Moving Forward: Progress and Development at 25 Tribal Colleges and Universities

Aug 5th, 2014 | By | Category: 26-1: Celebrating 25 Years, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Tina Deschenie

Sitting in on a tribal college or university (TCU) gathering inevitably involves listening to a story. How each institution was created and has grown often makes for intriguing tales about people, events, and initiatives. Such stories illustrate the tremendous progress and development that have defined TCUs, as well as the challenges they have faced.

TCUs have often had to develop their campuses building by building, sometimes with many years between construction projects. Thus, a new building can translate into a major step forward. Accreditation, which is critical, has also led to progressive program development—from training to certificate to degree, with each credential level built on the next. Some in the TCU community have long advocated for tribal higher education to develop and administer its own accreditation agency, but pending such actualization, the TCUs continue to use mainstream accreditation.

TCUs also vary significantly. Some are highly sophisticated with many resources, while others are small and still developing. Defining the status of a TCU can be tricky. The original intent of tribes establishing their own higher education institutions was to graduate students who retained their people’s language and culture. However, as TCUs grew, they pursued funding and programs geared towards workforce development, often relegating language and culture to a specific department on campus that offered a few required courses, or to a specific grant-funded project. Some who recall the history of the tribal college movement would argue that the original intent of the TCUs is no longer the focus. One could ask whether the current emphasis on workforce development, shorter time to graduation, and scrutiny of retention and graduation rates allows for any TCU to properly address language and culture anymore.

Tribal governments often look to the TCUs for bolstering their needs or for meeting social service or workforce initiatives that are driven by the federal government. Unless funding from tribal governments is forthcoming, TCUs are obligated to seek monies from federal and state governments or, more rarely, from private sources, most of which dictate specific funding focus or emphasis. Funding for the sciences and trades, for example, overshadows funding for the humanities.

TCUs must also be ever vigilant about maintaining their accreditation. By law, the U.S. Department of Education relies on accreditation to determine college or university eligibility for government assistance under certain legislation. In order to attain and keep its accreditation, an institution must meet or exceed criteria set forth by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).


Full accreditation enabled KBOCC to tap into much-needed federal monies to develop new programs and build infrastructure.


Sitting Bull College will roll out its new master’s degree program in environmental science this fall.

A case in point of how HLC accreditation can benefit a TCU is Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC). One of the smaller tribal colleges, located in the community of Baraga on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, KBOCC serves the L’Anse Indian Reservation and surrounding communities. Last year, HLC fully accredited the college, enabling KBOCC to take advantage of federal financial aid programs and implement a new student data system. In May 2014, the college graduated four students; one earned an Associate of Science degree and three earned their Associate of Arts degrees.

The long accreditation attainment effort, with a first milestone in October 2009, when the college gained initial candidacy from HLC, involved every aspect of the college’s operations. The resulting quality improvements were equally sweeping when KBOCC received confirmation of full accreditation in July 2013. The new status immediately improved the standing of KBOCC graduates. Other college-wide benefits included eligibility for a broader range of grants and programs, land-grant status, expanded course transferability, eligibility for transfer and articulation agreements, and a new Internet domain. The ability to administer federal financial aid brought essential monetary support for KBOCC students. To qualify for awarding federal financial aid, the college worked on reporting mandatory public information, developing stronger policies, and ensuring compliance.

The college’s new software system resulted in more timely access to student data, integrated comprehensive data functions, and a new course management system. Extensive staff training was necessary to implement the data system, and the implementation process proved to be lengthy.


After losing HLC accreditation, SIPI made great strides to be reaccredited.

In March 2014, the Bureau of Indian Education and the U.S. Department of the Interior heralded Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) for attaining initial HLC accreditation status. Meanwhile, Sitting Bull College was granted not only another 10 years of HLC accreditation in January 2014, but was also approved to offer its first master’s degree program in environmental science, which will launch in fall of 2014.


Sitting Bull College will roll out its new master’s degree program in environmental science this fall.

