25 Years of Tribal College Journal: An Editorial and Graphic Retrospective, 1989–2014Aug 13th, 2014 | By bshreve | Category: 26-1: Celebrating 25 Years, Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
“An active press cannot, on its own, build stronger societies. But it does have an important role to play. In tribal nations, the growing vitality of Indian-owned media offers reason for hope.”
—Paul Boyer, 1993
In 1989, just over 20 years since the founding of the first tribally controlled college, Joseph McDonald (Salish-Kootenai), Lionel Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota), David Gipp (Hunkpapa Lakota), and a handful of other tribal college and university (TCU) presidents recognized that they needed a venue for greater networking. To be sure, they got together semi-regularly at American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) meetings and they’d call one another up every now and then, but they struggled to stay abreast of developments and new programs at other TCUs. Unfortunately, they just didn’t have the resources or personnel to establish a forum for information sharing.
And then a young journalist from Sacramento, California, offered a solution. Paul Boyer, who had just completed his master’s degree at Cal State–Chico, offered to draft up a newsletter or journal—on his own dime—that could be used to exchange ideas and relate news on the AIHEC-affiliated TCUs across Indian Country. Boyer had visited several schools and was working on a report for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which his father, Ernest, presided over. To oversee Boyer’s project, AIHEC formed an ad hoc advisory board of TCU presidents with McDonald at its head. When Bordeaux, who was the chair of AIHEC, and McDonald gave the green light, the kid from California went to work.
The final product exceeded everyone’s expectations. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education offered poignant essays from TCU leaders; an array of tribal college news items; investigative articles on planning, funding, culture, and teaching; and a research section that gave TCU faculty a venue for publishing their work. Since its creation, Tribal College Journal has evolved and transformed, but for 25 years it has been the leader in relating news and information about TCUs. To borrow the journal’s own slogan, it is “the voice and vision of American Indian higher education.”
That Tribal College Journal would succeed and even expand was never a sure thing. From the beginning the journal struggled. The first volume was spartan in its appearance, but that didn’t matter. In 1989, the tribal colleges themselves were spartan. What mattered was having an instrument to relate information about American Indian higher education. Boyer produced 1,000 copies and mailed them out from his home in Sacramento. Readers could subscribe to this new publication for $12 a year.
The success prompted AIHEC and the newly established American Indian College Fund to finance the journal. The advisory board would meet with Boyer regularly at AIHEC meetings to discuss editorial content and creative direction. As editor, Boyer outlined potential themes and requested information and ideas. The board “was always supportive,” Boyer recalls.
The real decisions about the journal happened during regular AIHEC board meetings. I would give a report at least once or twice a year—finances, income, circulation, content, and so on. If there were substantive issues or concerns . . . it was discussed and decided at that meeting. I always had strong advocates—especially Joe McDonald—and he (and a few others) made life easy for me.
Boyer and others such as Bordeaux, hoped to craft a publication that was not only a venue for information-sharing and distribution to lawmakers and potential TCU funders, but one that was also scholarly in tone and content. Bordeaux especially liked articles “with footnotes.” Such academically oriented writing would illustrate that TCUs were legitimate higher education institutions that fostered research and intellectual discourse.
Beginning with Volume 1, No. 1, Boyer crafted each issue around a specific theme. “Economic Development,” “Students,” “Culture for Survival,” “Leadership for Tomorrow,” and “Management across Cultures” were among the initial topics. Feature articles engaging facets of a theme were the heart of the issue, while research articles and campus news items gave the journal broader and multidimensional content. Boyer launched a few regular departments as well. “On Campus” focused on TCU news stories, “Access” overviewed resources and media items, “Innovation” highlighted a program or a new development at a particular tribal college, and “Students” offered readers an intimate look at the people who attended TCUs. “There was no grand plan,” Boyer notes about the departments. “I came up with ideas as they occurred to me and if they seemed to work, I kept them.”
Influenced by the layout and structure of The New Yorker, departments were often one-time affairs: “In some cases, I created ‘department’ headings in response to a particular story, but did not necessarily plan to keep it going. It was just a way to identify a story.” Hence, departments such as “Academe,” “Conferences,” “Legislation,” and “Analysis,” would appear in one issue only to disappear with the next. One that did stick was “People.” The very first installment of this new department appeared in the Spring 1995 issue, and it chronicled the achievements of a young Lakota vice president at Sinte Gleska University—future American Indian College Fund CEO Cheryl Crazy Bull. Designed as a short biography of an influential tribal college leader or professor, the department would eventually be renamed “Profile.”
