Tribal Colleges Nurture Seeds Today, To Reap Qualified Graduates Tomorrow

May 15th, 2008 | By | Category: 19-4: Success by Accountability and Assessment, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

Illustration by Walt Pourier of Nakota Designs.

This issue takes a hard look at the nuts and bolts of accountability in our colleges. But before you tackle the complex mechanics of assessment and accreditation, imagine the picture “painted” by Haskell administrator Dr. Venida Chenault: a lush green garden full of gold-tipped corn stalks bearing fat ears of corn, curving vines of bean plants hugging the stalks, and the ground thickly covered with golden squash.

She challenges us to remember how our ancestors experimented with and tested a variety of crop harvesting methods until they developed the best and most fruitful techniques. These recollections mirror the contemporary efforts of our people to constantly improve our tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

Lately there have been increasing calls for transparency in higher education, particularly in federally-funded programs and services. This certainly pertains to the TCUs, which have responded with increased attention to assessment and accountability. The bottom line is whether the funds spent provide quality learning programs that get students out the door in a reasonable amount of time with a viable certificate or degree. This issue addresses these matters through the topics of assessment, accreditation, and accountability – components of TCU operations that administrators and educators grapple with day in and day out.

As Patty Talahongva talked to TCU students about these topics, she found few understood what they entailed. We both laughed as we recalled how little the subject of accreditation mattered to us when we were undergraduates. Truthfully, few college students care about such matters. However, since I am currently a New Mexico State University graduate student, I felt compelled to research that institution’s accreditation status. I was surprised to find a wealth of information in the “Self Study 2008” postings on the university’s website.

Likewise, many of the TCUs post self-study or accreditation information on their websites. See a couple of outstanding examples at, where Cankdeska Cikana Community College posts all of its accreditation reports, and, where you can view Northwest Indian College’s (NWIC) “Survey Results and Reports” in the “Assessment” section. Dr. Anne Marie Karlberg, who is director of assessment at NWIC, generously contributed both an article on improving student learning and the Resource Guide ( to this issue.

Dr. Maggie George and Dr. Daniel McLaughlin discuss how Native philosophies of growth and reflection can and do drive assessment processes in tribal colleges. Both now serve as consultants to the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (NCA). Both have also worked at Diné College, the oldest tribal college, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Natasha Johnson brings us observations from several Diné College leaders on the college’s strengths and on the continuous improvement efforts undertaken by the staff. They are looking forward to the outcome of an accreditation visit scheduled this spring.  See the college’s 2008 self-study report at under “accreditation.”

Last fall, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College President Dr. Karen Radell reported her college’s exciting first-time, five-year accreditation. In the Voices Department in this issue, she also discusses the annual Assessment Fair that showcases students’ learning, SCTC’s unique approach to involving community and students in assessment.

North Dakota K-12 students should be looking forward to future encounters with science teachers who have been trained through the Native Ways of Knowing program at Turtle Mountain Community College. Program administrators Tibi Marin and Carmelita Lamb introduce the program in “Talking Circle.”

It has been quite interesting to observe the national discussion about accreditation in recent months as the debate on renewal of the Higher Education Act took place among both houses of Congress, the U.S. Education Department, and university representatives. The universities won the right to continue to define academic success and to set the terms of their own academic evaluations – at least to the extent that the nation’s six major accrediting agencies allow it by their guidelines.

All of this attention to assessment and accountability emphasizes how many agencies and audiences the TCUs must answer to. I sometimes wonder if other tribal-based or sanctioned organizations subject themselves to such rigorous expectations and scrutiny in pursuit of excellence. Considering the headlines from across Indian Country, it sure seems like some of our tribal governments might benefit from similar in-depth self-evaluation and assessment.

Years ago, I worked for the Navajo Nation as the director of its branch of North Central Association, primarily for K-12 schools, but at the time the office also accredited the Crownpoint Institute of Technology as a special purpose school. For several days each school year, I found it an intense experience to visit the then 60-plus accredited schools serving the Navajo Nation.

The writers in this issue advocate for a process of continuous self improvement. Having served on both sides of accreditation – as evaluator and as self-study chair – I can appreciate the real work that the process entails.

At the spring AIHEC board meeting, I learned about the work of the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC).  WINHEC has developed an Indigenous higher education accreditation system, which was adopted by its board in 2003.  Currently, Salish Kootenai College and Fort Peck Community College are pursuing accreditation by WINHEC.  Through collaboration between AIHEC and WINHEC, more tribal colleges are expected to pursue Indigenous accreditation in the future.  This is an exciting accreditation option – one that will provide international recognition and validation for educational initiatives grounded in Indigenous world views, knowledge systems, and ways of knowing.

This issue comes to you during commencement season. On behalf of TCJ, we congratulate the 2008 graduates and we  thank their college administrators and faculty who strive to provide them a quality education.

Almost hidden among the 6,900 American postsecondary institutions and programs sending graduates into the world are 36 proud U.S. tribal colleges and universities in the United States. The persistence of tribal identity and culture continue to  seed the growth of the tribal college movement, no doubt about it.

For more info on the WINHEC Indigenous accreditation, visit

Tina Deschenie (Diné/ Hopi) has been editor of TCJ since 2006. She directed the Navajo Nation branch of the North Central Association from 1990 to 1993.

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