Activists Buck Status Quo

Aug 10th, 2010 | By | Category: 22-1: Native Activism, Fall 2010, Editor's Essay, Opinion
By Marjane Ambler

For many of us, the phrase “American Indian activist” conjures up images of Red Power and the American Indian Movement, of activists marching in the streets, occupying Bureau of Indian Affairs buildings and Alcatraz, and pouring blood on the statue of Columbus.

But what does it mean to be an activist in the context of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs)? In the 1960s and ‘70s, proposing a tribally chartered school was a radical act in and of itself. Those grassroots tribal members who suggested the idea were written off as troublemakers.

Many asked why tribes needed to start their own postsecondary institutions when students could attend any schools they desired. But one problem was access. Universities were located far from the reservations; that distance was a formidable obstacle for students who had family obligations or lacked reliable transportation. Another problem was curricula with Euro-American bias. Civics students did not learn about tribal governments; philosophy students learned nothing about American Indian intellectuals.

Indian parents lost heart when their best and brightest students went away to the state universities, dropped out, and returned, feeling like failures. Community leaders realized something was desperately wrong – that the educational system as it stood was robbing their people of their future.

In 1968, the Navajo Nation created the first tribal college and then helped other tribes secure federal funding for their colleges. The first six colleges created the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and the funding mechanism to support them. Today, AIHEC has 37 members, including one in Canada.

While the concept of a tribal college does not inspire the ridicule that it once did, the tribal college movement still needs advocates. Last year, AIHEC staff succeeded in securing funding for which they had struggled for over nine years. In fiscal year 2010, the President requested, and Congress agreed, to provide an additional funding payment for institutional operations to realign the funding schedule. This means tribal colleges no longer have to wait until midway through the school year to fund day-to-day functions.

Nevertheless, AIHEC staff and the individual colleges must argue each year for basic institutional funding in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures – that is, the few legislatures that even consider supporting tribal colleges.

Acting for Change

When the TCJ Advisory Board chose activism for the theme of this issue, it forced us to take another look at the term’s meaning. Merriam-Webster defines activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action on one side of a controversial issue.” Because of its political connotation, some people, such as AIHEC staff members, prefer the term “advocates.”

If you go to the TCJ website and search for “activist,” it appears 10 times, but look up “fight,” and you will find it 48 times. Activists fight. In the pages of TCJ over the past 21 years, you will find people fighting poverty and hunger; fighting for religious freedom; fighting diabetes; fighting racism; fighting alcohol and drug abuse; fighting obesity and “commod bods;” fighting global warming; fighting ill-conceived, environmentally destructive projects. Language activists fight those who demand “English only,” and in this issue, TCUs fight the suicide epidemic.

While these topics are not all overtly political and usually do not involve marching in the streets, they are tackled by activists – people who cannot tolerate the status quo and act to change it. A few of those activists are mentioned in this issue, but there are many more.

In fact, we would argue that tribal colleges have an extraordinary number of activists. Does anyone go to work for a tribal college for financial security, tenure, or benefits? Years ago, Janine Pease, Ed.D., now a vice president at Fort Peck Community College, joked that to work at a tribal college, you had to take a vow of poverty.

While the act of fighting ignorance transforms lives, faculty and administrators living on reservations know that is not enough. Many see their students struggling with deeply rooted problems such as shame, hopelessness, colonization – problems that can destroy people, as the article on suicide prevention in this issue illustrates.

Oftentimes, faculty and administrators become agents of social and transformative change, in the words of Cheryl Crazy Bull, one of the activists profiled in this issue. They try to replace shame with pride, inspire hope, and decolonize hearts and minds.

PRIDE. Tribal colleges fight the shame that haunts American Indian communities, as exemplified by parents who find their children rooting for the cowboys in old Westerns. Teenagers too often feel humiliated when their grandparents speak their Native language or wear traditional clothes. While the U.S. government no longer refers to Native languages and cultural practices as “barbarous,” English is still the language of power in this country. TCUs honor Native languages and cultural practices and explain their relevance in modern times. They provide mentors, such as the Iñupiaq teacher described in this issue who retained her culture while gaining her professional skills.

HOPE. When students gain skill in subjects such as information technology, zoology, or engineering, they can also potentially reduce their own and their communities’ poverty and resulting hopelessness. A study by the Alaska Department of Labor, for example, reported that after just one year of training at Ilisagvik College, total earning for students rose from $16 million a year to $33 million a year, an increase of more than 100%.

