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Tribal Colleges Stay True to Mission

Celebrating 40 years, the tribal college movement remains committed to sustaining native culture, language and community, officials say.

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty around me I walk

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

It has become beauty again

— Prayer, Diné (Navajo)

Blessing Way Ceremonies

Diné, the very first tribal college in the United States, and  the tribal college movement are both celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Diné College president Ferlin Clark says the formation of the institution was a sacred act.

Tribal college leaders agree that the movement is, indeed, deeply rooted in American Indian spirituality and culture. As an example, Clark recalls an oft-told story about the groundbreaking ceremony for the Navajo Community College, now Diné College.

In 1968, U.S. Representative Wayne Aspinall, D-Colo., reluctantly attended the college’s groundbreaking ceremony. He had been an outspoken critic of tribally controlled education and was loathe to lend any appearance of support to the Navajo’s efforts. During the ceremony, Diné medicine man Charlie Benally offered up many prayers, including those of the Blessing Way, which signal a renewal of spirit, an honoring of the past and thanksgiving to the elements for life and hope for the future. As Benally prayed, he invited Aspinall to join him in holding the ceremonial Navajo digging stick or “gish.” After the ceremony, a deeply moved Aspinall is reported to have said to Dr. Robert Roessel, one of the founders of the college, “I have been to mosques; I have been to synagogues; I have been to churches all over the world, but I felt God when I held that stick. You will get your college.”

Aspinall became a vocal supporter of the Navajo Community College Act that became law in 1971. The act allowed federal funds to be appropriated directly to the tribe rather than through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This legislation established an invaluable precedent for tribally controlled education.

The seeds of the movement were sown many decades before the debut of the Navajo Community College. Indeed, since native peoples began attending mainstream U.S. colleges and universities 350 years ago, they have sought to put their own spin on education, according to the report of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Assimilationist leaders of the day, however, were determined that American Indian education remain controlled by Whites, with a strict emphasis on Western-styled instruction. BIA-controlled schools’ use of Western education had largely proved to be a failure for American Indians.

For years, efforts to gain federal funds and support for native-controlled education failed. During those years, the BIA was an active opponent of Indian-controlled education and often testified in Congress against such efforts.

Several events during the 1960s and 1970s, however, provided a flashpoint that set the tribal college movement in motion.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty Community Action Programs, the Higher Education Act, the philosophy of the civil rights movement and its influence on Native American activists, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act are among the events that played significant roles in creating an environment favorable to developing American Indian-controlled education. The Office of Equal Opportunity, central to Johnson’s War on Poverty, provided direct federal funds to native peoples for education for the first time.

Laying a Financial Foundation

Success built upon success as colleges began to spring up throughout the West. In 1973 — six colleges, D-Q University, Navajo Community College, Oglala Community College, Sinte Gleska College (now a university), Standing Rock Community College (now called Sitting Bull College) and Turtle Mountain Community College — chartered the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).

Funding for colleges was scarce; classes were frequently held in abandoned buildings, trailers and even barns. Dr. David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College, recalls how he and community members shoveled livestock manure out of an abandoned barn in order to find space to hold college classes on the Crow reservation in Montana.

In the early years, the primary struggle for TCUs was physical survival, according to Carrie Billy, president of AIHEC. There was very little federal or tribal funding and no state funding, she says. Early TCUs were mainly “bridge institutions,” offering associate degrees with curricula focused primarily on basic education and vocational, arts, and language instruction.

The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, is perhaps the most significant legislation that brought improvement to tribal colleges.

According to AIHEC, the main justifications were geographic isolation of the tribes, a lack of access to mainstream higher education opportunities, cultural disparities with mainstream or non-Indian society, increased student success by teaching in a community setting, local control in providing higher education to tribal members and no local tax or state funding available to the schools. The law remains in effect for the schools under the Department of the Interior, BIA and is the cornerstone for funding the 35 tribal colleges in the United States.

The movement continued to grow in numbers, influence and political savvy. In 1994, TCUs attained land-grant status; this helped expand their course offerings in environmental, agricultural and natural resources. Many TCUs now have articulation agreements with mainstream colleges and universities, and some offer their own four-year degree programs.

One of the biggest influences on the expansion of the tribal college movement was the 1996 Executive Order on Tribal Colleges and Universities by President Bill Clinton, according to Billy.

The executive order also established the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities, which is a five-year outline for federal participation. Under details of the Executive Order, TCUs made tremendous advances in improving facilities and overall infrastructures, Billy says.

In 2001, the National Science Foundation and NASA began partnering with tribal colleges to increase the numbers of American Indians in science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies and professions. This has led to an increase in TCU course offerings in these disciplines, says Billy.

“As more and more students pursue science degrees, we find that the TCUs are producing research both in areas of their tribal communities and in the area of basic research,” she adds.

Although many TCU students graduate in areas of general studies, the greatest increase in graduate numbers has been in the education and nursing fields, according to AIHEC data. A side benefit of more native peoples in the education field has been an increase in higher education research by American Indians about American Indians, notes Billy.

“For too long we have allowed non-Indians from mainstream institutions to be seen as experts on Indian education and issues,” she adds.

According to AIHEC, TCUs currently receive about $5,400 in overall funding per student, a stark contrast to that of mainstream institutions that receive as much as $11,000 per student. Despite this disparity, TCUs continue to make tremendous strides, maintaining more than 600 course offerings.

Sustaining Tribal Culture

Although securing funding continues to be a struggle, it is no longer a day-to-day battle for survival. The movement is now working on creating internal data collection tools such as AIHEC’s American Indian Measures for Success (AIMS). The goal is to define, collect and report quantitative and qualitative indicators of American Indian and TCU successes.

“Our challenge now as a movement is to maintain our infrastructures,” says Billy.

An additional challenge both to the movement and Indian country in general is remediation. Many students entering tribal colleges are not prepared in areas of reading and writing. According to Billy, this is holding colleges back.

Throughout the challenges and growth, Billy says the most incredible aspect of the tribal college movement has been the constant commitment to sustaining tribal culture, language and community.

“Tribal colleges have never lost sight of this mission,” she states.

Although there is a great deal of diversity in tribal culture and traditions, valuing traditional spirituality and culture is central to the philosophy of the tribal college movement. Specifically, the movement seeks to provide an education to native peoples from a native perspective, according to Diné’s Clark, who is working on a scholarly history of the tribal college movement.

The power of native spirituality comes as no surprise to him. Clark says that Navajo medicine men were deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes work and planning that went into establishing Diné College, conducting lengthy ceremonies for the school’s


Says Billy: “The tribal college movement began with prayer and ceremonies; forty years later, one can still hear those prayers singing in colleges today.”

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