Native Nations and their inherent sovereign rights existed long before the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent and continue to manifest today across social structures. In the United States, 574 federally recognized Native Nations continue to persevere, asserting their Indigenous futures through both political and intellectual forms of sovereignty. These priorities often are not the focus in U.S. education or universities, specifically. However, there is a network of tribally run colleges and universities that are the ongoing extension of those sovereignties as well as key vehicles for continuing to liberate the sovereign potential.
In higher education, we have inherited problematic and pernicious status quos focused on Eurocentric learning for Euro-American audiences toward social assimilation. Institutions were founded on lands of Indigenous peoples as part of the larger goals of colonialism and conquest. Most universities and colleges continue to occupy large land bases and are maintained by taxing those stolen lands. To be explicit, all over this country, states can look at their respective histories and find a cluster of events characterized by: 1) the forced removal of Native peoples, 2) the establishment of a new state, and 3) the creation of corresponding state universities to support the ongoing development and sustenance of white settlers in that new state. Erasure.
To refuse erasure and enact educational sovereignty in higher education, Tribal Nations chartered and developed Tribal Colleges and Universities, or TCUs, to serve the needs of their communities. There are 37 TCUs within the U.S. that offer opportunities for postsecondary education at certificate, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree levels. These institutions offer opportunities for Tribal Nations to determine how, and in what ways, higher education takes form to best serve the peoples, lands, and waters that make up their local communities. These opportunities are interdisciplinary in nature and emphasize Indigenous languages, cultures, and learning.
While many TCUs are smaller institutions, TCUs often offer a culturally relevant learning environment that is absent in larger predominantly white institutions (PWIs). However, TCU students often transfer to PWIs to continue their education or engage in bilateral mobility between TCUs and PWIs while working toward degree requirements. The movement and transition between these institutional types can be jarring to Indigenous students. Faculty and staff serving Indigenous students at PWIs must be aware of the varying institutional contexts and how students navigate and experience their educational pathways. This includes issues of 1) campus climate where Indigenous students coming from a TCU are often entering a school environment with primarily white peers for the first time and 2) academic affairs in which advisors must have a clear sense of transfer agreements and credit structures across institutions to ensure successful degree completion.
These issues can point to great opportunities for fruitful collaboration and partnerships across institutions where faculty, staff, and students can learn from each other and build on the respective institutional resources. While many PWIs have potential to build partnerships, there is a need to acknowledge the cultural components as assets and pursue long-term partnerships built around enhancing student success. When building partnerships with TCUs, we recommend leading with the relationship as the priority and discontinuing efforts to pursue partnering for the purpose of exploiting Indigenous communities and institutions for increased access to resources intended for those communities. These potential collaborations and partnerships offer PWIs an opportunity to account for the histories that led them to occupy their current lands and waters and take steps toward reconciliation and a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and nationhood.
TCUs and publication outlets, such as the Tribal College and University Research Journal, best serve Indigenous Nations and communities engaging higher education and offer a path toward decolonization and thriving futures for all. The TCURJ, established by the American Indian College Fund in 2016, serves as the only academic publication outlet for peer reviewed scholarship specifically for TCU faculty. The TCURJ is committed to advancing the research and scholarship engaged at TCUs and disseminating the knowledge shared from these communities within and beyond the TCU network. The TCURJ is an interdisciplinary journal that publishes research and conceptual works that span the disciplines of TCUs and relevant research and innovations taking place within the Tribal Nations where TCUs are situated. Articles published with the TCURJ have highlighted Indigenous approaches to leadership cultivation and student retention, ecological sustainability models, research around forest management and changes in habitat, psychological and community wellness efforts, and more. Funding from the Henry Luce Foundation and support of the American Indian College Fund have maintained the TCURJ as an open access journal. This support has included opportunities for TCU faculty development through writing retreats, mentorship, travel expenses, and other efforts to cultivate faculty scholarship within TCUs. While each of us is situated within PWIs, we are honored to serve TCUs and support the continued development of TCU pathways for education, scholarship, and transformational change across Nations.
Dr. Alex Red Corn serves as Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.
Dr. Anna Lees serves as Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, Western Washington University.
Dr. Natalie Youngbull serves as Assistant Professor of Adult & Higher Education, University of Oklahoma.
The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.