Accreditation struggles would be all for naught if TCUs failed to meet student needs. Just like any other higher education institution, TCUs have had to become innovative to help individuals achieve their potential in an ever-changing society. Calls to shorten the duration of various programs creates a need for the reexamination of a college’s organization and mission. Employment boons in some areas of the country have necessitated an emphasis on workforce training. Paying closer attention to first-year students, helping to develop entrepreneurs or even offering certain tuition-free classes, are all initiatives that some TCUs have undertaken.

Over the past three years, United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, has initiated workforce training with the advent of federally funded workforce development programs, such as Developing Montana and North Dakota (DeMaND). Four tribal colleges in the region have formed a consortium to participate in DeMaND, and UTTC is the lead institution. Another program, the Upper Missouri Tribal Environmental Risk Management (UM-TERM), consists of tribal nations and seven tribal colleges located along the Missouri River that share resources and provide workforce training. The programs’ focus is on short-term, targeted skills-training for jobs in the northern Great Plains region, which is undergoing tremendous energy development. UTTC is at the forefront in revamping its programs to assist Native students in quickly acquiring jobs during the oil and gas production boom.

UTTC hosted an open house for its DeMaND program in spring 2014, where the program’s new training technology was showcased, including simulators for heavy equipment, commercial driving, and welding. In all, the college offers five programs, some of which take only 16 weeks to complete: construction technology, electrical technology, heavy equipment operations/commercial driver’s license, tribal environmental science/geographic information systems, and welding technology. Classes and hands-on learning allow students to complete their training quickly to gain a certificate and enter the workforce. In May 2014, UTTC graduated 113 students who earned Bachelor of Science degrees, Associate of Applied Science degrees, or certificates of completion.


Seven TCUs, including UTTC, take part in the Upper Missouri Tribal Environmental Risk Management program.

At Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC), the Omaha Santee Tribal Entrepreneurship Program has proved to be a very popular and successful certificate program. Implemented in 2013, it is a 12-credit, one-semester course that teaches student cohorts how to develop their own small business ideas. Students receive tuition stipends and a refurbished laptop loaded with Microsoft Office software and QuickBooks. One-hundred fifty students attended three sessions of the program and some of them have chosen to continue on in other degree programs. NICC, which enrolls approximately 170 students, continues to strengthen its partnerships with nearby four-year institutions, developing joint programs to increase options for its students.

Despite UTTC’s and NICC’s successes, many TCUs struggle with high dropout and program completion rates, especially with new students. To address this long-standing problem, Fort Peck Community College (FPCC) in Poplar, Montana, has devised EDU 101, a new first-year experience course. Adapting a student-centered approach to learning, the course begins with the students stating their personal reasons for attending college and making connections based on their life experiences, values, and goals. Facilitated by experts on the college staff, the course allows students to articulate how they would continue to attain their dreams.

The required, one-credit course helps all enrolled first-year and transfer students engage with and build relations with the staff whose services will directly influence their future educational success. For instance, the financial aid director teaches the new students the intricacies of completing scholarship applications, while the registrar instructs about planning, including transfer to other institutions of higher learning and vocational training. The librarian familiarizes the students with the library offerings, the student support services director trains on financial literacy and household budgeting, the retention officer/cultural liaison teaches about local cultural values and belief systems, and a faculty member teaches the basic elements of critical thinking and rigorous self-assessment. The course helps the students explore their identities and give context to their educational experience by recognizing the need for self-discipline in order to achieve their goals.

From the initial offering in fall 2013, 88% of the students have passed the course, and 78% have persisted and enrolled in the spring 2014 semester. The persistence rate for EDU 101 represents a 14% improvement above the college persistence rate for academic year 2011–2012. This success indicates to the staff that they are on the right path, and the college administration supports offering the course with grades of “pass” or “fail.” In May 2014, FPCC honored 46 graduates at its commencement ceremony.


To combat high dropout rates, FPCC instituted a one-credit college success course for all new students.