DECOLONIZING MINDS. Perhaps the most complicated challenge involves tackling the colonization that has been endemic to the educational system since Europeans built the first school in this country. “We cannot struggle against the oppressor, so we struggle against each other,” Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) said at a tribal college workshop in 2002 addressing racism (TCJ Vol. 13, No. 4).

Indeed, research on the Blood Reserve in Alberta, Canada, revealed how Native teachers internalized the racism they experienced at mainstream universities: They expected their Native students to fail (TCJ, Vol.13, No. 4). To address such attitudes, Red Crow Community College, Northwest Indian College, and several other TCUs have developed teacher training programs that link Native knowledge and culture to teaching methods and set high expectations for students. As Northwest Indian College President Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota) says in this issue, TCU faculty must have high expectations for the students and not treat them as victims.

Nurturing Each Other

TCUs might set high standards for their students, but they nevertheless embrace and nurture them. In this issue, Manley Begay, Ed.D., says he received encouragement, caring, understanding, and cultural pride from his instructors at Diné College. Following his graduation, Begay went on to serve indigenous nations around the world. For her part, Alvena Oldman graduated from Wind River Tribal College and now serves as the director of the Arapahoe Language Immersion School.

Without the activists, the advocates, and the troublemakers, we would not have tribal colleges and universities. Without the TCUs, thousands of students like Begay and Oldman may have never graduated, and the world would have suffered from that unrealized potential.

Despite how closely people may associate activism with a fight for something, the essence of TCUs is clearly not about fighting. “I always visualize [those at mainstream colleges] with their elbows out, just fighting to get to be the front,” one TCU student told Harder+ Company Community Research several years ago. “But I always felt like we just put our arms around each other and went forward together.”

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2 Comments to “Activists Buck Status Quo”

  1. Wonderful essay! I first developed an interest in the USA Natives educational system when last semester I took a History of Higher Education course as part of my major (Higher Education Administration) at Florida International University. When I first saw the map of Tribal Colleges in the U.S. I just couldn’t believe it, not because I expected less of them, but, because I thought there would be a considerable higher number of TCs.

    One of the other thing that amazed (or perhaps impacted my perspective) me about looking at the map depicting the TCs in the U.S., was its distribution. I would ask myself questions like: “With all the history of founding colleges that the U.S system has in the Eastern Coast of the country, with some of the most reputable Ivy League Schools (e.g. Harvard, MIT, Georgetown, etc.) in the nation and the world, with such much educational leadership, top-of-the-line social research and justice initiatives and equality advocacy programs, what happened in between that our national conscience has not honored the development of the U.S.A. Natives as it should have?

    A long question, but as perhaps long is also the answer, a crucial bridge that has not been appropriately constructed between the Euro-USA with the Native Nation culture. Today, as I finally sit down on my computer and start to gather research to write and potentially publish my first peer-reviewed article, with the main thematic of “The Refinement of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: U.S. Tribal Colleges’ Need for Enhanced Leadership & the Rise of the American Conscience,” and after reading Marjane Ambler’s essay “Activists Buck Status Quo,” I realize the impending need for collaboration, awareness, leadership enhancement, and planting of new forms of better distributing our social and human capital in our efforts to bring peace, equal opportunity, and balance to the human needs of our nation.

    Being only a student, with little financial resources myself, it would be very difficult for me to pay for the subscription of the articles from the Tribal College Journal that I would like to site on my paper, however, I will continue my research about TCs, browse through the Directory of Open Access Journals online ( in the hope to find that USA Native holding advocacy roles and educational leadership responsibilities are making their research and academic perspectives more freely available to the masses. Given the fact that I can relate to the need for fund-raising to support Native education, I also believe that optimal strategies to increase awareness necessitate a more profound reach towards the highly complex USA (“American”) conscience.

    It is my greatest hope that the Native people of this land, can be honored to the degree of rightful heredity that they have for this little place of earth, and that as our spiritual needs continue to be refined in advancing social progress and civility, that we can work together towards the common best interest of us all, both nationally and internationally. Being foreign-born to the U.S.A. myself (born and raised in Cuba), I can attest to the subliminal prejudices that still abound in the national pride of being U.S. Native-Born (meaning Euro-American), where in a fascinating form of paradoxes, the USA Native Indians also have long felt like strangers and outcasts in their own land. And last but not least, because there is ample room to find fault in others, and also many virtues, it is focusing on those latter the ones how we can best achieve a balance between our diverse, new, and historical human needs.

    The Journey to a Love that Endures is One Where Bridges for Commonly Beneficial Collaboration Must Exist! – And the tasks of enhancing such foundations is the responsibility of the educational leaders of today.

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