native American students.
Wilde said she wants to represent all students and staff, but her experience and expertise is with American Indians.
"I'm an American Indian; that's where I think my focus will be," she said.
Last year, Wilde ran unsuccessfully for the Colorado House of Representatives in a district that comprises the Denver suburb of Aurora. Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, who formerly worked with Wilde on education, remembered Wilde as a formidable opponent.
"I think she'll be a great asset to the college. She's very well-respected in our community," she said.
In an e-mail, Gov. Ritter explained his pick.
"She has extensive knowledge of the history of Fort Lewis College and its sacred commitment to the American Indian community," Ritter said. "Karen's experience in and knowledge of Colorado state government will help her to be a strong voice for Fort Lewis College."