Two Montana tribal colleges, Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer and Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, offered a tuition waiver for their summer 2014 course offerings, while Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, North Dakota, offered a six-week course for heavy equipment operator training. Sinte Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota, also offered foundational English and math classes free of tuition and fees during the summer of 2014.


Little Big Horn College draws new students by offering courses free of charge over the summer.

Another challenge that TCUs face has been upgrading or simply developing adequate facilities. Due to lack of funding, construction of new facilities has been a great challenge for TCUs, even as increased enrollment and program expansion increases the need for more campus facilities. Many of the TCUs make do with buildings that are over 30 years old, which they retrofit, as best they can. Others continue to use modular buildings. When a new building is constructed, the space and services that the facility provides are always long overdue. A new building on campus translates into a new facility for an entire community.

In 2008, when the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Keshena, Wisconsin, opened its academic library, 20 new computer workstations were sufficient. The level of CMN’s broadband capacity for Internet service was just adequate for the college’s needs. However, it was a different story for community members from the Menominee reservation and surrounding communities. With little or no broadband service in the area, many households had no computers. Those that did were confined to unsatisfactory dial-up or DSL access, as Wi-Fi café options did not exist locally.

“The result,” says Ron Jurgens, Director of Institutional Research at CMN, “was a community, like many in Indian Country, that was excluded from the worldwide web and the online ways of doing business.” This changed when CMN built a new community technology center and located it in the heart of the Keshena campus. The center provides 139 workstations, 25 of which are reserved for walk-in use for those from the local community. There is also a Wi-Fi café area where people can use their laptops.

The center’s PCs, Macs, and other technology, including digital cameras, now serve hundreds of area residents weekly. The facility and equipment are the result of a $3.4 million grant to CMN from the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications, and Information Administration, and $1.6 million in matching funds from other college sources. National Recovery Act funding to the Menominee tribe, CMN, and other entities in Wisconsin also helped deliver better broadband service to the region. The college’s gain has been a ten-fold increase in bandwidth to a current level of 100 megabits per second.

The community technology services occupy the first level of the building, the technical education and trades programming are located on the upper level, and college servers and IT staff are housed in the lower level. With space at a premium campus-wide, the new 15,600 square feet for classroom, public service, and offices has enabled program growth.

The statistics tell the story: after one year of operation, services for community members averaged 342 visitors a week. During four months in 2013, the center registered 173 individuals in workshops ranging from basic Microsoft Word and Excel classes to iMovie design and business communications, with 75% of the enrollments identified as American Indian. With extended evening and weekend hours, the center is accessible to area residents 61 hours a week. Programs vary from two-hour workshops to 36-hour credit classes. A summary combining youth programs, trades classes, basic computer/Internet-use workshops, and training on remedial skills, GED, and other purposes showed more than 400 registrations and nearly 4,800 training hours.

“The exciting opportunities for our own programs and services to grow are one part of the picture,” states Deanna Bisley, CMN’s dean for technical education. “The other part is that as a public, accessible and welcoming facility, the community technology center is also becoming a one-stop location for outreach by other agencies.” She goes on to note, “We’re making space available for regular weekly hours by vocational rehabilitation, job services and DVR [Division of Vocational Rehabilitation] staff to meet the public. And on a less formal basis, unemployed community members are coming here to do computer job searches, employers are meeting applicants here for job interviews, and many individuals are making use of our Skype capabilities.”

For CMN and its neighbors, the community technology center is a win-win initiative that meets institutional needs and extends the information highway further into Indian Country. The college’s class of 2014 included approximately 120 students who received bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, technical diplomas, or certificates of mastery.


CMN’s new community technology center and Wi-Fi café have greatly facilitated Internet and computer access for both the college’s students and the local tribal community.

Such technological and infrastructural upgrades have boosted other TCUs as well. The Wayawa Tipi Student Center at NICC’s Santee campus opened in the fall of 2013, and has positively impacted the community. The Title III funding used for building construction has also strengthened and developed capacity by creating additional positions for human resources, development, student services, and in the business office.

