Perseverance Deserves Celebration

May 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 20-4: Tribal College Leadership and Vision, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

REMINDERS OF GRADUATIONS IN 2008. Illustration by Lakota Designs.

Last May, I was privileged to watch the Diné College graduation in Tsaile, AZ, where over 200 students walked in the ceremony, many resplendent in their traditional dress and turquoise jewelry. Several received their Master’s Degrees in Education Administration through a joint program between Diné College and Arizona State University, while the majority received associate degrees.

Harry Walters, who retired in 2008 after 35 years as the college’s museum director, was the keynote speaker. As he sang a blessing song and offered words of wisdom, the graduates and dignitaries sat facing east toward the Chuska Mountains under a cloudless blue sky.

Just beyond the podium where each student received his or her diploma and handshakes, a symbolic fire crackled. Nearby rested a yucca basket containing sacred bundles and the college gish, a sacred stick used as a fire poker or farming implement. Everything that the assembled graduates might need to ensure a successful life was either bestowed on them or displayed before them at this outdoor event – words and songs of power and instruments representing sacred traditional ways.

This is the time of year for college graduations and for great happiness in general, not just for the graduates and their families. All eight of the presidents interviewed by Nicole Bowman for this issue on leadership told her that “seeing students graduate” is the most rewarding aspect of their work. Among the 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), graduation season started April 24 at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, NM, and will continue almost weekly through June 21 at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, SD. Anyone who can attend one of these events should do so. See the schedule at

Another group of folks who surely looks forward to graduations are staff at the American Indian College Fund. Their work is all about raising funds for student scholarships and for tribal colleges. Congratulations to the Fund (as they call their organization) on 20 years of undeniable contribution to education. Their new slogan, “Think Indian,” only makes sense.

Besides the College Fund, several TCUs are celebrating anniversaries this year. We salute all of them. Incredible as it seems, we at Tribal College Journal will celebrate our 20th anniversary with our next issue – Vol. 21, No. 1.

No doubt, each of the other TCU graduations is as memorable as the one I witnessed. These graduations represent major milestones for the TCUs. As the presidents represented in this issue attest, the TCUs persevere and continue to progress.

There are always major accomplishments to be celebrated: Many of the TCUs have attained 10-year accreditation status; several added new degree programs in the last year; many are constructing new facilities; and others are increasing their student enrollment, to mention but a few developments. The bottom line is simple: TCUs provide educational opportunities that are transforming Native communities, indeed Native nations.

Yet despite all of the feel-good news, there are some harsh realities facing the TCU presidents as well. Just in the last year, there was a turnover in presidencies at five TCUs; in a couple of cases, the changes occurred somewhat abruptly. Tribal politics and local campus issues can be difficult to deal with. On the other hand, there are always opportunities for new leaders to step up as changes occur.

Several of those interviewed for this issue mentioned that change can be difficult to implement and that personnel management can be especially challenging. Considering all of this, I’d say the individuals who step up to the offices of TCU presidency are truly unique. They must be determined to lead and be able to always look beyond the everyday challenges to the big picture.

In addition to the current presidents, many more who served in previous years deserve to be acknowledged for their part in helping the Tribal College Movement roll forward. Sky Houser, a non-Native who served as executive or president of four Native-serving colleges, was one such person. Part of TCJ’s Research Review Panel, his name was on the magazine masthead for 18 years. Marjane Ambler offers a memorial tribute to him in this issue, and TCJ has also posted words of honor for him from many of his colleagues and “family” at

At this same website address, in the current issue posting, be sure to check out Dr. Archie Beauvais’s Resource Guide on Native leadership. Beauvais is also a TCJ Research Review Panel member.

As we all know, leaders in the TCU community include hundreds of other individuals – people who make up the support systems at each campus and those who assist from off-campus – like the staff at AIHEC, at the College Fund, and at other agencies and organizations. This brings us to Carrie L. Billy, president and CEO of AIHEC, who is profiled in this issue. She moved from Arizona to Washington, DC, to earn her law degree at Georgetown University several years ago and stayed on to make her mark as an advocate for higher education. Billy spent over 10 years working in various positions at AIHEC, including as deputy director, before she was selected to lead the organization in 2008.

Switching gears, I should tell you that this issue is only 56 pages, slightly down from what we’ve been able to offer in the last few years. This is, at least in part, a sign of the economic distress that our country is currently experiencing. Budget cuts often translate to leaner advertisement budgets.

We remain optimistic about the future especially since we’ve survived many past challenges. In fact, you readers are due for some surprises in the next year: Our anniversary issue combined with our ever-popular student edition is coming up, and soon after that, we will start moving forward into new territory. We must all step up to meet our purpose, more firmly now than ever before.

It is only fitting to end with Dr. James E. Shanley, president of Fort Peck Community College, who writes in this issue’s “Voices” column, “In the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, Lone Watie (played by Chief Dan George) says, ‘Endeavor to persevere.’ And try to do it with a sense of humor.”

So, be sure to have a good laugh every day, no matter what. Persevere and, you know, “Think Indian.”

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) has been editor of Tribal College Journal since 2006.

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