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Governor pledges more funds for Native American Cultural Center

LAS CRUCES - Against a colorful backdrop of tribal dancing, singing and celebration, Gov. Bill Richardson pledged today to raise another $2 million to complete construction of a Native American Cultural Center at New Mexico State University.

State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, Gov. Bill Richardson, NMSU President Michael Martin and Miss Native American NMSU Raedawn Skeets celebrate announcement of additional funding for the Native American Cultural Center at NMSU. (NMSU photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"If that's what it takes to get this center built, then we'll get the remaining funds next year," Richardson said in a speech on campus. "We're committed to getting this done."

With Richardson's backing, the New Mexico Legislature has already approved nearly $3.5 million for the NACC, including $380,000 in 2005 and another $3.1 million this year as part of a capital outlay bond issue that will be put to voters in November. But the project will cost about $6 million to complete, according to university officials.

Richardson said his support for the NACC reflects his administration's commitment to improving educational opportunities for Native American students.

"Native American education is a top priority for me," Richardson said. "Studies show that 49 percent of all New Mexico high school graduates are not prepared for university classes and they need remedial assistance to succeed, but 66 percent of Native American students need remedial classes. We need to do better."

Richardson said the state legislature should change the law to make Native American colleges eligible for lottery scholarships.

"They're not eligible now and that's wrong," Richardson said.

The governor provided the keynote address at a ceremony on campus to celebrate the NACC's progress. Tribal leaders from across the state attended, along with university leaders, students, and one state legislator, Sen. Mary Jane Garcia (D-Doņa Ana), who spearheaded funding efforts this year in the N.M. Senate.

The ceremony included traditional tribal dances, an invocation prayer in the Acoma language by one of that pueblo's elders, and songs by Apache tribal member and Grammy Award winner Yolanda Martinez.

In his address to the gathering, NMSU President Michael V. Martin said the NACC will help the university recruit and retain more Native American students by providing them with a place to gather on campus for social and academic purposes.

"It's a welcoming front door that extends an invitation to all tribal youth to join the university community," Martin said. "It provides a home on campus for Native American students."

The NACC grew out of tribal requests in 2002 to provide more space and services for Native American students. When President Martin took office in July 2004, he made the center a top priority.

In his speech, Martin said the NACC project has moved rapidly forward since last year in large part because Gov. Richardson has "championed" the initiative. Richardson said the center will help Native American students feel proud of their heritage and culture, which is essential to increase retention and graduation rates.

"The social transition for new Native American students is very difficult," Richardson said. "This center will make them feel more at home."

Once built, the cultural center will house NMSU's American Indian Program, providing meeting and classroom space, a computer room for students, lounges, a courtyard for cultural activities and an area for tribal art displays.

Tribal leaders at the celebration praised the project.

"For Native American students to succeed, it's important for them to feel at home when they're away from the reservation," said Zuni Gov. Rudy Shije. "This will help increase Native American enrollment at NMSU."

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Jason Johnson said the NACC is a "milestone" for Native American youth. "It's a blessing to have a center that our kids can call home," Johnson said. "We're very proud of it."