An upgrade and addition to NICC’s technological capabilities included a third video teleconference (VTC) mobile unit for intercampus classes that allows for additional course sections to be offered. Other VTCs have been upgraded to high-definition (HD) for better links between the campuses. NICC has also established a Web module interface for students where they can access grades, billing, and register for classes. Moodle, a software e-learning platform, was also added to enhance courses.

NICC has also established a radio station. KZYK Santee 88.9, which serves the local community, is directed by the extension program director at NICC. The college used grant funding to purchase the radio tower and to provide community outreach. Volunteers assist with station programming, including Dakota language lessons.


NICC’s radio station, KZYK Santee 88.9 FM, offers listeners culturally relevant programming.

In the past year, Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, has renovated its student union building and has added a new weight room to the center. Diné College also opened a new $3 million archive building in May 2013. Wellness centers that opened in the past few years at Little Bighorn College and at Leech Lake Tribal College are popular and award-winning community sites. Meanwhile, the Institute of American Indian Arts opened a new $3.5 million welcome center, a 15,000‑square foot addition to house administration offices. In spring 2014, students in the building construction technology program at Turtle Mountain Community College built and put up for bid a 2,004‑square foot, three-bedroom home as a classroom project. Tohono O’odham Community College opened a new “main” campus in 2012, and has continued to add to it since then. In mid-2014, Northwest Indian College opened its $2.2 million building, which will provide 4,200 square feet for the Salish Sea Research Center. The structure will allow students and faculty to conduct environmental research. Navajo Technical University, in Crownpoint, NM, opened its $4.8 million comprehensive wellness center in July 2014, which provides 23,500 square feet of space for a gymnasium, lockers, and for wellness education and services. The Red Lake Nation has announced plans for a $21 million construction project, with $11.4 million earmarked for the Red Lake Nation College campus in Minnesota. The project is scheduled to start in June 2014 with completion by late 2015.


Institute of American Indian Arts breaks ground for its new welcome center.


Tohono O’odham Community College’s new campus center has greatly expanded the college’s operations.


Northwest Indian College’s Salish Sea Research Center is one of a kind.


Red Lake Nation College’s new campus center is set to open next year.

TCUs are growing technologically, while they also get back to basics. Food sovereignty initiatives at a variety of institutions have helped many tribes embrace more traditional—and healthier—diets. Gardens at TCUs are best categorized as teaching gardens, since they are used to teach individuals and families to grow their own food. The gardens serve to build connections between people and food, and provide healthy local produce to share. Several of the gardens focus on traditional plants used both in the kitchen and for their healing properties.

Four years ago, the College of the Muscogee Nation developed a community garden at its Okmulgee, Oklahoma, campus to rebuild and restore traditional foods and diet among Muscogee communities. With help from neighboring Creek communities, the tribal college has maintained a seasonal garden since that time. Students have gained insight on traditionally grown foods and the permaculture sustainability that was practiced in the Southeastern homelands.

In the spring, students and community members turn the land and prepare it for traditional seeds, such as tvhoyv (squash), tvlako (beans), osafke (flint corn), tvmatv (tomatoes), and various kinds of homuce (peppers). While College of the Muscogee Nation students are primary caretakers of the garden, a Creek Nation–sponsored Boy Scout troop and elders from the Creek-chartered communities have also assisted.

Students are exposed to a holistic approach to cultivating food, which translates into healthier food choices in their daily lives. Taking pride in the work that goes into each season, students have grown and expanded the variety of crops that are cultivated each year. Produce harvested during the growing season is donated to area elders.


Students at the College of the Muscogee Nation grow their own crops in an effort to reclaim food sovereignty and offer tribal members a healthier diet.

