Constructing Miracles Out of Feathers

Feb 15th, 2001 | By | Category: 12-3: How to Build a Dream, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Hope is a thing with feathers.” – Emily Dickinson

Penny Denny writes in “Voice of the Students” that she thinks Stone Child Community College needs a student center. She is afraid, however, that others might consider it “frivolous.” Indeed, with a natural spring undermining the main college structure and a leaky roof, a student center has not been at the top of the priority list for the tribal college she attends in Montana.

While students at mainstream universities and colleges elsewhere take student centers; cafeterias; and warm, dry classrooms for granted, students at many reservation tribal colleges consider them luxuries. They cannot even imagine having a gymnasium or auditorium. Science students at some of the tribal colleges don’t have a chemistry laboratory; those colleges can’t afford to buy the chemicals and the hardware to provide gas and water at each station.

What kind of message does this give to tribal college students when they see other college students enjoying such “luxuries”? Are they society’s castaways?

Most of the tribal colleges were built on visions, not campuses. They would not exist today if their founders had waited for proper facilities. Dr. Janine Pease-Pretty on Top said she was tired of watching her tribe’s brightest students leave the Crow Reservation for universities and return as failures. As a young mother, she wasn’t willing to accept that her children and her cousins wouldn’t have a chance. So she and the other Little Big Horn College founders took an abandoned home and a couple of trailers and transformed them into a college.

At Bay Mills Indian Community, the tribe looked at an old fish processing plant near the shores of Lake Superior and visualized their college. At Leech Lake, a church provided the perfect light to become an art classroom, and the high school locker room became a library and a music room. On the Standing Rock Reservation, they used a jail cell for classes.

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College students initially used discarded desks with slanted tops, tipping the microscope platforms to compensate for the slant so the slides wouldn’t fall off. The college had no computers for its computer classes 15 years ago. At quitting time, Ann Marie Penzkover and her secretary went to all the tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and gathered up their computers, used them for evening classes, and then returned them before 8 a.m. the next morning.

When they reflect back on the birth of their tribal colleges, each of the founders remember the scorn and laughter from those who thought American Indian people incapable of teaching, of administering, and certainly of sustaining their colleges without a tax base. Now many of the colleges are approaching their 30th anniversaries; three have passed it. Most are accredited and offering first-rate education in second- and third-rate facilities. Their enrollment continues to grow while the enrollment of many universities falls. Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, for example, had the largest percentage gain of all the state colleges and universities in Minnesota in one year.

Dreams and persistence have sustained them so far. The colleges’ existence is now a fact of reservation life, not a daring experiment. The student body is getting younger; students see the local college as their first choice after high school, not their last resort. These younger students have higher expectations. The college’s existence is now a fact of reservation life, not a daring experiment. The younger students assume the doors will remain open, and they dare to imagine facilities that older students might have considered frivolous, too good for them to deserve.

As resources start to trickle into college coffers, administrators have begun to open their eyes to the problems with their makeshift arrangements, which they had tried to ignore. Bay Mills still uses the fish processing plant for its offices and classrooms today, but they don’t use the fish freezer as a computer lab–the students almost went crazy without windows. The shower stalls at Leech Lake had terrible acoustics for music practice. Sitting Bull College’s library flooded because of its structural problems, and the North Central Association accreditation team urged the college to expand its facilities.

Tribal colleges depend upon the federal government and donations from private foundations and individuals for their facilities. In this issue, Dr. James Shanley (Assiniboine) explains the differences between the resources available to community colleges and those available to tribal colleges. Most state governments do not support even the non-Indian students at tribal colleges, and they cannot depend upon bequests from wealthy alumni as other universities do.

Fortunately, both the federal government and the private sector have started to address the need for facilities. Meg Goetz, the director of congressional relations for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), reports Congress’s initial steps in this issue. This initiative dovetails with the American Indian College Fund’s effort, Campaign Sii Ha Sin. Named after the Navajo word for hope, the campaign aims to raise a total of $120 million for facilities. By December 2000, the college fund had raised more than $44 million, including major gifts from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and the Tierney Family Foundation. When completed, the campaign will provide $4 million to each eligible college, including $3 million for their priority capital projects and $1 million for a maintenance/technology upgrade endowment.

In the middle of many of the new campus plans is a log cultural center, part of an AIHEC project initiated by Gail Bruce, a long time friend of the tribal colleges. For many colleges accustomed to hand-me-down facilities, the cultural center is the first building newly constructed for them.

Beautiful new campuses now are appearing on a few of the reservations as the result of these national efforts and local development efforts. As the new buildings rise, the colleges face other challenges. Some report being passed over for funding because they no longer appear to be as “needy” as before. However, none of the tribal colleges has adequate infrastructures by any standard. Even with some new buildings, the colleges continue to struggle with other infrastructure problems, as described by Dana Gretz (Bad River Band of Chippewa) in this issue. These problems stem from the colleges’ limited core funding and the funders’ insistence upon giving money for programs instead of what they refer to as “overhead.”

To be accountable, colleges need compliance officers and grant managers. They need salaries to pay these people and the faculty and staff who administer the programs. In some colleges, faculty members qualify for food stamps. They cannot eat loyalty, and they are forced to choose between loyalty to their families’ financial futures and loyalty to building their communities. Every year finds one or two colleges on the ropes because of a funding crisis or administrative turnover or put on accreditation probation because of infrastructure problems.

An ideal campus for an average size tribal college costs between $12 million and $15 million, according to American Indian College Fund Executive Director Rick Williams. In contrast, Yale University is spending $100 million to renovate their gymnasium.

Most of the colleges can’t anticipate having an ideal campus for many years, but for the first time, they have been encouraged to imagine and start constructing what they really need. Talking with tribal college administrators across the country, one can hear a new lilt in their voices: Their new campus plans are no longer unattainable luxuries. Stone Child Community College administrators have not publicly announced its capital campaign because they are still raising the money to make it happen. The plan includes a student center in Phase 2, three or four years from now. Penny Denny will no doubt have graduated by then, but her frivolous fantasy may serve Stone Child students in the not too distant future.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 1995 and writing about Indian natural resource and government issues since 1973.


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