It Takes the Tribal Colleges: Honoring Native Intellect and Talent

Aug 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 19-1: Tribal College Students Today, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie
HANDGAME STICKS

HANDGAME STICKS. Photo by Mary Annette Pember.

Think a colorful, distinctive parade of tribal college banners; back-to-back student academic, art, and cultural competitions; workshops featuring an array of inviting topics; a powwow; fierce hand games running into the early morning hours; a Bill Miller concert; a celebration of student scholars; a marathon student awards banquet; and much, much more.

The 2007 American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) conference in Rapid City, SD, was an exuberant and exhausting experience – a testament to the heart and soul of the tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

No doubt the most wondrous elements of the annual AIHEC conference are the students and their marvelous stories, astonishing abilities, and wonderful creations of art. Nowhere are Native college student talents and gifts more evident than at the AIHEC conference. And the variety! The participants came from Indian Nations in the Northwest, the Southwest, the Plains, the Midwest, and everywhere in between.

The first night, smiling students received scholarship awards during the annual American Indian College Fund banquet. Stephen Yellow Hawk of Oglala Lakota College (OLC, Kyle, SD) thanked the TCU culture teachers and spoke passionately about his work with at-risk Native youth.

MaKayla Drooge of Sitting Bull College (SBC, Fort Yates, ND) is setting the bar for her siblings by studying dental hygiene; she preferred staying close to home to start off but will transfer to Sisseton Wahpeton College (SWC, Sisseton, SD) to complete her program.

Simoine Seminole was adopted by non-Natives at age four. At SWC he studied Dakota language and history and plans to stay on to help in the community. A powwow dancer, he also won awards for his quillwork, beadwork, and jewelry.

United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND) student Sylvester Thomas attributes his success to the support of his family; he is fulfilling their expectations by pursuing higher education.

In this issue, we provide a snapshot of six more of the winning students’ typical college days, and we also name all of the 2007 Students of the Year. Those named are only some of the nearly 200 TCU scholars who received various awards from the College Fund. None of us should take for granted Native scholars; they deserve celebrating. The College Fund staff also deserves praise for their great work.

Marla Striped Face-Collins spoke at the powwow. She is last year’s Ms. AIHEC, a UTTC Environmental Science graduate, and a former OLC student. She described her plans to earn a B.A. from SBC and then a Ph.D. While she is a first-generation college student, her two children are following her lead by studying environmental law and environmental water quality at UTTC.

Like Striped Face-Collins, many TCU students choose to earn 2-year degrees at one tribal college before transferring to another tribal college or university to earn their 4-year degrees.

Traditional handgames are experiencing a resurgence in popularity among all ages; the games ran day and night. Early one morning, several people showed up to play after the official competitions were finished. One of the spectators was Joey Snow, a grandmother and 1987 graduate of Fort Belknap College (FBC, Harlem, MT), who accompanied her daughter, Olivia Main, and her 4-month-old grandson, Kyan Steab (pictured on p. 31).

Snow was there to babysit while her daughter, a second-year American Indian Studies major at FBC, played in the handgames. Main started college atHaskell Indian Nations University (HINU, Lawrence, KS) but transferred to FBC where she has access to family help and where she can sometimes bring her baby to class. Snow is happy another family member, her son, also attends FBC.

In fact, whole families often attend a tribal college together. In this family’s case, they also enjoy handgames together. Baby Kyan slept contentedly to the sound of singing and “shakers” (plastic water bottles filled with small rocks) as two different hand games were played simultaneously.

Since the “just for fun” handgames took place the morning after the hotly contested official games, the talk was all about the final championship game played between Fort Berthold Community College (FBCC, New Town, ND) and Blackfeet Community College (BCC, Browning, MT). The teams were declared co-champions – they were matched in their singing, drumming, concealing and accurate guessing.

Donna Hall, a FBCC student player, was also on hand to watch handgames that morning. She thinks all aspects of the game are important but especially likes the singing, which she finds uplifting and spiritual. She says team members enjoy a special camaraderie, a gift of concentration, and a shared sense of hope. Hall is a nursing student who is fighting her own health problems even as she is learning how to help others.

To deal with her personal stress, she throws herself into artistic pursuits. Hall’s competitive and creative nature shone through at the awards banquet when she was recognized with multiple awards: in the handgames (Women’s Fanciest Hider for which she received a beautiful hand drum and as a member of the co-champion Fort Berthold Hand Games Team), in Textiles (for her beaded star quilt), in Speech-Oral Interpretation, and in Sculpture.

The new president of the AIHEC Student Congress, Vincent Townsend (Pauite), was also HINU’s student council president. He grew up as one of 10 siblings. He looks forward to assessing what students need from the AIHEC Student Congress. Amid the swirl of fun and games, Townsend met with the other newly elected congress officers and began the serious process of developing a unified team through introductions and storytelling. Since they have only 1-year terms, they have until next year’s AIHEC Conference to make an impact.

There were learning opportunities for students and adults alike. In one workshop, Bennett “Tuffy” Sierra, vice president of the OLC board, expressed appreciation for the opportunity to dialogue with everyone. He says the TCUs provide necessary education on Native political realities such as tribal resource and land issues.

In a session on the impact of hip-hop music on Native youth, youth and elders viewed a movie and then engaged in thoughtful sharing. In another room packed with TCU librarians, Dr. Craig Howe (Lakota), OLC instructor, presented his research titled “Hate Speech, Horses & Hostages: The Untold Story of Lewis & Clark in Teton Territory,” which offers a powerful alternative to the mainstream perspective.

Several tribal college presidents and staff joined in the opening parade of colleges and were present to cheer their students at the closing awards banquet. At the banquet, South Dakota area presidents Thomas Shortbull (OLC), Lionel Bordeaux (Sinte Gleska University, Mission, SD), Dr. Laurel Vermillion (SBC), and SWC Vice President Harvey DuMarce all honored the elders who had helped found the colleges they serve. The elders recounted early struggles and marveled at the growth of the tribal college movement from when they first became involved.

Throughout the conference, true to the Native way, there were constant exchanges of gifts, often beautiful star quilts. In the end everyone left with many gifts – including those of the intellect and spirit. (Can you tell this was my first AIHEC Conference?)

We provide you in this issue many incredible stories and images: tribal college graduates turned presidents of the very colleges that graduated them; research on student transitions from TCUs to other colleges and universities; and our annual Student Writing Edition – the very heart and art of the tribal college students.

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 2006. She has over 20 years of experience in American Indian education.

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