Anishinaabe U

By mixing mainstream curriculum with Native wisdom, American Indian colleges are redefining the Western idea of learning.

| March/April 2002

Richard Williams always knew that his work was important, but a recent conversation drove the point home.

Williams, executive director of the American Indian College Fund in Denver, and his son, a student at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, were talking about biology class. "He said, ‘Dad, I learned about endoplasmic reticulum today,’ " Williams recalls, referring to a key part of cell anatomy. "Then he came back to me and said, ‘I bet you don’t know all the different ways people use ceya’ka [a wild mint plant favored by the Lakota people].’ He went on to tell me the scientific name for it, the English name for it, and the different ways tribes use it."

Adapting mainstream curricula to incorporate Native wisdom is business as usual at the nation’s 32 tribal colleges, postsecondary educational institutions established and operated by members of America’s 560 Indian tribes.

Instructors at tribal colleges intentionally look at the world from a Native viewpoint, explains Michael Wassegijig Price in Tribal College Journal (Winter 2000). Price, chair of the department of science and mathematics at Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, Minnesota, explains that adding Indian perspectives to higher education helps Native students make connections between their classes and the world they experience every day. Understanding that Native wisdom can hold its own next to the Western canon also fosters a sense of pride among students, Price says, and helps ensure that Native American wisdom will be passed down to future generations.

"Indigenous knowledge, unlike Western science and technology, has tenets of sacredness and spirituality," Price writes. "These ideas directly affect our relationship to and interaction with nature and one another. Thus we are not just invisible, objective observers but actual and accountable participants in the complex web of life. Learning that plants have spirits . . . may not mean much to a research scientist or technophile. It will, however, have an effect on the way we, as Anishinaabe, interact with plants."

Located mostly on Native-owned land in 12 states, all in the West and Midwest, America’s tribal colleges receive only limited funding from the federal government, and few receive any state tax support at all. The first tribal college, Navajo Community College (now known as Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona, was established by the Navajo nation in 1968, a direct result of the Indian rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to College Fund spokesperson Suzette Brewer.

"Indian education in America had failed miserably, and the people who started the first tribal colleges knew that," Brewer says. "There had been a constant whitewashing of students, a philosophy of ‘Kill the Indian to save the man,’ and it was clear something had to be done. People were looking for a way to control their own higher education at that time, and this is what they came up with."

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