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.”
Indeed, the earliest institutions for “educating” American Indians, founded in the late 19th century, were openly dedicated to breaking down their tribal identities and assimilating them into white culture. Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1879, became the model for dozens of government-supported boarding schools across the United States–including what was first known as Haskell Institute in Lawrence in 1884.
The schools were known for their harsh discipline and for treating students like virtual prisoners. Trips home were rarely allowed. Many students endured poor living conditions and chronic ill health, thanks to the prevalence of tuberculosis and other diseases. Still, as noted by University of Minnesota historian Brenda J. Child and others, the boarding schools had some positive (and unintended) consequences before they were shut down or modified in the decades before World War II. They played a role in the rise of “Pan-Indianism” and gave graduates the skills to protect tribal interests via careers in politics and the law.
Today’s tribal college system is one result. Most tribal colleges offer accredited two-year associate of arts degrees, though as many as six now offer four-year degrees. Students can study everything from biology and the natural sciences to studio art, nursing, and early-childhood education. If success can be measured by retention rates and employment figures, tribal colleges have done an outstanding job: According to the College Fund, dropout rates for Indian students at mainstream schools hover between 85 and 90 percent; retention rates at tribal colleges are between 85 and 90 percent. A 1999 survey of tribal college graduates reported that 75 percent of respondents were employed. “This is a big deal when many of our grads live in areas where unemployment is as high as 85 percent,” Brewer says.
The tribal college system is nothing less than a revolution against the established Western idea of learning, says Richard Williams. “What we’re talking about is a systemic change in higher education,” he explains. “When you rebuild a system and start over from scratch you look at ways you can change the system and make it work for people. We’re doing that in many ways, including focusing on collaboration in the classroom rather than competition, fostering experiential learning at a pace directed to the learning style of individual students, and encouraging professors to feel personally responsible for keeping students in school.”
But it’s not easy to fund a revolution. Tribal colleges, like many native-run institutions, are often understaffed and scrambling for money. At Diné College, for instance, tiles fall from ceilings, elevators fail, and the library stands half empty. The American Indian College Fund was established in 1986 by administrators at the nation’s tribal colleges with a goal of raising funds for scholarships and building improvements. The current capital campaign is called Campaign Sii Ha Sin, the Navajo expression for hope. The goal is to raise $120 million by 2005, and then divide the money equally among tribal colleges. It’s a lot of money, Williams acknowledges, but it’s only a modest attempt to reinvigorate an educational system that has helped countless numbers of American Indians.
“That amount of money is just enough to meet the bare minimum needs of these schools,” he says. “We’re not talking about building stadiums or high-tech science centers. We just want to make sure that they each have one good, solid building for education. Then we can get back to the business of changing people’s lives.”
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