Lifelong Champion Scheirbeck Remembered

Feb 15th, 2011 | By | Category: 22-3: Food Sovereignty, Spring 2011
By Carrie Billy, J.D.

Carrie Billy (Diné), J.D.

This edition of the Tribal College Journal focuses on something that sustains us: food and our sovereign right to define our food systems. The love and fellowship of friends also sustains us and helps define who we are. When a friend leaves us, we feel the loss deeply. Late last year, the tribal colleges lost one of our greatest friends.

In December, Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, Ed.D. (Lumbee), a lifelong champion of American Indian civil rights, pioneer for Indian controlled education, and dearest friend, passed on. Helen led a remarkable life, and everywhere, we can see the bountiful fruit of her work.

Helen was involved in every major Indian education initiative over the past 40 years, including the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978, which she helped draft and steer through Congress.

A few years earlier, while running the Office of Indian Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Helen led the effort to enact the Indian Education Act of 1975, institutionalizing her belief in the right of Indian people to control our education systems.

Before that, Helen had worked in the 1960s for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, chaired by the Hon. Sam Ervin (D-NC). On her recommendation, Ervin held hearings that culminated in the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Throughout her career, Helen focused on Indian children. In the 1990s, she served as chief of the Indian Head Start program, where she worked to build strong Indian-controlled institutions because she knew these were the key to strong Indian communities.

She believed that tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) could strengthen Indian Head Start, so she helped establish a TCU-based program that continues to prepare and train tribal Head Start teachers and staff.

Helen concluded her career at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), where she again worked to include Tribal Colleges. Helen knew that TCUs are essential to sustaining tribal cultures and languages, and she worked to create strong partnerships between NMAI, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and the TCUs.

I am proud that tribal colleges are living legacies to Helen’s wisdom, skill, and unshakeable belief that anything is possible with hard work and laughter. I am humbled to call her my friend.

As we honor her life and selfless commitment to others, I’m reminded of the words of one of Helen’s Christmas prayers:

“Creator, as we begin the new year, help us to be more tolerant of each other and to seek to know and understand each other… Bless each of us as we begin a new year.”

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