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OU Native Nations Center to merge with Office of Tribal Relations

Native Nations Center

The outside of the Native Nations Center on March 1.

OU’s Native Nations Center will move under OU’s Office of Tribal Relations, a development that the current interim director of the Nation Nations Center said is “essentially dissolving” much of the work the center does for students. 

Brian Burkhart, who served as the Native Nations Center interim director for the past two years, said the decision was communicated to him Tuesday by André-Denis Wright, OU senior vice president and provost. 

OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. wrote in an email Wednesday that pending OU Regents’ approval, Tana Fitzpatrick will serve as director of the Native Nations Center while maintaining her current role as associate vice president of Tribal Relations.

Harroz wrote the department’s movement will “elevate” the center’s impact at OU and continue the work the Native Nations Center is currently doing. 

“Although the operating structure of OU’s Native Nations Center is changing, its mission and purpose will continue,” the email wrote. “This pivot will provide even greater visibility for the center’s important work, ultimately better serving our students and Indigenous communities.”

Burkhart said the Native Nation Center provides services for Native American students and local tribes, including research collaborations, workforce development and internships. Effectively, Burkhart said the center does more for Native American students on campus than the Office of Tribal Relations. 

“The Native Nation Center is not just a kind of community outreach organization,” Burkhart said. “It’s something more than that. It really sort of facilitates the needs of tribal nations in Oklahoma.” 

Burkhart said the Native Nations Center works on projects geared toward student success inside and outside the university. The center works with the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation officers in Cherokee, North Carolina, and engages with the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to provide opportunities for students and tribal nations. 

The opportunities the Native Nations Center gives to students are important, Burkhart said, because Native students from Oklahoma usually wish to stay and work in the state. 

“You have all these opportunities to really build out workforces that are local to Oklahoma that are beneficial to the state and university,” Burkhart said. “There's all this kind of stuff that we're working on. It's hard to imagine that any of that would still be able to function through the president's office.” 

Sarah Olzawski, a Cherokee OU alumna and former academic advisor for Native American studies, said when she was at OU, there was no physical place for Native American students to gather. The Native Nations Center, she said, is a centralized place for students who come from small rural areas or are first-generation college students to go. 

“The move into the President's Office is going to be detrimental to students first and foremost,” Olzawski said. “Having a separate space  a physical space — for Native students to gather and convene on campus is so important, because those students often need a sense of community.” 

According to Harroz’s email, the Native Nations Center and its existing staff will remain physically located in Copeland Hall to ensure consistency in how the campus community is “served and supported.” Burkhart said his position as interim director will be dissolved and he will return to being a full-time faculty member. 

Additionally, the development will include the appointment of an associate director of research, who will be in charge of tribally engaged research as the Native Nations Center used to do. 

Burkhart said the Native Nations Center will be completely moved under the Office of Tribal Relations by the end of the fiscal year. He said he fears that even though most staff members might be retained through the move, some might be forced to leave their current positions. 

“This is very exploitative of (Fitzpatrick),” Burkhart said. “(Fitzpatrick) already had a job, a full-time job that was very difficult. I've been working with her every day trying to create synergy and support each other in the work (which is) very difficult work to keep up with. Now, on top of that, here's a whole other job.” 

Fitzpatrick did not comment on the move. 

“President Harroz should reconsider this decision,” Olzawski said. “As a Native alum and especially with what's going on across the state with Native issues and broader across the country with attacks on history, education, and Native education or education about Native history. This is a really important time to be bolstering up these kinds of resources for students rather than eradicating them.” 

This story was edited by Alexia Aston, Karoline Leonard and Jazz Wolfe. Grace Rhodes copy edited this story. 

senior news reporter

Taylor Jones is a journalism junior and senior news reporter at the Daily. She started at the Daily in the fall of 2020 and has previously served as a news reporter. She is originally from Anna, Texas.  

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