Another tradition that stuck was the publication of TCU students’ creative writing and art. Boyer recognized that the journal was geared towards faculty, administrators, and academics interested in American Indian higher education. There was little content of interest to TCU students. In an effort to connect directly with this untapped audience, Boyer devised a separate publication entitled Tribal College Student that featured students’ short stories, poems, and artwork. He also hoped that this new periodical would be attractive to potential advertisers who sought to reach Native people. Boyer wanted to expand operations and produce a slicker publication, and he needed advertising dollars to do so.
The journal’s appearance and graphics especially needed improvement. Boyer cycled through designers during those formative years. Initially, he tapped his neighbor, Mindy Toomay, who happened to run a small, one-woman design firm. “Her equipment was . . . a single Mac classic computer and some kind of black and white printer.” More importantly, her operation was cheap. Still, in an effort to cut costs further, Boyer himself designed the next two issues. “They were terrible,” he recalls, leading him to hire another small design firm called CompuType and Design before finally settling on In Cahoots, Inc.
Thrift remained paramount, but with In Cahoots, Boyer found a company that was “engaged and attentive to details.” Indeed, the Fall 1991 issue—In Cahoots, Inc.’s first issue—stands out from its predecessors. The graphics, fonts, and layout improved, enhancing the overall quality of the publication. Anne Geddes ran the firm, and Boyer worked very closely with her. “I was always interested in design,” Boyer notes. “I did all the design work for the student editions [and was] very engaged in the design of the journal, even when I had a designer.”
The journal would maintain its partnership with In Cahoots until 1995, when Boyer announced that he was resigning as editor. Looking to pursue new projects and complete his Ph.D., he consulted with leaders in AIHEC who advised him to advertise the position in a variety of venues. Boyer received an array of applications, but one stood out from all the others: a freelance writer based in Yellowstone, Wyoming, named Marjane Ambler.
Ambler had worked as an associate editor at High Country News for six years, before striking out on her own to focus on energy development in Indian Country. She freelanced for the First Nations Development Institute, the American Indian College Fund, and was a regular at Council on Energy Resource Tribes meetings. She also worked with various groups on trust management and helped Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) author a report to Congress that served as a key document in the multi-million dollar Cobell lawsuit.
A prolific writer, Ambler penned the book Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development in 1990, donating all author royalties to the College Fund. She also picked up a few writing assignments for Tribal College Journal. “She became the best and most reliable freelance writer I could hire,” Boyer remembers. “She had a rare combination of talents: solid writing skills, attention to deadlines, real knowledge of tribal issues, and a knack for knowing what an editor wanted.”
No other applicant even came close. Her experience and talents made Ambler a shoe-in as the next editor of the journal. Logistics, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more complicated. In the summer of 1991, Boyer moved operations to Chestertown, Maryland, just a short drive from AIHEC’s office in Washington, DC. Ambler, however, had relocated to Mancos, a small town in southwestern Colorado. Situated within the historic Diné Bikéyah, or Navajo homeland, Mancos was just a short drive from several reservations, pueblos, and ancient Indigenous cities, including Mesa Verde. It was also a long way from the Washington metro area. Hence, Boyer and Ambler would make the transition via the U.S. Postal Service.
“The journal came in three boxes,” Ambler recalls. There was a box of photographs, and two boxes of back issues. Perhaps most importantly, Boyer secured a substantial grant from the Lannan Foundation, which allowed Ambler and the relocated journal to hit the ground running.
In his final issue, aptly titled “Looking to the Future,” Boyer expressed confidence that Tribal College Journal would grow as a potent voice for American Indian higher education. Ambler would prove him right. The Lannan Foundation grant enabled her to seek out a new, dynamic design firm called Gray and Gray Advertising (G&G). Based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Michael J. Gray (Blackfeet/Chippewa-Cree) revamped the journal’s look. He introduced more color, new fonts, stylish graphics, and a dustcover. Cover images commanded attention and were often stunning in their composition.
The Lannan grant also allowed Ambler to bring in a paid staff. Boyer had a student intern serve as managing editor, but now the journal could afford to hire its first full-time employee, Lucille Victor-Benally (Diné), to handle advertising. Eventually Felicity Kurth assumed advertising duties. Ambler has described Kurth’s contributions as “critical” and credits her with enabling the journal to move out of Ambler’s house and into a separate office.
It was also around this time that a young journalism student at Fort Lewis College (FLC) in nearby Durango, Colorado came aboard part-time to help out with office management. Rachael Marchbanks wrote for FLC’s student paper and knew Kurth from around town. Kurth told her that Ambler needed someone reliable to process subscriptions and so Marchbanks began clocking in eight hours a week at the journal’s office. Possessing a rare combination of shrewd business acumen and a profound understanding of journalistic operations, Marchbanks would eventually assume advertising duties and would prove crucial to the journal’s growth and overall success.
