Story and photos by ANNE ROPER
American Indian students mixed with colonial teaching methods create an educational recipe for disaster. Drop out rates are high among Native students, such as the Navajo Nation where only 41 percent of American Indians graduating from high school.
In the 1960s, a movement for educational amelioration began to sweep throughout Indian Country, putting into motion a clarion call for reform.
Tribal colleges answered that call.
The tribal colleges, also known as tribally controlled colleges, can be found on reservations or in remote communities where post-high school education is so inaccessible, it is out of the question for many. The colleges boost the local economy by providing jobs for faculty and staff in places that face insurmountable unemployment, some as high as 70 percent.
And whereas some traditional schools have tried to stifle American Indian culture, tribal colleges encourage it. They even teach it.
L’Dawn Olsen teaches writing and English at Wind River Tribal College on Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Arapaho Tribe in Kyle, Wyo. In her classes, the experience is different from the moment it starts.
“We begin every class with a ceremony,” Olsen said. “We smudge; we drum.”
Smudging is an American Indian practice that involves burning a plant and taking in its life experiences. The process is difficult to explain because American Indian culture learns by experiencing something firsthand, as opposed to mainstream American culture that emphasizes explanation from a scientific standpoint, Olsen said.
It is this cultural difference that has prohibited so many American Indian students from succeeding in the educational realm.
“[American Indian students] do not fair well in any kind of colonial idea of education,” Olsen said.
Tired of boarding schools and low graduation rates, some visionaries began the first tribal college in 1968 – Dine College in Tsalie, Ariz. – during the movement toward self-determination.
By 1972, six tribal colleges had been built. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium was created as an initiative of the tribal colleges to form a community. Today, the AIHEC has grown to represent 37 colleges in the U.S. and one in Canada.
All the colleges are fully accredited or are in the process of accreditation. Wind River Tribal College is accredited through the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Students are able to transfer to any state university or to the handful of tribal colleges that offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Tribal college enrollment is overwhelmingly female, with an average of two women for every man. The AIHEC describes the typical tribal college student as a single mother in her 30s.
Beverly Fenton, director of the American Indian Resource Center at the University of Utah, has a feeling why. She has been there herself.
Fenton was widowed when her husband died at 36 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which usually begins to afflict people in their 70s or 80s. She had a 7-year-old son, a broken heart and only three years of college. Because she fell just short of a bachelor’s degree, Fenton knew she still wouldn’t earn more than minimum wage.
Fenton completed three years of college at the University of Illinois, but culture shock, unhappiness and loneliness eventually caused her to drop out.
“I always felt badly I didn’t finish school,” Fenton said. “But I never felt compelled to until my husband passed away, and I had a little boy to support. So I went back and got my bachelor’s and master’s.”
For Fenton, one major advantage to tribal colleges is their proximity to students’ homes and families. Many students, especially first-generation college students, find the big universities difficult at first, Fenton said. Well-meaning families see the struggle and encourage them to drop out of school and come back to the reservation.
“A lot of their families will say, ‘It’s OK. Come home. We don’t want you to be unhappy. No one in our family has ever graduated from college.’ So you get stuck,” Fenton said.
Olsen has encountered this same problem in Wyoming.
“They have a very difficult time leaving, because living on a reservation, they are part of that support system,” Olsen said. “They feel very much at odds when they go to a university because there is no support system in place to help them integrate.”
At tribal colleges, students are able to naturally make that transition. It helps that they don’t have to give up their culture.
“[Tribal colleges] also infuse completely all of the tribe’s specific culture, tradition and language into the curriculum,” Fenton said. “They can feel like they’re getting not only academics but also the cultural and language aspects of who they really are.”
But American Indians aren’t the only students at these colleges. All tribal colleges, except two, allow non-American Indian students to enroll. Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico are federally chartered institutions, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The bureau permits only American Indian and Alaskan Natives to enroll in the two schools.
Most colleges require a proficiency in the tribes’ native language, which may hinder students with no knowledge of the official dialect. It is no different than expecting a student to know English, Fenton said.
Non-American Indian and American Indian students alike can enjoy the lower cost of attending a tribal college as compared to community college or university off the reservation. The AIHEC lists tuition for one credit at $107 for an American Indian and $151 for a non-American Indian. By comparison, one credit hour for a resident at Salt Lake Community College costs $225.
“The cost of an education is prohibitive for a lot of students,” Fenton said. Both she and Olsen emphasized American Indian students must pay the same amount of tuition as any other student at colleges and universities across the country.
Of all the students who have thrived in tribal colleges, one couple represents the epitome of success for Fenton: Michael and Whisper Catches. Michael is working toward a master’s degree in Lakota leadership and management, and Whisper holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in management. They have four sons: Wakiyan Hotun, 6, Hehaka Sapa, 4, Tatanka Nunpa, 3, and Kinyan Luta, 18 months. While Michael works toward his doctorate degree at Sinte Gleska, they have chosen to stay on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota.
Success like Michael and Whisper’s is becoming more prevalent. Graduation rates for American Indian students are still at 4 percent in Canada where the tribal college movement has just begun, whereas U.S. graduation rates are hitting anywhere between 12 percent to 25 percent. Tribal colleges should be credited for this improvement, Olsen said.
There are no current plans for a tribal college in Utah, but one would be welcome.
Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, hopes to get a tribal college running in Utah. But some barriers to such a project exist.
Cuch believes local leadership is not focused enough on education for a tribal college to start here.
Fenton thinks the reservations in Utah don’t have enough people to justify building one, but it would still be a good idea if they decided to.
All the advantages come down to one thing for Olsen: “Indian people want to be Indian people.”