Commitment to Community: An introduction to this journal

May 15th, 1989 | By | Category: 1-1: From the Past, the Future
By Lionel Bordeaux

COVER ARTTribal 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.

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