Actress examines tribal colleges, Indian fund

Billings Gazette, September 21 1998

By Christene C. Meyers

Actress Winona Ryder will fly into Billings Monday to meet with officials from the American Indian College Fund, and tour at least one of Montana’s 7 tribal colleges.

The actress is on the Fund’s board and has long had an interest in Native Americans, according to David Cournoyer, director of public education for the AICF.

Cournoyer, of Denver, said he will meet with Ryder and Fund executive director Richard Williams Monday and drive to Littie Big Horn College in Crow Agency, one of the 30 tribal colleges represented by the Fund.

Ryder will visit with tribal members, teachers and directors, Cournoyer said, “and just be open to whatever the day holds. She is a very thoughtful, serious person who is taking her term on the board very seriously, almost as if she were studying it as a role.”

Ryder, 26, was born in Winona, Minn., grew up in Northern California and spent time on several Indian reservations, Cournoyer said. “Her parents were very liberal and they exposed her to progressive ways of thinking. She spent part of her youth on a commune and interacted with the native peoples.”

He said the actress has been a donor to the AICF and recently helped raise more than $100,000 at a fundraiser.

After Little Big Horn, if time allows, the party will travel to Dull Knife Memorial College in Lame Deer. Ryder already met in New York with Alonzo Spang, president of Dull Knife Memorial College, when she engineered a fundraiser to provide scholarships for 200 Native American students. Spang presented her with a Northern Cheyenne star quilt as a gesture of thanks.

Ryder’s mother is also a supporter of native causes and she may fly in with the star Monday, Cournoyer said. The visit was arranged in part by AICF trustee and Billings banker Jim Scott. Arts promoter Corby Skinner will escort the group. The visit will end with a private dinner party Monday evening at Walkers prior to Ryder’s Tuesday morning departure.

Ryder won a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations and has played a variety of roles since her part of Mina Murray in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in 1992. Her pictures include “The Age of Innocence,” “Mermaids,” “How to Make an American Quilt,” “Reality Bites,” the part of Jo March in “Little Women,” and a leading role in “The Crucible,” adapted from the Arthur Miller play.

According to Cournoyer, “She is younger than many of the Indian college students she wants to help, but she is very mature and philosophical. She says she hopes to learn rich cultural lessons from her involvement.”

The Fund raises money for tribally controlled colleges in the same way the United Negro College Fund raises money for black institutions. Cournoyer said Ryder joined the board for purely altruistic reasons, “because she was very moved and inspired to help students improve their lives and bring the education back to their people.”

In Ryder’s own words, “I believe, as an American, it is important to preserve all of our country’s culture and education. Most Americans know little about Indian tribes or their history and culture.”

Cournoyer said that although Winona’s name comes from her birthplace, it is also a Lakota Sioux word meaning first-born daughter. He said she was impressed that the Fund’s colleges weave Indian culture into the curriculum, in an attempt to preserve native language and traditions.

“We know she is taking this board post very seriously and is looking forward to her Montana visit,” he said. “Who knows what it could lead to.”