Celebrating Our Students: We’re in the business of changing livesAug 15th, 2000 | By mambler | Category: 12-1: Celebrating Our Students, Editor's Essay
When Rick Williams (Oglala Lakota) started work as the executive director for the American Indian College Fund several years ago, he said that he was working for institutions that created hope on reservations. At the time, these words rang true for me and for many of my colleagues working for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. We come to work each day knowing that we contribute to a movement that changes lives. Rick’s words came back to me again last spring as we visited some of the woodland tribal colleges in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
“I see it here everyday,” Michael Price told us at Leech Lake Tribal College. “People come in here who are picking up and starting over. They have a glimmer in their eyes that they never had before in their lives,” said Price (Anishinabe), the chair of the Math and Science Department at the college in Cass Lake, Minn.
“An associate degree doesn’t matter much elsewhere, but here it is a right to live. Students come here and start believing, ‘Maybe I have a reason to live.’” Some of the short stories and poems in this issue give a glimpse of the horrors that some students experience before they arrive at the tribal college – incest, alcoholism, racism, abuse, problems that have robbed them of hope and a reason to live. At the tribal colleges, they have learned to tap these experiences (as well as positive experiences) and transform their anger, grief, pride, and joy into poetry and sculptures. One of Michael Price’s students told him that science gave him similar solace, providing order in the midst of chaos, as well as career options.
Price came to Leech Lake from an American Indian non-profit organization that works primarily with mainstream institutions and private corporations. He said the universities and corporations seemed more interested in working with Indian students with 3.8 GPA’s, who would succeed anyway. That job failed to satisfy his yearning to empower reservation communities.
Price enjoys working at the grassroots level where the students include the single mom and the middle-aged former alcoholic. Although he knew Leech Lake Tribal College was a struggling college with limited resources, he wanted to help empower people. “We see women who have been beat up because their men resented them wanting to empower themselves, but they come anyway,” he said.
During our travels we met dozens of tribal college faculty and administrators—both Indian and non-Indian—who seemed to share Michael’s fire. Several had turned down salaries 50-100 percent higher for half the workload. While they were reluctant to publicize their personal stories, we convinced them that their story is their college’s story.
Dana Gretz was on her back in a hospital bed for nine weeks before her twin daughters were born last year. Rather than feeling sorry for herself, however, Dana had a computer rigged so that she could operate it upside down, above her head, and continue working for Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College. She wrote the college’s academic assessment plan and a successful faculty development grant, which required keeping in touch with each faculty member several times a week through email and phone calls. “With 8 to 17 contractions an hour, those two deadlines probably helped me keep my sanity,” she said. Dana, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, directs research and assessment at the college in Hayward, Wis., and her husband, Dan, is the academic dean.
Bruce Carlson, housing director at Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College, works with tribal elders to develop innovate strategies to make Indian students feel at home in the college dorms. He is devoted to his students and to community elders on the Minnesota reservation; he drove to Albuquerque and back — over 2500 miles – in a weekend to get enough blankets for a ceremony honoring all the elders on the reservation. “Look at me,” he said, pointing to his white skin and blonde hair. “I wanted the elders to know my level of commitment so they would trust me,” he said. A “D” student in high school, his experiences at Fond du Lac ignited his interest in learning and especially in sociology. He wrote a bachelor’s thesis on white supremist groups and graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin in Superior. Now he is paying the tribal college back for changing his life.
Twenty-five years ago, Betty Laverdure challenged her friend and colleague, Dr. Ann Brummel, to switch her career to American Indian education instead of teaching French to middle class young ladies in Kansas. Brummel and Laverdure were in West Africa at the time for three months, and they had discussed the similarities between how colonization had been practiced in Africa and in the United States. Laverdure worked at Turtle Mountain Community College. As a result of Laverdure’s challenge, Brummel got her masters in international relations and her doctorate in education. She has devoted the last 17 years to Indian education, helping to start the Tiospa Zina High school on the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota and working at Turtle Mountain Tribal College and Turtle Mountain high school. In 1998, she became the development director for AIHEC’s youngest member, White Earth Tribal and Community College in Minnesota. While a small college, White Earth boasts three doctorates on its staff: the president, Dr. Helen Klassen (White Earth Chippewa); academic dean Dr. Betsy McDougall (Turtle Mountain Chippewa); and Brummel.