Journey to Freedom: Reflecting on our responsibilities, renewing our promises

Nov 6th, 2012 | By | Category: 24-2: The Future of the Tribal College Movement, Features
By Cheryl Crazy Bull

Lakota Country, South Dakota Badlands

Over the past four decades, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have emerged as a cutting-edge approach to post-secondary education in the United States and across the world. I like using the word “emerge” to describe the tribal college movement because it reminds me of the creation stories of so many Indigenous peoples. We emerged from sacred places, from within the earth, or from the sky. And I like to use the term “cutting-edge” because it serves as a reminder that we are each doing new and unique work that cannot readily be duplicated.

We are educating tribal people within their homelands or upon the lands where they have come to reaffirm their nationhood. Our educational approaches are rooted in tribal knowledge and derive from the teachings of our ancestors. Tribal colleges and universities have emerged from the sacred to do the necessary, present-day work of our ancestors. They teach our languages, socialize our children and support their families, protect and manage our resources and assets, and preserve our identities and our ways of living for future generations.

As we look to the future of the tribal colleges, we can expect to continue educating more teachers and counselors, training more nurses and health care providers, helping build tribal and individual enterprises through business and management training, and supporting the development of a stronger workforce. However, leaders and educators should closely examine the impact tribal colleges have on their home reservations and on Indian education in general. That will help us consider what else the future might hold.

Often our history as tribal peoples is explained in the context of crisis—and as though our survival is contingent only upon our ability to resist and adapt. TCUs represent an alternative and more appropriate path for our survival. That path emerges from our precontact past when our cultural sovereignty was intact. In addition, the tribally-specific education TCUs provide can facilitate the journey of our peoples through colonization and dependency and into the freedom of a new cultural sovereignty.

For instance, at Northwest Indian College (NWIC Bellingham, WA), the recently approved bachelor’s degree in Native studies leadership focuses on combining traditional tribal knowledge and values with the contemporary skills necessary for students to lead tribal nations. Courses focus on how to live as a tribal person in a contemporary tribal society and model the use of deep knowledge to inform student learning and assessment.

The need to lead

The civil rights actions of the 1960s and 70s contributed to the establishment of tribally controlled educational institutions. Today our activism still takes the form of rallies, marches, gatherings, and runs. It also manifests itself through research, student engagement, and internships, on our campuses and within our families, whenever more of our people participate in traditional practices. At tribal colleges, opportunities for change are identified and the strategies for change are practiced. Students learn the words needed to describe current circumstances and bring forward traditional knowledge that offers solutions. This is a restorative experience because students do not have to look beyond their tribal teachings for the foundational knowledge they need to be good tribal citizens.

The demographics of tribal colleges continue to evolve: we are educating more local students and more younger students. Today, more students also come from other places to attend our institutions. Students are increasingly diverse in their tribal heritages. And if they come from off the reservation, they may have limited knowledge of their cultures and practices. They come to TCUs in search of themselves, seeking their tribal languages and a connection to their inherent birthright as Indigenous people. They also seek a connection to the sacred, which is found in our languages and in our relationships to one another and the land.

Since our beginning, tribal college students and leaders alike have gathered and told the stories of our existence and shared what we have learned from our experiences. We gather the knowledge of our people in the areas of science, politics, sociology, health, and history. We document the stories of families and relationships. We collect and share songs and dances, ceremonies and practices. We tell the stories of our creation, how to treat one another as humans, and how we should act toward animal and plant nations.

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