Presidents Look Back, See Challenges Ahead

Nov 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 15-2: Reclaiming Native Health, Tribal College News
By Marjane Ambler

Tribal college and university presidents continued their celebration of the 30th anniversary of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and looked forward to the coming years at a meeting in Blaine, WA, in July.

“There are a lot of friends without whom we wouldn’t be here today,” David Gipp, first executive director of AIHEC, said. Gipp (Hunkpapa Lakota), now president of United Tribes Technical College, listed many men and women who were instrumental in providing national leadership for the tribal college movement and for getting the legislation through Congress in 1978 to provide core, institutional funding. “I give the Navajo Community College a lot of credit as the first model and for their willingness to share with the rest of Indian Country,” he said. The Navajo Tribe chartered the first tribal college (now Diné College in Arizona) in 1968 and set a precedent by getting federal funding in 1968.

In the early 1970s, panelists said, the Indian-controlled colleges faced opposition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which testified that they were not needed, and from tribal people who feared that the colleges would threaten tribal sovereignty. In most cases, the tribal colleges suffered more from neglect than opposition. However, national emergence of Red Power at the Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota and the fishing wars in the Northwest made their efforts more difficult.

Gipp cited several events that turned the tide, including a debate between Lionel Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota) and the late Patricia Locke at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1977, which led to an endorsement by the powerful organization. In 1975, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) called the Black Caucus together to listen to Indian colleges. They met in the U.S. Capitol Building. “Stanley Red Bird of Sinte Gleska College gave an eloquent speech in the Lakota language that was so moving to Shirley that she asked the other members of the caucus to pledge full support for the Indian colleges,” Gipp said.

He pointed out the contributions of Janine Pease (Crow/Hidatsa), founder of Little Big Horn College and former president of AIHEC, who wrote the legislative history in her dissertation. An excerpt was recently published in the Journal of American Indian Education.

Dr. Jim Shanley (Assiniboine) discussed several major accomplishments of AIHEC in the successive years and the challenges ahead. Shanley is president of Fort Peck Community College and of AIHEC. His list of AIHEC accomplishments included the creation of American Indian College Fund, the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, Tribal College Journal, and the Alliance for Equity, which gives the tribal colleges more of an equal voice with Black and Hispanic institutions despite smaller numbers.

Dr. Joe McDonald (Salish-Kootenai), president of Salish Kootenai College, said the birth of the tribal college movement made it possible for Indians to be students without giving up who they were. “For the first time in 115 years, our people had something to say about how our children were educated.”

Ron His Horse is Thunder (Hunkpapa Lakota), president of Sitting Bull College, said, “We were second-chance institutions for students who failed in state-supported colleges. Now we have more students straight out of high school, showing a major shift in the community’s perception of our institutions’ validity.”

Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), president of Northwest Indian College, said she appreciated the leadership opportunities that tribal colleges provided to women. “We have proportionately more women presidents than any other institutions,” she said.

Dr. William Harjo Lone Fight (Natchez Muscogee), president of Sisseton Wahpeton College, said, “We need to think of transmission of culture as the only truly unique service we provide in the next 30 years. This is where we began, and this is where we should return.”

Dr. Verna Fowler, (Menominee), the president of the College of Menominee Nation, said her institution became strong because some of the veteran presidents were willing to share ideas and resources with her. Sky Houser, president of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (Hayward, WI), pointed out that most of AIHEC’s work was initially done by presidents volunteering time. “But now we have attracted a brilliant and creative staff that would honor any organization.”

Finally having their own buildings has made a remarkable impression on potential funders, Shanley said. “In the early years when they visited colleges in storefronts, they assumed we wouldn’t last. Now we have solidity we didn’t have before.”

Referring to the national trend toward “privatization of higher education,” Shanley anticipates a movement to shift more of the financial burden from the federal government to those least able to pay, the tribal college students and tribes. He said, “If we are going to maintain the tribal college movement, we will have to maintain unity. If we lose unity, they can take us out one by one.”

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