In 1978, Joe McDonald of the Confederated Salish Kootenai tribes dreamed of a decent building for the newly created Salish Kootenai College. At the time, classes were being held in an abandoned building on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. He envisioned a building that could serve 80 to 100 students per year, providing them with general education and occupational skills.
That dream of one building has since evolved into a campus of 53 buildings, measuring well over 200,000 square feet and covering more than 130 acres of land. The SKC campus of today includes athletic fields, gymnasiums and a golf course.
As McDonald prepares to retire next year after more than 30 years at the helm of SKC, he looks back with satisfaction and a bit of wonder at all that has happened for his and other tribal colleges since those humble beginnings.
“Yes,” admits McDonald, “SKC and the tribal college movement have grown far beyond anything I envisioned at the time.” The college’s guiding principles, however, have changed very little over the years, according to McDonald. The school’s mission includes service to Indian people by providing quality postsecondary programs, maintaining Native culture, providing lifelong learning, assisting the community by helping in economic planning and finding financial resources, and maintaining diversity among students.
“Our founding principles have served the test of time,” concludes McDonald.
At the time of the college’s founding, it appeared to McDonald that many tribes seemed to be waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to step in and provide guidance. He and a handful of other educators in Indian country grew impatient.
“We didn’t wait for the BIA. We did it ourselves,” he says. “At SKC, we began charging students a building fee right from the start so we could generate our own funding to build the school.” Guided by this spirit of self-determination, McDonald was instrumental in establishing the federal Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which provides funding for tribal colleges.
This and his pioneering work on accreditation for tribal colleges have provided the essential foundation needed for the nascent institutions to survive.
His colleagues often cite this spirit of innovation and vision.
“Joe knows where he is going and has the patience and humility to let others buy into his vision,” notes SKC Academic Vice President Alice Oechsli.
McDonald’s achievements and awards are many, including an honorary doctorate of human letters from the University of Montana, honorary doctorates from Gonzaga University and Montana State University, Montana Educator of the Year Award, Lee Newspaper’s 100 Most Influential People of the 1990s, the Montana Governor’s Humanity Award, and Distinguished Alum of the University of Montana.
He has served on the boards of the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Board and the Board of the American Indian Business Leaders.
As McDonald looks back over his career he recalls the constant reward of watching students triumph over their struggles. “That annual reward keeps you pumped up,” he says. He also credits his spirituality with sustaining him over the difficult times.
“Sometimes we’ve run on a wing and a prayer here. My spirituality reminds me that everything happens for a reason,” he says.
Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the AIHEC, says of McDonald: “In his quiet way, Joe is a father to so many of us â€” the person we instinctively go to when we have a problem, whether it is figuring out how to pay a bill, or finding someone to speak to Congress about passing a bill. I cannot say that about many people. It is a rare gift to have such depth of talent, such humanity and such humility.”
Course Watch: Tribal College Offers Gaelic, Russian Classes
Haskell Indian Nations University (Kan.) Became the first tribal college to offer its students foreign language courses this academic year, according to the university. Through the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program two instructors from Ireland and Russia, Una Meabh Herron and Dmitry Golubev, respectively, joined the Haskell faculty to teach introductory language courses.
Herron also taught a course on Gaelic football. Students in this class then played a game against the Kansas City Gaelic Football league at Haskell stadium.
Haskell is the only tribal college participating in the Fulbright Foreign Language Program. The university will host two more Fulbright teachers from Ireland and Indonesia.
Documentary on Controversial African Studies Scholar
This month on diverseeducation.com snippets of the film “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness,” which chronicles the life and career of the late Melville J. Herskovits, a pioneering American anthropologist of African studies, will be featured.
Herskovits was a controversial intellectual who established the first center for African studies at Northwestern University in 1948.
The documentary traces Herskovits’ development as a scholar to the shared African American and Jewish experiences of exile, exclusion and political oppression. It raises unsettling questions, asking who has the authority to define a culture, especially if people from that culture are denied the opportunity to engage in the scholarly discourse of defining themselves. Can an oppressed people retain their distinct ethnic identities and still participate as equals in American life? Tune in as prominent scholars, such as Princeton philosopher K. Anthony Appiah and Columbia University historian Mae Ngai, explore these issues through their own experiences as people of color.