Under Ambler’s direction, Tribal College Journal truly evolved as a collective endeavor. Of Marchbanks and Kurth, Ambler says “they both provided vision to complement my thrifty Scottish practicality” and she states unequivocally that “TCJ has always been a team effort of sales people, proofreaders, bookkeepers, editors, writers, designers, and photographers.”
Ambler’s team made some distinct editorial changes to the journal. Like Boyer, she consulted regularly with the advisory board at AIHEC meetings. Along with cultural topics, the board wanted the journal to highlight best operating practices at TCUs, giving advice on everything from leave policies to architecture. They hoped the publication would serve TCU faculty and offer advice on integrating culture into curriculum and implementing effective teaching strategies for Native students. And they directed Ambler to tell the whole story, even if that meant engaging potentially embarrassing topics or failed policies. In effect, the journal’s advisors wanted to focus on TCUs’ efforts to indigenize education, blemishes and all.
Ambler heeded this advice, and used surveys and focus groups to find out what readers expected. In the process she standardized the journal’s departments for consistency. She kept “On Campus” (albeit moving it to the back of the journal, after the feature articles) and “People,” which was renamed “Profile.” Other departments, such as “Land Grant” and “Native Wellness,” proved ephemeral, while “Voice of the Presidents” and “Voice of the Students” were eventually fused into the single department, “Voices.” “Media Reviews,” “Letters to the Editor,” the “Editor’s Essay,” the “Dear Readers” prologue, a “Resource Guide” for researchers, and, eventually, “Talking Circle”—which was geared towards teaching and program implementation—rounded out the departments.
Like Boyer, Ambler sought to publish refereed research from TCU faculty. Both editors employed a research review panel consisting of academics from TCUs and non-Native colleges and universities to peer review submissions. Leaders like Bordeaux stressed the importance of this scholarly role from the beginning and some, such as former Turtle Mountain Community College president Carty Monette, even insisted on referring to the publication as a “journal” rather than a “magazine.” Unfortunately, this dual function of publishing journalistic and scholarly material dissuaded many academics from submitting their work. Moreover, neither Boyer nor Ambler were ever satisfied with the quality of research articles they did receive. The department would hobble on until it was quietly retired in 2006.
Another legacy that Boyer initiated and Ambler sustained was the publication of Tribal College Student. However, the financial surplus that Boyer had hoped it would generate never materialized. If anything, the student edition became an added expense. In an effort to cut publication costs, Ambler folded Tribal College Student into the main journal in 1999 with Volume 10. This move not only saved money, but it broadened the student edition’s readership, showing thousands of subscribers the creative talent burgeoning at TCUs throughout Indian Country. So popular was the student writing, that Marchbanks would later compile select stories and poems for the e-book Touching Home: Stories and Poems by Tribal College Students.
Ambler eventually rechristened Tribal College Student as TCJ Student, which fell in line with a larger overhaul of the journal’s design. In 2000, Sean Michael Chavez of G&G designed a new flag for the cover. In an effort to create an “abbreviated, upbeat” look, and in trend with a time when acronyms were the rage, Chavez crafted an artful rectangular flag with the letters “TCJ” in a distressed, chiseled-looking font. He inserted the flag in the top right-hand corner, seeking to liberate space for the cover image. Although the graphics and layout of the publication itself remained unaltered, the new cover flag—and seemingly new journal title—were a startling change.
The redesign actually originated with the 2000 issue of Tribal College Student, when G&G employed the same distressed font that would appear on the cover and, subsequently, throughout the journal. Although the new look was described as “modern” and “contemporary,” the stone chiseled fonts seemed to harken back to antiquity, impressing upon readers the ancient roots of American Indian cultures. Ambler related in Dear Readers that the new design was part of the journal’s marketing plan and hoped that the new graphics would allow the publication to “paint better pictures . . . of the men and women at the heart of the tribal college movement.”
For the next seven issues, G&G designers tinkered with the detailing on the cover flag. Part of the reason for the inconsistency was that G&G had emerged as a burgeoning firm that employed different designers and had myriad clients. G&G was outgrowing TCJ and Ambler felt the time had come to seek out a new design firm.
