Commitment to Community: An introduction to this journalMay 15th, 1989 | By lbordeaux | Category: 1-1: From the Past, the Future
Tribal colleges promote opportunity by focusing on the needs of their own reservations. Together, however, they represent a movement that is bringing profound change to the landscape of all Native American society.
This is a time to give thanks. More than twenty years ago, visionary leaders in several tribal communities began to establish colleges—small, local, and responsive to the needs of tribes and tribal people. Today, more than sixty percent of Indian students enrolled in post-secondary education are attending tribal colleges.For the tribal colleges, progress has always been shared progress. Through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and through individual contacts from college to college, we have shared ideas, programs, institutional documents, success and failures, supporting each other through difficult times, and celebrating each others’ achievements. The publication of Tribal College provides us with a new means to continue our sharing, and expand our circle.We are thankful to be able to share the wisdom and the vision of our founders—strong men and women on several reservations—who saw that mainstream higher education was not successful in serving their people. These leaders recognized a need for a new kind of college, charted by tribal governments, located within tribal communities, governed by boards of tribal members. The Navajo Nation created Navajo Community College, the first tribal college, in 1968, followed in 1970 by the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and in 1971 by the Sicangu Lakota of the Rosebud.
By 1973, there were six tribal colleges, and our numbers have grown steadily ever since.
Most of our colleges began in affiliation with an off-reservation institution, most often a nearby state college or university; the fledgling tribal institutions based their curricula and the degree programs on those of their affiliates.
As we established our own administrations, attracted faculty, and created curricula, we have moved toward complete autonomy. One mark of this autonomy is accreditation; tribal colleges have sought, and obtained, accreditation from regional accrediting associations. Navajo Community College was the first to be accredited at the two-year level; the first at the four-year level was Sinte Gleska College in 1983. Now eight of the colleges are candidates for accreditation, eight are accredited at the two-year level, two at the baccalaureate level (the second is Oglala Lakota College), and Sinte Gleska College has been recommended for accreditation at the master’s level.
And now we have come full circle. One new tribal institution, Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, is affiliated with an older, accredited Montana tribal college—Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation.
We are thankful to be able to share our diversity. Our tribes and our communities differ widely, in culture, in language, in topography and resources. Each college, therefore, has developed its own unique mission, its own curricula, and its own educational approaches and strategies.
Turtle Mountain Community College, for example, has a centralized facility and programs, suited to its compact reservation. In contrast, Oglala Lakota College has disbursed its courses into centers in the nine districts of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and has recently opened a center in Rapid City, South Dakota, to serve off-reservation tribal members. Instructional offerings vary as well: Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College trains alcoholism counselors, certified by both the state and the tribe; SalishKootenai College offers a program in forestry; Standing Rock College in ranch management; and Northwest Indian College in aquaculture and fisheries management.
While the tribal colleges are diverse in organizational structures and academic programs, we share a common commitment to strengthening and serving our tribal communities. We are thankful to share this commitment to others in American higher education, at a time when many colleges and universities institutions are grappling with their own relations to the cultures, values, and needs of their constituencies. Our commitment begins with a recognition of the unique importance of our tribal cultures and histories. Most of our colleges offer courses in the values and intellectual inheritance of their tribes; more fundamental than this, however, our management styles, personal and professional relationships, and patterns of institutional communications, are necessarily grounded in the values and experiences of our tribes. Our colleges make decisions, and communicate them, in ways which fit with the ongoing lives of our communities.
We conserve and extend the histories and cultures of our tribes. Many colleges con duct research on the language and history of their tribes; gradually, publications by tribal college faculty are beginning to take their places as significant works of scholarship. Several colleges have established archival collections, to preserve tribal and personal documents. Oral history collections are recording vital aspects of tribal and individual experience. And as we gain necessary experience and resources, tribal colleges are moving to address issues critical to the future of our tribes: economic development, the strengthening of tribal governments, conservation of natural resources, the eradication of alcoholism, and the improvement of health and wellness in our communities.
We are thankful, as well, to be able to celebrate the achievements of our students. In the relatively short histories of tribal colleges, our students have achieved remarkable records of personal success, and of service to their tribes. These students and alumni are rooted in their home communities, and bring their skills and knowledge to help resolve local and immediate problems. Many have already earned graduate degrees—masters and doctorates in education, medicine and law. They have not been content simply to find employment for themselves, although, given the economic realities of reservation life, that achievement is, in itself, no small one. Instead, they have pushed forward to make active contributions to the social, economic, and political lives of their tribes.
Individually, the tribal colleges have made strong impacts on their reservations. Working together, through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), the colleges have built an organization which provides steady, consistent, and thoughtful advocacy for Indian higher education. AIHEC was founded in 1973 with the dual mission of providing a national presence for the colleges, and providing technical assistance to them. The Consortium drafted and supported the federal law, passed in 1978, which authorized funding for the tribal colleges. It was the first piece of education legislation to be written, and lobbied through Congress, by Indian people themselves. As to technical assistance, the colleges have become each others’ best sources of support; AIHEC institutions share information, ideas, and even staff members, so that every college can learn from the experiences of the group. Money for a central AIHEC staff has not always been available, so the staffs and faculties of the member colleges have had to learn to do the advocacy and the assistance themselves. This learning has been costly in time, travel, and effort, but through it we have strengthened both our abilities and our unity of purpose.
The tribal colleges have much to share with each other, and with groups and institutions beyond our reservations. Our colleges play a vital role in their home communities, providing forums for the open discussion of important issues. Through Tribal College, we hope to extend that mission, not only from college to college and tribe to tribe, but into the national and international educational communities, where we look forward to enhancing our special and unique contributions.
We are thankful for the opportunity.
Lionel Bordeaux is President of Sinte Gleska College in Rosebud, South Dakota. He is chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.