Northwest Indian College has developed healing gardens and harvested plants for herbal teas, salves, and honey. In their master garden plan, they also included vegetables, fruits, and berries. Through its Common Grounds garden project, Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago, Nebraska, proposed to “[improve] the community through gardening and eating and living healthier for a longer life.” A gardening project at Turtle Mountain Community College targets the families of Head Start students, while landscaping projects brighten Blackfeet Community College’s Browning, Montana campus with flowers and plants from the college greenhouse. Stone Child College offers vegetable gardens and community gardening workshops, as does the White Earth Tribal and Community College. On its website, Tohono O’odham Community College provides an online plant atlas, and Sinte Gleska University celebrated the opening of a greenhouse by offering community members plants for their own gardens.


Community members participate in Little Priest Tribal College’s Common Grounds gardening project.


Tohono O’odham Community College faculty and students take to the field as part of their online plant atlas project.

All of this progress and development at TCUs across Indian Country is impressive, but what efforts have been made towards accomplishing their original missions? TCUs were founded to preserve and protect tribal culture and language. The maintenance of cultural identity and self-esteem were meant to be the top priority of the TCUs. Even so, language-loss continues to threaten Native communities everywhere. As a result, much of the focus is now on recording the teachings of elders in their tribal languages, to ensure that future generations will always have resources to connect with as they revitalize their languages.

From its start more than 10 years ago as a project to document Lakota elders’ knowledge, the strongest focus of the Sinte Gleska University Lakota Documentaries program has been translation (from Lakota into English and vice versa) and the training of translators. Dr. Jurgita Antoine first started working with the Lakota translation projects in 2005. She recalls that “neither scholars nor funding agencies even conceptualized translation work to or from an endangered Native American language; funding was available only for documentation, analysis, and immersion programs.” Antoine adds, “Now, the directions of our work—training of translators, transcription, and analysis of oral stories to preserve languages—are listed as areas of interest for federal language grants.” The project has created jobs for fluent Native speakers who want to work as translators. In fall 2013, the project team conducted translations of health-related texts from English into Lakota, which resulted in the team members becoming listed as Lakota translators.

The project boasts several major achievements, including transcripts of Lakota video recordings and their translations into English. The project adopted a mentor–apprentice model for translation work and for translator training, which pairs a younger person who is more knowledgeable of technology and the written language with an elder who is orally fluent in the language.

The video recordings include stories, interviews about the beginnings of the project, and elders’ thoughts on speaking and teaching the Lakota language to children. Bilingual text accompanies the video, and publication of the manuscript is a future goal. The translations of the video and text were supported by a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council.

Antoine states, “The participants really enjoy working with their language and culture. Today’s elders, who [were] beaten in school in their youth, now go through mixed emotions to see their language appreciated and to even receive payment for this type of work.”


The Lakota Documentaries Project at Sinte Gleska University has taken great strides to preserve the wisdom of the elders.

Similar projects that seek to record and preserve tribal language and community stories can be found at Diné College and at Comanche Nation College. Faculty of Comanche Nation College have helped to develop a digital archive of the Comanche language by working with tribal elders. Chief Dull Knife College offers an online Cheyenne language dictionary on its college website. The library at the Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) is translating 21 popular children’s books into the Aaniiih and Nakoda languages. ANC has also empowered eighth-grade graduates of the White Clay Immersion School by inviting them to join in the college’s commencement ceremonies. Cankdeska Cikana Community College features digital personal story clips from the college students on its website.


Chief Dull Knife College has developed a Cheyenne language dictionary that is open to the public.

Tina Deschenie, Ed.D., (Diné/Hopi Tewa) is provost at Navajo Technical University and served as editor of Tribal College Journal from 2006–2009.


Antoine, J. (2014). The Lakota Way: Preserving Culture through Education at Sinte Gleska University. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 26 (3). Retrieved from

DeMaND Project Update – Year Two. (2014, February/March). United Tribes News, 23 (2/3),27. Retrieved from

Keshena Campus Has New Community Technology Center. (2012, June 10). Retrieved from

Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College Earns Accreditation. (2013, August 13). Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Retrieved from

Willeto, P. (2014). A Tribal Higher Education Commission for the 21st Century. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 25 (4), 52–53.

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