The Spirit Soars On: An Interpretive Inquiry of Leadership, Health and Wellness, and Culture in Tribal College Athletic Departments

Aug 8th, 2016 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive



Since contact and until recently, American Indians have had little control over higher education. Shortly after the foundation of the first colonial colleges—Harvard University, the College of William and Mary, and Dartmouth College—Natives, albeit in small numbers, began to enroll in these higher education institutions (Carney, 1999; McClellan, 2005). Between 1778 and 1871, numerous treaties were signed addressing education for Americans Indians. While this breakthrough assisted in expanding higher education opportunities for Native people, further advancement of such opportunities was overlooked during the expansion of colleges and universities in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, three important developments helped transition American Indian higher education to greater independence: (1) the formation of Navajo Community College in 1968; (2) the establishment of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in 1973; and (3) the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEA) of 1975. The newly passed Title IX law of 1972, in addition to ISDEA, gave American Indians the opportunity to run their own programs, including those in education, health, law enforcement, social services, and athletics. This in turn made ISDEA one of the most significant laws in terms of self-determination ever passed by Congress (Pevar, 2004), paving the way for the AIHEC Athletic Commission.

While the ISDEA provided Native communities with the opportunity to run their own programs in various fields, it also greatly changed the landscape in education and eventually athletic programs. In 2003, AIHEC recognized the value of the educational properties found within athletics and created its athletic commission. The commission was built on the common values of “culture, respect, wellness, and leadership” (AIHEC Athletic Commission, 2013:2). Athletic programs are now part of 13 of 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) nationwide as a tool to effectively educate students.

Our research described here provides an athletic department narrative as told by member TCUs. The overall purpose for this research was to construct a clearer understanding of how the mission of TCUs and the AIHEC Athletic Commission are evident within TCU athletic departments. To focus these research efforts, we used an initial content analysis to develop themes from TCU mission statements and from AIHEC. The primary themes that we identified within the mission statements are leadership, health and wellness, and culture.


In order to construct a clearer understanding of how the mission of TCUs and the AIHEC Athletic Commission are evident within TCU athletic departments, we conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants from TCU athletic department personnel. Upon identifying 13 TCUs with athletic departments, we sent requests to participate in our research study. Two TCU athletic departments were represented with a total of five semi-structured interviews conducted during the 2014­–2015 academic year. Participants included one TCU athletic director/basketball coach, one TCU athletic director, one past employee and TCU graduate, and two American Indians who provided a Native perspective on sport and the focused themes. All participants were closely involved in the daily operations of the TCU athletic department, either as an athlete or staff member. Secondary data were collected (e.g., archival records, interviews, newspaper articles, journals) to gain a broad understanding of the historical perspectives of American Indian sport (Crazy Bull, 1997; Goodman & Kruger, 1998; Grigg, 1991; Seifried, 2010; Thomson, 1967).

Each interview was recorded, and questions revolved around the identified themes of leadership, health and wellness, and culture, to better understand how such themes were represented within TCU athletic departments. A narrative interview process was developed to give participants the opportunity to discuss stories directly related to their experiences in relation to these themes. An interpretive inquiry process was utilized to understand the meanings created, communicated, and interpreted by the study’s participants about their experiences. An interpretive study can “make sense of the lived experiences of people using their words, meanings and representations” (Holt et al., 2009:163) and provide insight into the social interactions of these components within descriptions of the experiences (Gephart, 2004). Specifically, an interpretive approach focuses on the collection of multiple perspectives resulting in “an in-depth and integrative understanding” (Davenport & Anderson, 2005:639) of the experiences of members of TCU athletic departments.

The data collected were then evaluated through a pattern-matching analysis (Campbell, 1975; Yin, 2013) tool to allow us to extract participants’ responses based on mission statement themes. Analysis continued with a review of the recorded interviews, focusing on participant comments and input on the themes of leadership, health and wellness, and culture within the TCU athletic department environment.

Results and Discussion

American Indians are victims of high rates of suicide, homicide, alcoholism, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancer (Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998; Heron, 2013). Indeed, Native people are generally listed as the sickest minority group in America (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention n.d.; Olson, 2002). One theory on the causation of these high rates focuses on the phenomenon known as historical, unresolved grief (Brave Heart, 1998; Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998; Whitbeck et al., 2004). Some scholars, such as Maria Brave Heart (Brave Heart, 1998; Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998), attribute these high rates to unresolved grief resulting from centuries of ethnocide and forced integration.

With the development of TCUs, the AIHEC Athletic Commission, and other health and wellness organizations, there have been efforts in improving health and wellness within Native society. As a result, there has been a focus on creating multiple extracurricular activities and sports for American Indians to participate in as a way to heal and promote health. In an attempt to address the historical unresolved grief, the effects of athletics have aided in a growth of inner strength and understanding of oneself and culture. Through the means of understanding themselves and their inner strength, AIHEC, its athletic commission, and its TCU members continue to build a culture and educational values based on the importance of health, wellness, and life balance.

The aforementioned is crucial, as the focus on health and wellness is a way to reverse many of the problems that Native people face. One participant in this study (a member of the Native Community Services of Buffalo) has made strides in showing the positive effect of focusing on wellness as it is “intimately connected to cultural history in American Indian Communities.” In an effort to make this connection, the participant joins both the past and present by merging traditional American Indian dancing with that of modern social dancing and fitness classes such as zumba. A commitment to health and wellness by improving the education process of Native people is essential. Taking part in physical activity, using non-traditional methods such as movement, and translating cultural histories by the use of their bodies, may be a first step.

Sports and games have proven to be a significant tool in recapturing the cultural histories of American Indians and Alaska Natives (Bloom, 1996; Forsyth & Wamsley, 2006). This ability to use sport as a medium to express cultural history is a positive way to limit and withstand the ethnocide that has occurred since colonization (Grinde Jr., 2004). The greater picture among the interviewees in this study focused on the significance of a need for the community and student body within American Indian and Alaska Native communities to progress forward and support a culture of growth. There was a common understanding between participants that cultures and histories are essential to American Indian communities. One participant expressed it this way: “Without our cultures and without our histories, we are nothing.”

Similar to the results from previous research (Crazy Bull, 1997; Harala et al., 2005; Wax, 1991), the results of this study found that American Indian communities consider their respective histories and traditions a crucial component of their identities. Cultural history, as related to the themes of leadership and wellness, is connected by the importance of self-awareness and inner strength, which then leads to the strength of the community and, in turn, the athletic department within the community.


In response to the calls for action (Ambler & Crazy Bull, 1997; Crazy Bull, 1997), this research on TCUs allows for sport managers to gain a more detailed understanding on how to transition forward by promoting culture and wellness within their organizations. The purpose of this study was to better understand these themes as interpreted by the research participants’ perspective. There must be further research and a continuing call to action as proposed by the participants, TCUs, and AIHEC (AIHEC, 2015). There is much that can still be gained by effectively researching and understanding the AIHEC Athletic Commission and health and wellness at TCUs. As one of the participating athletic directors stated, “There is much more to show society—it is with this that we must stand up and put our chest out and show what we truly can be.”

Brandon Michael Long holds degrees in history and sports management and seeks to discuss topics that are not regularly covered in the mainstream telling of history. Jimmy Smith, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sport management at Gonzaga University where he teaches and conducts research in the areas of organizational behavior in intercollegiate athletic programs.


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