Mainstream Colleges Could Learn From Tribal Colleges

May 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 21-4: Native American Studies, Summer 2010, Editor's Essay
By Kurt Umbhau

Minimizing Native American culture and heritage is a continuing problem at many mainstream higher education institutions. Thankfully, this is not the case at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). TCUs place a high priority on Native American Studies.
When I taught English at a mainstream community college in the Four Corners, our department used a reading supplement for college composition containing no Native American authors. The sole minority offering was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

About 25% of my students were Native Americans, and many others were minorities, and yet the English Composition reading supplement didn’t represent these students. Another English instructor and I created a list of Native authors and titles to be considered for the next edition of the supplement, and we presented it to our departmental chair. We did not get a follow-up response other than the list had been received. To make a swift change, I simply stopped using the department’s supplement and created one of my own to more accurately reflect Native history and local culture.

The 75-year-old college is in the heart of Indian Country, and it accepts tribal scholarships and federal funds to pay for these Indian students’ tuition. The school then offers them a mainstream education with very little in the curriculum to account for the Native viewpoint, heritage, or culture.

While some mainstream universities do an admirable job of serving Native students, many others that purport to serve such students, particularly community colleges, need to elevate their academics from merely workforce preparation and token cultural offerings to include more enriching, diverse, and appropriate Native American content.

Explaining the Tribal College Mission

As I listened to two tribal college presidents on the radio program Native American Calling earlier this year, they reminded me of the vast cultural knowledge and history that live and grow within tribal colleges and universities.
Harlan McKosato, radio host and a former TCU adjunct professor of journalism (Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM), interviewed Northwest Indian College President Cheryl Crazy Bull and United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp. McKosato focused on how tribal colleges balance employment preparation and cultural classes.

Gipp cited that at mainstream institutions, only 4% of Native Americans graduate. At TCUs, completion rates average in the 50%-60% range, according to the latest American Indian Measures for Success report. “Our students want to know who they are in terms of tribal culture, heritage, history, and language. They also want the skills and academics that relate to how they can have a better life,” he said, explaining why students enroll at his college. “I don’t know of a student who doesn’t want a better life. I think we put that mix together in a very coherent way in terms of our curricula.”

Crazy Bull explained that TCUs are unique among higher education institutions: “We have a very broad mission. We are providing workforce training as well as developing Native scholars, so that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the institution to provide students with a good, solid, Western skill set and also give them the support they need to maintain their identity in that context. We also have to develop, preserve, and strengthen the cultural knowledge in our communities.”

Before tribal colleges, Gipp explained, Indians were urged to “get an education and to go away and make a living. That resulted in the loss of culture. Those systems, from the non- Native view, were designed to strip us of who we are. And if we are going to have viable tribal nations and economies, we have to know who we are and what we are about.”

McKosato asked about TCUs having a stigma as subpar academic institutions. Gipp responded, “I’ve never felt a stigma about tribal schools, because we’re designing what we want for and by ourselves. It is a matter of tribal control in determining our destiny, so we can start to set the standard of what we’re all about.” He then added, “With that said, I would put our nursing graduates up against any nursing program in the country. We have graduates passing components of the state boards at 100% levels. So meeting the professional standards is not our concern, and if it were, we would address it.”

This radio broadcast reinforced the reality that TCUs are the only higher learning institutions to offer abundant Native American faculty, indigenous community access and support, and independent and unique programs designed to foster and promote tribal culture while giving students modern skills for a better life.

TCUs are at the forefront of educating the community and preserving the culture. And the movement is growing, with non-Natives also becoming more and more interested in what TCUs offer. I was recently speaking with Danish and Swedish journalists who are planning tribal college campus visits. Turkish universities have just started student exchanges with TCUs. (See TCJ, Vol.21, No.3, p.3).

Mainstream institutions too often attempt to teach the masses according to homogeneous standards that may or may not be relevant to Indian students. Mainstream institutions, in this case, should watch and learn.
The tribal colleges’ intellectual assets are formed from their people, histories, and communities. These unique colleges provide vibrant faculty, enriching programs, and are home to both historic and sacred items such as Joe Medicine Crow’s archives and Sitting Bull’s headdress. TCUs provide the best breeding grounds for authentic cultural studies because they are tied to the places, communities, and people that they serve.

Kurt Umbhau is the editor of the Tribal College Journal. To listen to the interview, go to and select the broadcast from Jan. 4, 2010.

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