Devotion to the People: The legacy of Helen Scheirbeck

May 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 12-4: Colleges for the Community, Features
By Tom Davis

Helen Scheirbeck spent half her life on the phone in 1962 when she was helping to organize the Capital Conference on Poverty.

If you ask Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, Ed.D., about her career, her answer is always the same. “I’m just a little old Indian woman who is working hard for Indian people,” she says.

Scheirbeck has been one of the most significant voices in American Indian education since the late 1960s. This uncommon Indian woman has uncommon accomplishments to her credit. Not only was she an important advocate in helping to launch the tribal college movement, but she has also played a national role in K-12 Indian education, Indian Head Start, and the formation of federal policy toward Indian families and children.

In the 1970s, Indian educators across the country knew her as the person who could steer them toward federal funding for Indian education. She directed the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. On Columbus Day in 1972 she convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., of educators aspiring to start tribal colleges.

During that meeting in Washington and another held in Seattle, Indian community leaders such as Lionel Bordeaux, David Gipp, David Risling, Gerald Clifford, Gerald One Feather, Tom Shortbull, Robert Roessel, Leroy Clifford, Tom Atcitty, and Larry Belgarde set in motion a national tribal college movement. Through long days and nights of intense discussion, these educators determined the strategy for obtaining start-up funding and accreditation and established many of the colleges’ underlying principles.

At the time, tribal college proponents faced a Catch 22, according to Larry Belgarde, one of the founders of Turtle Mountain Community College. “Tribal colleges could not get federal funding because we were not accredited, and most accrediting agencies would not look at us without stable funding.” Scheirbeck knew that Title III (Developing Institutions) of the Higher Education Act was the most likely start-up funding source – if the fledgling colleges could find an accredited college to sponsor them. Title III was written to provide assistance to colleges that served blacks and poor whites. With the help of Office of Education administrators, Dr. Willa Player and Dr. Paul Carnell, the first six colleges and their organization, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), obtained start-up funds in 1973 through Title III.

Tribal representatives approached Scheirbeck and asked her about amending the Higher Education Act so they would not have to get their funding through the back door, Belgarde said. Scheirbeck, however, said there was no reason why the tribal colleges could not have their own legislation; the amount of work required would be the same for a new tribal college act or for amending the Title III law. Belgarde said the tribal representatives sent Scheirbeck and him into a back room to come up with the first draft of the landmark Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, Scheirbeck because of her experience in Washington and Belgarde because he was an English major. They received help with legal language from a young Cherokee attorney, Kathleen McKee, a protégée of Scheirbeck’s.

While tribal college advocates are now some of the most sophisticated on Capitol Hill, it was Scheirbeck who initially advised them on how to get their legislation introduced into the House and Senate and how to get co-sponsors. Congress finally passed the legislation in 1978 that provides the core funding for all the tribal colleges. “She was a great teacher,” Belgarde said.

The early years

Helen Scheirbeck has always worked hard. She was the first Indian intern for the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy organization of tribes based in Washington. She may have been scared to death at working in the nation’s capital at the time, as she claims. Yet, by the time she ended her internship and became a staff member for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in 1959, she was working furiously overtime in order to keep up with her professional duties. At the same time she was helping to organize a Capitol Conference on Poverty in 1962, the first major conference where Indian leaders learned the art of advocating for full Indian participation in the then pending War on Poverty.

Scheirbeck has always given credit to U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin for allowing her a flexible schedule to pursue her passion for Indian issues. The senior senator from North Carolina and her boss at the time as the subcommittee’s chair, Ervin was a Bible thumping, Constitution quoting Son of the South who later became famous as co-chair of the committee that investigated President Richard Nixon.

Nevertheless, she spent more than 40 hours on her primary responsibilities — staffing hearings on Indian constitutional rights in the Senate and helping to steer legislation resulting from these hearings through the Senate. That meant her work on the Indian advocacy conference was done as a volunteer, establishing a pattern of commitment as true 38 years later as it was then. As a result partly of this dedication, this conference successfully helped Indian communities fully participate in the plethora of legislation passed to help the nation’s disadvantaged people.

In 1966 Scheirbeck tired of Washington’s intense atmosphere. Believing she needed a better understanding of Indian life in Indian communities, she became assistant to the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The long, gray Wisconsin winters made the Lumbee tribal member from temperate Pembroke, N.C., wonder why she did not have more sense. Scheirbeck, then 31 years old, went from one reservation to another as she helped translate Washington’s War on Poverty into programs that worked for Indian communities. Head Starts, Community Action Programs, education programs, economic and community development efforts, and elderly programs followed in her wake.

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