Nakota Designs was a dynamic young company situated in the Denver metro area. Founded by Walt Pourier (Lakota) and his wife Allison, Nakota Designs produced work that was uniquely Native, eye-catching, and highly regarded by many in the Denver art scene. In fact, Nakota Designs had produced the third and fourth volumes of Tribal College Student in 1997 and 1998, but after the student edition was folded into the main journal, G&G took over its design. In 2002, when Ambler advertised for bids to design TCJ, Pourier responded promptly with an impressive portfolio. The decision to go with Pourier’s outfit was an easy one. “It was pretty obvious,” Ambler recalls. Pourier’s work was shoulders above the other bids.
The switch to Nakota Designs presaged other personnel changes at the journal. In 2003, Marvene Tom (Diné) came aboard as the new office manager after Marchbanks assumed Kurth’s position as marketing manager. Tom was a business major at nearby FLC and noticed a flyer on campus soliciting applications for the job. She started part-time but then assumed full-time duties. “She really whipped our office into shape,” Marchbanks remembers, noting that Tom streamlined how the journal managed accounting and subscriptions.
Another welcome addition to the TCJ staff was the multi-talented Eleanor Kuhl. A retired librarian from nearby Diné College, Kuhl served as TCJ’s special projects coordinator and oversaw everything from proofreading to indexing. She single-handedly indexed the entire journal, enabling readers to look up any article by author, topic, or keyword. Detail-oriented, reliable, and knowledgeable is how Marchbanks has described Kuhl, and the work she’s done over the past 13 years has made her an invaluable asset to the TCJ team.
Tom and Kuhl also helped ground operations when Marjane Ambler decided to step down as editor in 2006. A giant in the history of Tribal College Journal, Ambler had overseen myriad editorial, graphic, financial, and personnel changes during her 11-year tenure. She expanded both the readership and influence of TCJ while maintaining the highest of standards with minimal resources. Her efforts are apparent in the numerous awards racked up from prestigious organizations such as the Native American Journalists’ Association, the Association of Media and Publishing, and the Western Publication Association.
In wrangling with Ambler’s departure, AIHEC opted to split her position in two. Marchbanks, who understood the journal and its operations better than anyone, was named publisher. She would oversee the business end of things and the publication of TCJ. Tina Deschenie (Diné), who had done some copyediting and freelance writing for the journal, assumed the editorial reigns. TCJ’s first Native editor, Deschenie would make some innovative changes, including the “Storymakers” department, which introduced readers to an issue’s contributing authors.
Kim Cox was also brought on board as the advertising coordinator —a position that has become increasingly important to TCJ’s financial solvency. Indeed, in 2004 the journal’s advisory board had raised the ratio of advertising to editorial from 30%/70% to 40%/60%. During its formative years, the journal relied on grants and the generosity of AIHEC, the College Fund, and the TCUs for funding. Kurth and Marchbanks, however, recognized advertising as a significant, yet untapped source of revenue. Due to their efforts, advertising dollars skyrocketed to over $5,000 per issue by 2000. Cox, who holds a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Kansas, further expanded this income and in doing so became a vital addition to the journal.
Besides increasing advertising, TCJ also sought to magnify its online presence. The journal launched a webpage as far back as 1996, but it remained a mere tab on Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College’s website. “That website was a beast,” Marchbanks recalls. “There were lots of grids and then this green wallpaper that interfered with being able to read anything. At the time we just looked at it as a way to let people know we existed—it was like an online brochure.” TCJ simply did not have the expertise or resources to hire someone to develop a professional, multidimensional site and instead relied on the goodwill of Fond du Lac.
By 1998, however, journal staffers saw the writing on the wall and realized that the times were changing. Marchbanks purchased the domain name “tribalcollegejournal.org,” while Kurth tracked down a reliable and respected web designer. The result was a much improved site that would remain in place for over eight years. Content was limited to the editor’s essay, the resource guide, and On Campus news items, but the idea was to get people to subscribe to the print journal, not surf the TCJ website.
And the times kept changing. When Marchbanks became publisher in 2006, she swiftly took steps to expand the journal’s online presence. She had been closely watching other media outlets and how they were confronting the digital future, paying special attention to models that seemed successful. She also applied for fellowships to attend publishing workshops that focused on web design and the digitization process. In 2011, after enrolling in a workshop at Stanford University, Marchbanks would craft TCJ’s digital strategy.
Always thrifty minded, Marchbanks utilized WordPress, an open source content management system which was both economical and high quality. She brought in a local web guru named Dana Petersen to craft a new website that was user-friendly, searchable, and bolstered with greater content. Perhaps most impressively, Marchbanks, Tom, copyeditor Ann Hartney, and student intern Mariana Harvey (Yakama) laboriously scanned and digitized 20 years of content so that every single issue of TCJ would be available online to subscribers.
