While Globalizing Their Movement, Tribal Colleges Import Ideas

May 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 16-4: International Indigenous Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

MAYAN PYRAMID at Chichén Itzá, Yacatan, Mexico, was built between 550 and 900 AD for religious purposes.

Thirty-seven years ago, the Navajo people in Arizona created the first tribally-controlled college in the world. This birth fired the imagination of educators and community activists across the United States, who soon began creating their own colleges in the Northern Plains, Midwest, Northwest, and, most recently, in Oklahoma and the East.

It is commonly believed that education is a path out of poverty, but this is not necessarily true in places where education is controlled by the colonizer. In many parts of the world, schools are designed to perpetuate the power of the dominant culture.

In Peru, for example, few teachers understand the language of the indigenous Quechua people, and secondary education is not available in the rural areas where most Quechua live. It is difficult for the indigenous people to get into universities, and when they are accepted, their values are not reflected in the curriculum.  So, as people around the world learned about the tribal college movement, they wanted to learn more.

Indian-controlled education is a revolutionary concept — that Indian people could control their own education and build institutions that reflect their culture. As tribal college faculty and students travel to other countries and welcome foreign visitors to their campuses, they share the tribal college model. However, the visits are not one-sided. The tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) both teach and learn, giving their ideas and taking home new concepts.

They learn that indigenous people in many other places suffer from unbelievable poverty and oppression. At the same time, they become enriched by their exchanges, experiencing the vitality of diverse languages, spiritual ceremonies, and centuries-old traditions. They see education models that deserve emulation.

Dr. Wayne Stein (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) inspired this issue of the Tribal College Journal when he returned from a 5-week trip to Central and South America. “The trip made the reservations look like paradise,” Stein says.

Traveling sometimes with armed guards, American Indians visiting other countries realize viscerally that being indigenous can be dangerous in places such as Chiapas and Guatemala where hundreds of thousands of “peasants” (Indians) have been killed.

Tribal college faculty and students traveling to other countries always return with a broader understanding of what it means to be indigenous. Their experiences change lives, filling their minds with new dreams and their hearts with new friends. Not only are the travelers themselves affected but also their students and their extended families.

A Movement Expands

Although tribal colleges in the United States were the first in the world, there are many others today. Two post-secondary institutions were developed by First Nations (tribal governments) in western Canada in the early 1970s: Blue Quills First Nations College in 1971 and Old Sun Community College in 1972, and now there are more than 30 in the country.

In New Zealand, meanwhile, the Maori became alarmed that their language had nearly disappeared and the majority of their people were unemployed. They created their own post-secondary institutions known as wänanga beginning in 1982, and today hundreds of people speak the language, practice the culture, and play significant roles in the national economy.

In 1998, they won a major lawsuit, forcing the federal government in New Zealand to provide them financial support equivalent to that given to other schools. To study the Maori success, AIHEC has sent delegations to the South Pacific several times to meet with them.

The movement is reaching northern Mexico, too. In El Fuerte, Sinaloa, indigenous people and their advocates are developing a public university specifically for the indigenous groups and dedicated to a culturally-based curriculum, Universidad Autónoma Indígena de México (www.uaim.edu.mx/index.htm).

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