Thirty Years Strong

Nov 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 14-2: American Indian Higher Education Consortium 30th Anniversary, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

“History will be told by those who have the courage to evolve, and the heart to remember.” –former IAIA student Anongonse Migwans Beam


U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall (in suit) said he felt God when he held the digging stick used to break ground for Navajo Community College. Left to right: Tony Tsosie of Tsaile community, Medicine Man Charlie Benally, Aspinall, and then Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald.

U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-CO) was one of the most powerful men in Congress as chairman of the House Interior Committee in the 1960s and 1970s. Never considered a friend to American Indian causes, Aspinall was cajoled by Ruth Roessel (Navajo) to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Navajo Community College in Tsaile, AZ, the nation’s first tribal college and thus the first to seek federal funding.

At the groundbreaking, Aspinall and several others held onto the gish, the traditional digging stick. During the lengthy ceremony, Bob Roessel grew increasingly alarmed. The day was hot; the Congressman was elderly; and Aspinall was stooped over, his hands below the others on the gish. At the end, he released the stick and slowly stood up, calling Bob Roessel to his side. “I have been to mosques; I have been to synagogues; I’ve been to churches all over the world. But I felt God when I felt that stick. You will get your college,” he said. True to his word, Aspinall shouted down congressional and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) opponents, and the Navajo Community College Act of 1971 became law.

Throughout the next year, AIHEC will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. The consortium was chartered in 1973 by six tribal colleges (D-Q University, Navajo Community College, Oglala Sioux Community College, Sinte Gleska College, Standing Rock Community College, and Turtle Mountain Community College). They created it primarily to stabilize their financial base, advocate for them politically, and to provide technical assistance. In 1978, AIHEC succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the Tribally Controlled Community College Act to provide core, institutional support. Now 33 colleges strong, the organization continues to provide these services and more.

Much of the more detailed history of the tribal college movement has been told in books and other articles (which are listed in the resource guide). So for this anniversary issue, we took a different approach. We asked various people who have been involved with the tribal college movement to look back at the past 30 years. We also asked them to look forward, to share their predictions for the next 30 years– and to take a hard look at what remains to be accomplished to fulfill yesterday’s visions.

Thirty years. Louis LaRose, a founder of Nebraska Indian Community College, remembers being at a long AIHEC board meeting in Denver and hearing that Elvis Presley had died. David Gipp, AIHEC’s first executive director, remembers being at a Title III meeting in Dallas with Lionel Bordeaux and others where they watched the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Thirty years is a long time for colleges that were ridiculed at their birth and predicted to fail.

Thirty years. Many of the readers of this magazine, students at the colleges, and even current AIHEC staff members were not born when AIHEC came into being. Thus it is important for all of us to go back to the beginning and remember why tribal colleges were needed and what makes them important.

In this issue, Paul Boyer explains that the majority of American Indian students living on reservations were denied access to higher education, whether intentionally or not, before their tribes created local institutions. Grace McNeley (Navajo) takes us back to the 1960s and the beginning of the Native American studies programs and reminds us why those generic, pan-Indian programs could not substitute for an education designed for one’s own tribe. McNeley provides intimate insights into the ceremonies held in the dark of the night for their college.

As she points out, each tribe holds the seeds of its own educational philosophy. The timeline in this issue shows when each tribe sowed these seeds and planted new tribal colleges on reservation lands, first in the Southwest, then in the Dakotas and California, then in Montana and Nebraska, and later in the Northwest and in the woodlands states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota.  The foldout map in this issue demonstrates the spread of this movement from 6 colleges in 1973 to 33 today.

However, the map does not indicate the fledgling colleges that are now developing across North America. AIHEC President Dr. James Shanley predicts that we will have 10-20 more colleges in the next 10 years. Nor does it reflect the number of tribes served. Students from more than 250 tribes attend tribal colleges, representing 18% of all the American Indians now studying in institutions of higher learning across the country.

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