Pursuing Their Potential: TCUs Turn from Being Researched to Being Researchers

Nov 15th, 2004 | By | Category: 16-2: Tribal College Research, Editor's Essay
By Dr. Karen Gayton Swisher, guest editor

Northwest Indian College students Jesse Wall (Blackfeet) and Cheyenne Che Garcia (Mojave) sample a tidal mud flat as part of their research on the health of marine life in Puget Sound. Photo by Dick Poole

Potential. This is the word often used to describe tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in their miraculous march to a respected place in higher educational history in this country. The word “potential” evokes promise of even more to come and invites insiders and observers to become a part of the milestones and achievements.

As if making up for lost time, TCUs have recognized their research potential and are boldly marching forward to demonstrate that research is not the exclusive domain of centuries-old, ivy-covered universities. Research is alive and well among the two-year, baccalaureate, and graduate tribal colleges and universities.

The potential for TCUs to engage in graduate or undergraduate research became clearer when Congress granted land grant status to TCUs in 1994. In addition to teaching, the TCUS were expected to conduct research centering on the food and agricultural sciences, of course according to the capacity of the individual TCU.

Driven by their success as community or junior colleges, many TCUs are now offering bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees. Two of the older colleges, Sinte Gleska University and Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota, stand tall as models of colleges/universities with successful graduate programs.

While graduate programs are expected to conduct research, the TCUs’ involvement in undergraduate research is not unique. Research is an initiative of many undergraduate institutions.

A national organization, the Council on Undergraduate Research, promotes high-quality undergraduate student/faculty collaborative research and scholarship, according to the organization’s website. The council believes that “faculty members enhance their teaching and contribution to society by remaining active in research and by involving undergraduates in research.”

This concept is supported by Haskell Indian Nations University (Lawrence, KS). Haskell’s Resource Book for Research (spring 2004), which says, “The energy with which faculty and students engage in research and other scholarly activities and the contributions they make can improve the quality of undergraduate education.”

In 2002, authors Margaret Mortensen, Claudia E. Nelson, and Dr. Jay Stauss published a survey of research in the Tribal College Journal (TCJ). While they listed dozens of ongoing research projects, they observed “that tribal colleges could unlock greater potential by institutionalizing research as a priority.”

The first issue of TCJ that was focused on research 12 years ago (Vol. 4, N.3) pointed out that tribal communities and their colleges recognized long ago the importance of research as a basis for good decision-making and for telling the authentic histories of Native peoples.

The reality for TCUs, however, is that fiscal challenges and competing priorities leave little time, and research is often relegated to a position of less importance than the teaching mission.

As stated in Haskell’s Resource Book for Research, scholarly research may languish, “becoming little more than a sporadic, peripheral activity unless it is supported by an institutional culture in which it is perceived as vital.”

The faculty and staff of TCUs must perform many functions. Teaching a full load of 12-15 hours or more leaves little time for scholarly research or commensurate creative activities. Conducting research simply cannot “come out of the hide” of those already-busy faculty members.

Nevertheless, as shown in this and previous issues of TCJ, faculty and students are engaged in conducting scientific experiments, recording oral histories, and searching tribal archives and tribal memories for stories that present the Native perspective. Research is alive and well at TCUs as indicated in the examples in this issue.

Research potential is embodied in the TCUs regardless of their degree-granting status. Once the subjects of research, Native people are now the researchers in greater numbers than ever before. TCUs are realizing their potential, generating new knowledge and recovering old knowledge, all from an indigenous perspective.

Karen Gayton Swisher, Ed.D, is the president of Haskell Indian Nations University. She has 23 years of experience in higher education including six years as editor of the Journal of American Indian Education. She is the author and co-author of numerous articles, book chapters, and technical reports, and co-edited two books. Her research, along with a colleague at the University of Utah, has been instrumental in the recognition of learning styles as an important element in the professional development of pre-service and in-service teachers in schools attended by American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Thanks to Dr. Karen Gayton Swisher and Cheryl Crazy Bull for their help planning the contents and focus of this special issue on research. Swisher also provided the guest essay for Vol. 4, N.3. – Marjane Ambler, editor

Examples of Research at Tribal Colleges

The following is a partial list of research projects at tribal colleges and universities. It is intended only to show the number of projects and the variety. For details, see articles elsewhere in this and previous issues of TCJ, or contact the tribal colleges. The colleges’ contact information and links can be found at www.tribalcollegejournal.org

  • Summer Research Enhancement Experience, an annual 10-week course teaching health research skills to students at all tribal colleges, sponsored by Diné College-Shiprock
  • selenium in bison (blood and hair sampling), Fort Berthold Community College
  • bison behavior, Blackfeet Community College
  • renewable energy (wind and/or solar radiation data), Blackfeet Community College, Turtle Mountain Community College, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Oglala Lakota College
  • mosquito surveillance, Turtle Mountain Community College, Fort Belknap College
  • testing reservation homes for radon, a radioactive gas linked to lung cancer, Turtle Mountain Community College science students
  • water quality, St. Louis River Watch at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, Salish Kootenai College Water Lab
  • social and economic development issues, Oglala Lakota College
  • opinions on agriculture biotechnology and genetically modified foods, Si Tanka University and others in the upper Midwest.
  • ethnobotany, collecting native plants and identifying them in three Native languages to chronicle the traditional and medicinal uses of each plant, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute students
  • documenting on video the traditional butchering of a bison, Chief Dull Knife College staff and students
  • hunger on Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Chief Dull Knife College
  • mapping ice floe data at the North Pole, Bay Mills Community College students and faculty
  • travel to Costa Rica to learn research techniques, Fort Berthold Community College and Sitting Bull College
  • aquatic studies to determine the impact of abandoned gold mine, Fort Belknap College Water Lab
  • studying germination rates for tree species for revegetating burned areas, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute students
  • ideal conditions for revegetating eelgrass, a plant that provides critical habitat for salmon, Northwest Indian College students
  • cultural resilience of some young people despite peer pressures, Leech Lake Tribal College
  • traditional names for and uses of land, Little Big Horn College and Red Crow Community College
  • using GIS and ethnographic work to supplement 1920s research on plants, Sinte Gleska University
  • land ownership and land use curriculum development, Turtle Mountain Community College
  • Lewis and Clark and the Upper Missouri, Fort Peck Community College
  • history of area cultural sites, such as burial sites of chiefs, Sitting Bull College
  • multimedia recordings of history, music, and other traditional arts, most of the tribal colleges

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