Today’s educators creating the leaders of tomorrow

May 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 13-4: The Many Faces of Leadership, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

About 20 years ago, I was visiting the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people on the Fort Berthold Reservation when someone showed me a copy of the Bismarck Tribune. An editorial in the newspaper referred to well-known American Indian leaders of the 1800s and then said, “Today, American Indians have no role models.”

The statement horrified me and the people I was interviewing, but it did not surprise us. Whenever the topic of American Indian leadership comes up, the general public tends to think of Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Chief Seattle, Black Elk, and Sitting Bull, not of contemporary Indian leaders. It is no coincidence that a newspaper makes the same omission; textbooks, newspapers, and television programs cover dead Indians much more than they cover contemporary American Indian people. When they do recognize the existence of live Indians, the reporters tend to vie with one another for a Pulitzer in pity and pathos, focusing upon the poverty and the social ills that accompany poverty, not upon what the Indian people are doing for themselves.

For the staff at the Tribal College Journal, our joy stems from watching some of America’s foremost educational and community leaders at work. We know there are plenty of role models in Indian Country. We see some of these tribal college administrators and faculty as national leaders, not just Indian leaders. Yet for some reason these people at the 33 tribal colleges and universities in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) seem to be invisible to the rest of the country as they quietly go about their work of changing lives.

We watch them at board meetings where they tackle divisive issues professionally. Outsiders accept the popular cliché that Indians let longstanding intertribal rivalries stand in the way of cooperation. While this may be true in other settings, at AIHEC meetings, the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet, Navajo, Ojibwe, and Assiniboine tribal college presidents poke fun at one another’s tribal histories playfully, letting humor smooth the rough places in their relationships.

This does not mean they agree on everything. We have watched the presidents on the AIHEC board argue passionately about issues with life or death implications for their colleges, such as how to divide the money raised by the American Indian College Fund or whether to support a national Indian university. When they have left the meeting room, however, they have left their differences behind them.

The most gut-wrenching debates in the past dealt with accepting new members to the consortium. Because of the unique federal legislation that funds the tribal colleges and universities, the addition of new colleges can reduce funding for existing colleges. Tribal college administrators have watched their funding drop when a new college has been added so it is no surprise that occasionally a president has voiced his reluctance to welcome a new college.

At the end of such debates, however, AIHEC has consistently embraced new members, accepting them as members and often sharing their valuable staff resources to provide technical assistance. This philosophy of generosity has been actuated time after time in the seven years that we have observed board meetings. The federal bureaucracy habitually tries to divide them. Private foundations often want to fund a handful of the “best” tribal colleges. In most cases, however, the colleges have stuck together. They have stood behind the words of Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University and one of the founders of the tribal college movement, who said, “All of us or none of us.”

While each person in AIHEC has his or her own leadership style, generosity is a core value in the traditions of most if not all tribes in the consortium. Humility is another. When we visit the colleges, we see that many of the tribal college presidents are on a first name basis with students. When a student rushed into Dr. Martha McLeod’s office at Bay Mills Community College because she was late for a job interview, McLeod tossed her car keys to the woman. Dr. David Gipp is the biggest fan of the United Tribes Technical College basketball team, on the sidelines taking photos when the team went to the national basketball tournament again this spring. Such respect and trust feed the starving souls of the students, who represent the most at-risk students in the nation. The tribal colleges and universities serve students who have been discarded by other colleges. Many suffer from alcoholism, abuse, and a deeply ingrained distrust of education. Their needs demand extraordinary leadership.

The tribal college presidents are not the only ones who exhibit leadership and act as role models, as described by several articles in this issue. Rita Hiwalker blossomed under the tutelage of Chief Dull Knife Memorial College Vice President Judi Davis, and her metamorphosis is not unique. Students nationwide have been transformed by respect and by the leadership training offered by the AIHEC Student Congress, according to Dana Grant. As McLeod says, “Everyone in the circle should be treated with equal respect because everyone in the circle is a leader, past, present, or future.”

The question for AIHEC on the eve of its 30th anniversary is how to continue the legacy of leadership in the decades ahead. Our advisory board suggested this issue on leadership more than a year ago for several reasons. The presidents who serve on our board are concerned that tribal councils and/or college boards have removed several tribal college presidents from office in recent years for what seemed to be political reasons. For the first time in our memory, several (three) presidents announced their retirement at the AIHEC board meeting last fall. More can be expected to retire voluntarily in the near future: Nine of the presidents now serving on the AIHEC board have been involved in the tribal college movement for 24 years or more.

The unexpected death of Jack Briggs last December shocked us all. Briggs, 53, had been battling a chronic illness for a brief period of time. As we deal with our grief for Jack the man, we also have to deal with the loss of his leadership and with the reminder that we could lose other important leaders suddenly. At least two other tribal college presidents have suffered from life-threatening health crises, which may be attributed to the frantic travel and stress of their positions.

Such transitions affect not only the tribal colleges but also the tribal college movement. As the AIHEC board has grown from six to 33 members, it has been challenging to continue the leadership traditions. The majority of the board members now have only limited knowledge about the history of the tribal college movement and its underlying philosophies, and their faculty and students know even less.

AIHEC, the American Indian College Fund, the AIHEC Student Congress, and the individual colleges are taking important steps to prepare tomorrow’s leaders. With the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AIHEC is working with other minority serving institutions to plan leadership training. Kellogg has also supported the Student Congress’s leadership training for the past three years. AIHEC began a series of training workshops on effective board and administration governance at its annual conference in April, which was presented by Dave Archambault and Tom Allen, who also discuss this topic in this issue.

The lack of resources is the biggest obstacle to training and recruiting tomorrow’s leaders. Without adequate core, institutional support, the colleges must depend upon grants. Some of the colleges have succeeded in building their salary structures to compete for leadership, but at other colleges, administrators and faculty must often choose between meeting the leadership needs of their communities or the financial needs of their families. One college president’s wife wants him to leave when his contract expires, saying his Ph.D. is “worth peanuts” at the college. Professional development of faculty and staff requires release time and sabbaticals for them to earn more advanced degrees. With everyone wearing many different hats, such a policy represents a significant sacrifice for tribal colleges, and many cannot afford it. Without new grants, the AIHEC Student Congress may not be able to continue its leadership training.

Despite the obstacles, however, tribal colleges gradually are eliminating the ignorance that feeds dysfunctional politics. Students are learning from faculty, presidents, and board members who have risen above the small-minded, vicious interrelationships that plague impoverished communities. Tribal elders transmit cultural values in the classroom, along with readings on historic leaders around the world. Tribal colleges and universities are building role models, one graduate at a time.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995.

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