‘Story Catcher’ Remembers Walking Amongst Giants

Aug 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 18-1: The Winding Road to Student Success, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

OUT WITH THE OLD. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium staff and board honored former editor Marjane Ambler and her husband Terry Wehrman at her last board meeting in Green Bay, WI.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Student Conference in Green Bay, WI, last spring, was rich with stories and especially poignant for me since it could be my last.

March 2006 marked the 25th anniversary of the annual conference and the 20th anniversary of the AIHEC Student Congress. I have been to 11 of those conferences, and I always look forward to meeting the students and seeing demonstrations of their knowledge and talent.

Students are the soul of the tribal college movement.  Once again I stood listening to their stories as they tearfully thanked their instructors, benefactors, fellow students, and mentors. They described finding time to study despite raising children, losing loved ones, and overcoming drug addiction. The stories made me acutely aware of my good fortune, holding a front row seat for the past 11 years.

Because it was the 25th annual conference, the tribal college presidents took turns speaking to the students about the roots of the tribal college movement. Little Priest Tribal College President Tom Davis (who is also a poet) looked around the room at his fellow presidents and said, “We walk with giants.”

We listened to the others with Davis’s insight in mind. Sinte Gleska University President Lionel Bordeaux repeated the story that has become an integral part of the movement’s mythology now. In February 1973, Sicangu Lakota elder Stanley Red Bird knocked at Bordeaux’s door and told him to leave his doctoral program and come home. The elders wanted him to take over the college. Thirty-three years later, he is still the president, and his doctoral studies are still on hold.

The presidents spoke to the students, knowing that some of them would one day be filling their shoes. Several presidents said that they, too, had once been tribal college students.

For 11 years I have walked amongst such giants, but now it is time for me to move on. Resigning from this position as editor and publisher was a difficult decision. In the outside world, 11 years seems like a long time, but we work with and for people who measure their careers in decades, dedicating their whole lives to this cause.

The “godfather” of Tribal College Journal, Dr. Joe McDonald, has been involved in the movement since 1978, Dr. James Shanley since 1975, Cheryl Crazy Bull since 1981, David Gipp since 1973, Schuyler Houser since 1975, Tom Davis since 1976, Annmarie Penzkover since 1976.

I remember shaking their hands when I was hired, and they were there to bid me farewell at the spring 2006 board meeting and a powwow the following day. As we circled the room during the powwow dance, I saw dozens of instructors and administrators whom I knew could work at mainstream institutions for considerably more money. Instead they devote themselves tirelessly to tribal college students. Hopefully someday they, too, can feel as honored as I felt at that moment.

Diné College President Ferlin Clark sang an honor song for me in Navajo, reminding me of how much I will miss the stories, the prayers, and the songs. The oral tradition still thrives amongst American Indian people. Each AIHEC board meeting opens and closes with a prayer spoken or sung in one of the 21 Native languages represented by board members, including Ojibwe, Lakota, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Salish, Assiniboine, Navajo, O’odham, and Dakota.

AIHEC President Cheryl Crazy Bull describes me as the tribal colleges’ Story Catcher. I hope to continue catching tribal college and other American Indian stories and putting them on paper in the years to come as a freelance journalist. I don’t want to miss seeing some of the newer presidents becoming giants for tomorrow’s students to look up to.

Eleven years ago, all the TCJ files fit in a shoebox, and there was a staff of one in a home office. Now, TCJ has paid subscribers all over the world and an international presence through our website. Our annual advertising and subscription income has increased by 2,800%. None of this would have been possible without the support of the colleges, AIHEC, and our staff.

I will miss my co-workers at our home office in Virginia and here in Colorado. After working with Rachael Marchbanks for 9 years, I still marvel at her ability to juggle her career with her family’s demands while building her own sweat-equity house. Her sage insights into the world of publishing have made TCJ grow and thrive.

Office Manager Marvene Tom looks forward to coming to the office and thrills in the “detective work” of chasing every last penny through our financial books. For 3 years now we have enjoyed her stories of her “other job,” often cooking hundreds of frybread and butchering sheep for graduations or Navajo ceremonies during weekends.

We have known Tina Deschenie for over 2 years now. Deschenie has been copy editor for the last nine months at TCJ and has also sold ads. We have become friends as well as colleagues. I could not be happier about AIHEC’s choice of Deschenie as the new editor and Marchbanks as the new publisher. I hope you, the readers, will help them as you have helped me. Thank you.

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