Tribally Controlled Colleges: Making Good Medicine

Nov 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-3: Medicine, Media Reviews

New York, Peter Lang, 1992

Review by Jack Barden

Making History

Leaders of any new movement have little time for reflection; all energy is spent on building something that did not exist before. So it is not surprising that the brief histo­ry of tribally controlled colleges has been neglected. Participants, busy keeping their institutions alive, have almost no time to document their efforts. As a result, little has been written about the colleges and their creation.

Twenty-three years after the founding of the first tribal college, Wayne Stein, a former tribal college president, has taken time to reflect. The result is Tribally Controlled Colleges: Making Good Medicine. It is an important addition to the record.

Stein chronicles the development and first ten years of the movement and the formation and development of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, an organiza­tion which helped, and still helps, hold those colleges together.

His methods include extensive interviews with many of the people who helped shape the first colleges and the movement. Stein also made use of the largely unorganized paper trail generated by the colleges, including early consortium docu­ments, college reports and unpublished master’s and doctoral papers.

Stein begins with a relatively standard review of higher education as it has affected American Indians since the Colonial period. This work provides a context in which the development of tribal colleges makes sense. He also sets the col­leges in the context of the larger American community college move­ment which had its beginnings in the 1940’s.

The chronicle of tribal colleges begins with the formation of Navajo Community College in 1969, the first tribally controlled college. The author, with the help of many of those who remember, tells the story of the founding and early years of five other institutions which quickly followed, creating a core of six origi­nal institutions: D-Q University, Oglala Lakota College, Sinte Gleska University, Turtle Mountain Community College and Standing Rock College. His carefully docu­mented presentations of these insti­tutions tell a story of both diversity and similarity.

The newly-founded tribal colleges each had unique features. They varied in their organiza­tion; some maintained central campuses while others developed a multi-campus system. They also varied in the amount of emphasis placed on tribal culture in curriculum and manage­ment. Some featured more vocationally-oriented training that served immediate tribal needs while others thought more of transferring graduates to baccalaureate colleges.

Despite differences, Stein clearly shows that these early colleges had a striking number of similarities. Stein cites a 1972 document authored by Gerald One Feather, one of the early leaders of the movement, that identifies common features.

According to One Feather, each college shared geographic isolation; all were located on or near Indian reservations far from population centers. All institutions had an Indian board of regents or directors and a majority of their administra­tors and faculty were Indian. In addition, all suffered from limited and unpredictable funding. Finally, student bodies and Indian commu­nities surrounding the institutions were from the lowest income areas in the United States.

The perspective of twenty years allows other commonalities to be identified. Most of the early colleges began in some kind of relationship with another, non-Indian institu­tion. Most of the institutions, in the beginning, did not look toward nor­mal channels to attain accredita­tion. Most had little or no access to unrestricted funds, operating with funding for specific “programs” until the passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Act in 1978.

Recognizing these common inter­ests, leaders of the six institutions came together as the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in 1973. Initially, the consortium was intended to help member colleges gain accreditation, support research and assist curricu­lum development. With the assis­tance of friends in Washington and other places, funding was obtained through Title III of the Higher Education Act to provide a structure to obtain these goals.

Stein’s work is important, first, because it is the first coherent effort to pull a wide variety of sources together in one documentary history of this important social movement. This documentation is of singular importance. Stein’s list of references includes interviews with people who were significant in the founding of the colleges and the consortium. As years pass, it becomes more difficult to recover for posterity the percep­tions of these visionaries. Indeed, some of these leaders where no longer around when Stein began his study.

Stein’s work is also significant because it provides a model for fur­ther study. Although Tribally Controlled Colleges: Making Good Medicine examines only the first years of the first institutions, Stein describes the “second and third waves” of tribal college formation. These institutions should be the subject of similar studies.

Stein also provides a foundation for even more focused investigation of tribal colleges and their work. Legislation, accreditation, curricu­lum, faculty, and student character­istics are all priorities for the col­leges and deserve further study.

Stein’s book does not capture the intensity of the work and dedication of the movement’s early leaders. It does not chronicle the passionate desire to create permanent, tribally-controlled institutions. It was not his intention to do so.

The book does, however, give us necessarily brief allusions to the research agenda of the future. Stein speaks briefly in many places of the colleges as instruments of self-deter­mination. He alludes to the difficul­ty of founding and developing col­leges that are rooted in tribal cul­tures. He speaks of the problems encountered by these early colleges in achieving the legitimation of their efforts and the impact that legitimation had on the structures of the colleges. He provides a scholarly basis for studying the impact of pre­vailing ideas about education and learning on tribal people.

Tribally Controlled Colleges: Making Good Medicine is many things. It is a stroll down memory lane for those who were associated with their early years. It is an impor­tant compilation of documents which detail the first ten years of the tribally controlled college move­ment. It is a primer for students and professionals who are currently involved with this movement. And, most importantly, it is a source of ideas for continued study. The trib­ally controlled college community, through the efforts of Wayne Stein, at last has a document that provides the underpinning for future work.

Jack Barden works at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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