Sustaining Our Home, Determining Our Destiny

Feb 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 13-3: Sustaining Our Future, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Standing 80 feet tall with blades 30 feet long, the Blackfeet Community College generator operates in winds up to 62 miles per hour and can generate up to 300,000 kilowatt hours annually.

Advocates of sustainable technology commonly use a picture of the Earth to convey an otherwise complex philosophy: This is our home. Don’t trash it. The message for earthlings is clear: We must make decisions based upon the needs of future generations, not on our own short-term needs. Resources can be developed within this philosophy. It does not require pristine, wilderness conditions. Instead, sustainable economies meet our human needs while not overwhelming our natural resources.

For American Indian tribal communities, this philosophy has both a long tradition and an immediate significance. Many if not most tribes have teachings instructing them to plan for the seventh generation rather than making decisions for short-term gains. They live on the limited acreage reserved from their previous land holdings as a permanent homeland. If their water becomes polluted, their lands infertile, or their air too foul to breathe, they cannot trade this land in to get a new reservation.

Needless to say tribal governments sometimes make short-term decisions for the sake of expediency. The same political pressures facing our federal, state, and local governments also plague tribal governments, often compounded by Third World poverty. The poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives was 25.9%, the highest of all ethnic groups, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census.

Despite the poverty on many reservations, Indian people frequently choose to return to their home reservations after pursuing their education or their vocations elsewhere. They have various reasons. They love their land. They want their children to share time with family elders and to participate in tribal religious and traditional activities. It’s their home. In some cases, the residents get more medical and economic benefits than members who live elsewhere. They want to contribute to the well being of the entire community, not just their own families.

Is living on a reservation always an impractical choice? Are rural reservations necessarily destitute? Critics of the reservation system argue that they are. They look at the poverty and blame it on the tribes and their cultures, saying they have failed to adapt. Periodically since the late 1800s, politicians and “friends” of the Indians have argued that Indians should be “freed” from the reservation system and assimilated into the American mainstream. They should forget about their “archaic” cultural traditions. In most cases, these arguments have been used to cloak baser motives, and Indian tribes have lost millions of acres of land as well as water, minerals, and timber thanks to such “friends.”

The poverty on reservations results from many factors, including their geographic isolation and their economic history. Until recently, reservation economies have been ping-pong balls, tossed in the political winds as the federal government adopted one fad and then another. Tribes could point to empty motels and industrial parks on reservations resulting from federal initiatives in economic development. Imposed from Washington, they did not fit local needs. They were not appropriate, and they were not sustainable.

This country has a long, paternalistic history of telling Indian people what they should learn and what jobs they should seek. For generations, the government and missionaries stole children from their families and shipped them to boarding schools to make them into white children. Instead, many children drowned in the mainstream, as explained by Dr. Joe McDonald elsewhere in this issue.

Tribal colleges demonstrate that students thrive when Indian people design their own appropriate education systems and when that system has a strong cultural foundation. The same thing can be true of economics.

Today, some reservation economies are growing stronger as the result of their own initiatives. The number of American Indian owned businesses in the United States has jumped to 197,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (This figure includes businesses on and off reservations.) Some of these businesses are associated with casinos, but few tribes see casinos as ideal or as permanent sources of revenue. Less than half of the nation’s 558 recognized Indian tribes have bingo halls and Nevada-style casinos, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. For tribes that are too remote or whose members are philosophically opposed to gaming, casinos are not an option. In many cases, however, casinos have helped tribes determine their own destiny, providing funds for schools, health clinics, roads, and diverse businesses that would not otherwise be possible.

Tribal colleges and universities are contributing to this economic renaissance and proving that living on a reservation can be economically practical. A 1999 survey of tribal college graduates by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) found that 74% were employed — even though unemployment rates on reservations were over 50%. Despite the geographic isolation, the colleges are producing a generation of entrepreneurs who create jobs for themselves and others. Colleges also help prepare their graduates to fill local needs as teachers, doctors, computer technicians, and tribal managers.

This issue of Tribal College Journal describes a few of the many initiatives taken by tribal colleges and universities to transform their reservations into more viable places to live now and in the future.  Working closely with their tribal governments, they are helping to stimulate housing and business development, as well as providing education. They are making appropriate decisions to match their communities’ priorities, culture, and land.

Two articles demonstrate the value of using local brainpower to address local needs: Laura Dellinger on the Ford Foundation’s Rural Community College Initiative and Felicity Kurth on Turtle Mountain Community College’s Center for New Growth and Economic Development. The two initiatives created innovative approaches to a broad range of reservation issues, including diabetes, teen pregnancy, housing shortages, and unemployment. Dellinger describes how tribal members cried while watching women building their own homes. The enthusiasm engendered by such bootstrap projects cannot be matched.

In addition to stimulating sustainable economic projects, the tribal colleges and universities also focus on projects that directly protect natural resources. At least seven tribal colleges study renewable energy with plans to rely more on solar and geothermal energy for their communities’ needs. It is a natural fit, combining the college faculty’s scientific expertise with the tribal tradition of living lightly on Mother Earth. American Indians pay the highest rates for fuel and electricity and have the least control over energy services, according to the Native American Renewable Energy Education Project at the University of California at Berkeley. Turtle Mountain Community College will slash thousands of dollars from its fuel budget by utilizing wind and geothermal energy. Both Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Ojibwe Community College and the College of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin have sustainable development institutes. LCO offers students a certificate in renewable energy.

Many of the tribal colleges have greenhouse or agriculture projects where they produce their own food and medicine. Before Europeans arrived on this continent, Indian people sustained themselves. They caught fish, gathered medicinal herbs and nutritious roots, planted and nurtured corn and squash, built irrigation systems, and hunted buffalo. Gradually through the years, they have become dependent upon commodity foods and Western pharmaceuticals. The greenhouses at Blackfeet Community College and other tribal colleges provide their communities with a locally controlled option.

To continue providing such services, the colleges must also focus upon making themselves more sustainable. Most mainstream universities rely upon endowments, but until recently, endowments were out of reach for tribal colleges who could raise only enough money to keep their doors open. Responding to the tribal colleges’ need for long range planning, more foundations provide funds for building endowments. As described in this issue, Oglala Lakota College has been especially successful in building its endowments. By 2004, the tribal university in South Dakota will be supporting faculty salaries with the return from its investments. By 2009, it hopes to have a $20 million faculty endowment fund. AIHEC and the AIHEC Student Congress also have started building endowments.

When the first tribal colleges were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the critics lined up to tell them that they were fools. Indian people could not possibly build colleges. They had no facilities, no money, and – the critics said –no talent to build credible educational institutions. Outsiders predicted that the tribes’ presumptuous efforts were destined to fail. Now, 34 years later, the colleges still live. AIHEC boasts 33 members, nine of which offer four-year degrees, and all are busy building new facilities. AIHEC expects as many as 20 new members in the next 10 years.

Thirty years ago the Indian people needed access to education. They wanted institutions that would reflect their cultures and respect their students for who they were as Diné, Lakota, Hidatsa, Anishinabe, or Assiniboine people. They built colleges to serve future generations, despite immediate shortages of resources. The people’s enthusiasm sustained them.

Outsiders often portray reservations as ghettoes of hopelessness that it would take a miracle to change. The tribal colleges and universities continually prove that people can work miracles when they are fulfilling their own dreams.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995. Her book, Breaking the Iron Bonds, explores Indian control of natural resources and the economic history of tribes. For more information about current economic contributions of tribal colleges, see the report Tribal College Contributions to Local Economic Development by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the Institute of Higher Education Policy, which can be downloaded from the website <>.

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