Tribal Colleges Redefining Success

Feb 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 16-3: Indigenizing Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

BUILDING SUCCESS. "We want our students to learn to build a fire and to build a computer," says Diné College President Ferlin Clark.

Tribal colleges and universities often are asked to demonstrate their success by inappropriate standards. Is a tribal college successful if all of its graduates move to the city and get good jobs? Is a student successful if he or she earns a 3.0 grade point average? The answer to both of these questions is “not necessarily.” Tribal college administrators care not only about what happens to the student but also about how the community is transformed by their graduates.

Such questions were part of discussions that took place over the past year at focus groups sponsored by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) involving tribal college administrators, faculty, and students in the American Indian Measurements of Success (AIMS) project. The participants expressed enthusiasm for the project, which delves into the essence of tribal colleges’ reasons for being.

The founders of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) more than 3 decades ago wanted institutions with distinct missions, missions much different than community colleges serving non-Indian communities. A survey of TCU mission statements found that in addition to education, most of the statements focused upon sovereignty (30) and community (24).

Whether the students have read the mission statements or not, they expect something more from their tribal colleges than they would from a mainstream college. Although much has been written about the materialism and self-centeredness of this generation of Americans, surveys of tribal college students reveal students who want to contribute to their Indian communities.

Thirty-one of the 35 tribal colleges are located on Indian reservations, chartered by the local tribal governments. Even at the intertribal colleges located in the cities of Santa Fe, NM; Albuquerque, NM; Bismarck, ND; and Lawrence, KS, students consistently say they want to give back to their communities.

Apparently these Indian students have absorbed an inclination toward altruism either while attending college or before they arrived. They expect their colleges to provide them with skills, knowledge, and talents they can share with others.

Tribal college administrators and faculty define student success with some terms that characterize success from a non-Indian perspective and some that do not. Normally only discussed in the privacy of their strategic planning sessions and faculty meetings, some of their criteria might surprise outsiders.

We want to prepare graduates for basic survival, said Dr. Verna Fowler, president of the College of Menominee Nation. We want them to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Colleges everywhere want their graduates to be able to get jobs and compete economically, but on reservations in some parts of the country with unemployment rates over 70%, it can be very ambitious.

“We want them to help the tribe be successful,” continued Fowler (Menominee). She said her college also wanted students to understand the mainstream cultural system and what is required for them to survive in it.

“We want them to be connected to their communities,” Phil Baird, the dean of vocational and academic programs at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND), said. This is especially difficult for tribal colleges like UTTC whose students come from many different communities.

“Do the students understand who they are, and how do they feel about it?” said Baird (Sicangu Lakota). Tribal colleges report that students often show up at their doors not sure about their tribal identity and especially about the value of it.

Sometimes they have grown up in urban settings, far from other tribal members. Or they might have attended a reservation school where they were taught nothing about their culture or worse, taught that their families’ deepest spiritual beliefs are nothing but the myths of savages. Occasionally their own fathers or mothers have absorbed the attitudes of the dominant culture and have tried to beat the Indian out of the students.

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