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A Tribal College With an ‘Edge’

Created out of the need to preserve the native language of the Cheyenne tribe, CATC opens its doors in Oklahoma.

Although 39 federally recognized American Indian tribes are headquartered in the state of Oklahoma, it comes as some surprise that there were no tribal colleges in the state until this century. During the past eight years, however, tribal colleges have been cropping up throughout the state, including the Comanche Nation College, the College of the Muscogee Nation, the Pawnee Nation College and most recently the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College (CATC) is located on the campus of the Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) in the city of Weatherford. Like the other tribal colleges in Oklahoma, CATC has an academic relationship with its sponsoring college as it pursues independent accreditation. CATC opened its doors in 2006 with fewer than 20 students in the “old” science building on the SWOSU campus. The tribal college’s students are dually enrolled at SWOSU and subject to its rules and requirements.

The tiny college, which Cheyenne and Arapaho chief Lawrence Hart admits has a lot of “ifs” associated with its survival, has a definite edge. That edge comes in the form of Dr. Henrietta Mann, newly inaugurated college president. Mann, of the Cheyenne tribe, is a well-known powerhouse in Indian education circles. A native of Hammon, Okla., Mann earned a bachelor’s at SWOSU. Mann also holds the first endowed chair in Native American studies at Montana State University. She is also the author of Cheyenne-Arapaho Education, 1871-1982.

Mann began serving on the board of CATC regents at its inception in 2003 before agreeing to serve as interim president when the college opened. This past April she was formally inaugurated as the college’s first president.

CATC, she says, will teach Cheyenne and Arapaho history through the voices of its people. She maintains that this will help give Indian students a strong sense of who they are as they gain an understanding of Cheyenne and Arapaho culture, values and language.

“Our culture has sustained us for a long time; that’s why it’s so important for Indian people to know who they are,” she says. “It’s been my self-appointed task to help ensure that American Indian young people learn these lessons.”

A Unique Experience

The emergence of tribal colleges reflects a growing movement towards self-determination and sovereignty by tribes says Carrie Billy, Navajo, deputy director of the American Indians in Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).

“Tribes want to deliver their stories from their perspectives,” she notes.

Mann agrees and points out that the tribal membership directed its leaders to create a tribal college. As the tribe began looking at such social problems in their community as drug and alcohol abuse, they noted that these problems often went hand in hand with low self-esteem and lack of tribal pride and identity. In order to address this, the tribe began searching for ways to teach culture and language to their young people, eventually creating a language curriculum that was very successful. Thus, the genesis of the college was related to language preservation efforts by the tribe, reports Hart, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

The membership also felt that many of their high school students were not being actively recruited to enter higher education. The college symbolizes the tribe’s determination to preserve its culture and language as well as its commitment to instilling its younger members with a strong sense of pride and tribal identity, says Hart.

CATC relies on tribal government for funding and on SWOSU for administrative support and facilities.

According to Hart, SWOSU President John Hays has been very amenable to having the college on campus. Hays describes the relationship between CATC and SWOSU as a win-win situation.

“We find that if Indian students are uncomfortable on campus, they often drop out and go home, never to return,” he says.

Anything that supports students, helps them feel more welcome and helps them get their degrees is good for the community and the university, he affirms. He also notes that those students looking to go beyond an associate degree will transfer easily to SWOSU.

Student Minoma Littlehawk, Cheyenne, says CATC helped her find her niche in museum studies. “I had no idea how much this experience would open up the world for me,” she says.

As enrollment continues to grow — 30 fulltime and 63 part-time students are enrolled this semester — Mann looks forward to offering the college’s first associate degree program in the near future. However, a great deal of groundwork lies ahead.

The college’s eligibility to receive federal funds through the Tribally Controlled Community College and Assistance Act and its membership in AIHEC require that it become a fully functional, autonomous entity.

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