Marchbanks’ digital strategy didn’t stop there. TCJ would bolster the print edition with web-exclusive features, new online columns, and eventually blogs. In 2012, she launched a new site for TCU students. TCJStudent.org would allow any student registered at a tribal college to share creative writing, poetry, art, photography, film, journalism, and research with other students. The site would also feature a column devoted to writing tips for students.
By 2014, the journal’s digital strategy was in full bloom. TCJ had matured into a multi-faceted media outlet for the tribal colleges. To herald in this new era in TCJ’s history, Marchbanks and new editor Bradley Shreve inserted a table of contents for web-exclusive material to direct readers of the print edition online. They also planned a more comprehensive redesign of the print edition to coincide with the journal’s 25th anniversary.
Pourier, Deschenie, and Marchbanks laid the groundwork for a redesign in 2008, but never implemented any changes. When Shreve came on as editor, he spearheaded a new redesign effort that would ultimately come to fruition with the 25th anniversary issue. Working closely with Nakota Designs, he and Marchbanks envisioned an elegant, sophisticated, and modern publication that would retain the best TCJ traditions while introducing updated graphics, fonts, and layout. They reimagined the journal in the image of the TCUs themselves—modern, yet accessible.
The first order of business was the cover flag. Always problematic in its location, the rectangular monolith at times forced TCJ’s editors and designers to abandon potentially beautiful cover art to meet its constraints. In 2006, Deschenie and Marchbanks shifted the flag to the left-hand corner, in order to solve some of the myriad problems that it posed. While this change improved matters, the crux of the problem remained.
To compound the flag’s interference with cover images, it was also unintelligible to many who caught a glimpse of the journal on a coffee table or desk. “TCJ” said nothing about the publication’s content and was an insiders-only acronym. The original flag “Tribal College” was much more informative and it underscored the vision of AIHEC president and CEO, Carrie Billy (Diné), who saw strength and power in the term “tribal.” Finally, the stone-chiseled fonts on the cover and throughout the publication harkened to antiquity, not modernity. Shreve and Marchbanks sought to impress upon readers and the wider world that tribal colleges were modern, cutting-edge centers of learning and technology.
Embracing the publication’s original flag, albeit with updated fonts, Pourier developed a sleek modern look for the cover and went to work overhauling the rest of the journal’s graphics and layout. Working from templates he and the TCJ staff had devised in 2008, he expanded white space, jettisoned unnecessary graphics, and updated fonts. Shreve and Marchbanks also opted to move the On Campus news department towards the front of the journal as it originally appeared during Boyer’s tenure, and where most publications situate shorter editorial pieces. New departments further bolstered the redesign, including creative writing and art from TCU students, along with a revived research section.
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The 25th anniversary redesign fell in line with the ongoing evolution and growth of the journal. Since its inception in 1989, Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education has experienced an array of updates, facelifts, redesigns, and changes in leadership and personnel. Although figures such as Joe McDonald, Lionel Bordeaux, Paul Boyer, Marjane Ambler, and Rachael Marchbanks have played pivotal roles in this development, TCJ has become what it is today because it has always been, as Ambler notes, “a team effort.” But more importantly and central to the publication’s mission, it exists as the instrument of AIHEC and the tribal colleges. It is their publication and it seeks to share their stories, articulate their vision, and serve as their voice.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D. is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Ambler, M. (2000). Dear Readers. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 12(2), 3.
Ambler, M. (2014a). Email correspondence with Bradley Shreve, 14 May 2014.
Ambler, M. (2014b). Telephone interview with Bradley Shreve, 14 July 2014.
Ambler, M., & Boyer, P. (2009). The Role of Tribal College Journal in the Tribal College Movement. In L.S. Warner & G.E. Gipp (Eds.), Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities (pp. 189–200). Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.
Boyer, P. (1995). Thinking About the Future. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 7(1), 4.
Boyer, P. (2014a). Email correspondence with Bradley Shreve, 10 July 2014.
Boyer, P. (2014b). Origin Story: The Genesis of Tribal College Journal. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 26(1), 22–23.
Hernandez, J.A. (2009a). The Birth of TCJ: Father’s Curiosity Launched Paul Boyer on His Journey into Indian Country. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 21(1), 22–24.
Hernandez, J.A. (2009b). Reciprocating Generosity. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 21(1), 26–28.
Marchbanks, R. (2014a). Telephone interview with Bradley Shreve, 15 July 2014.
Marchbanks, R. (2014b). Leaning In to the Digital Age: Tribal College Journal Embraces the Next 25 Years. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 26(1), 40–41.