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Tribal Colleges
Native American leaders take educational matters into their own hands

By Kathy Witkowsky
Crow Agency, Montana

President Jeanine Pease Pretty on top of Lttle Big Horn College is shown near the campus in southeastern Montana.
IMAGINE A NATION without its own university -- or even its own library. A nation whose people have no formal course of study in their history, their language or their culture.

A small, impoverished country in Africa or Central America?

Actually, that was the situation less than 20 years ago on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, which encompasses 2.8 million acres of isolated high plains and three mountain ranges and surrounds the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

With an unemployment rate that hovered around 70 percent, few Crow students could afford to leave the reservation for higher education. And more often than not, those who did enroll at universities in Billings or Bozeman returned home without a degree.

"We sent off our brightest and best to the universities and colleges, and almost to a one they dropped out before achieving any level of expertise which might be marketable," lamented educator Janine Pease Pretty on Top. These failures, she said, were a combined result of culture shock, inadequate educational background, financial hardship and isolation from family.

So tribal leaders decided it was time to join the fledgling tribal college movement -- an effort by Native Americans to take educational matters into their own hands. Following the lead of the Navajo tribe, which in 1968 established Navajo Community College (now Diné College), other tribes founded their own higher education institutions.

Despite a dearth of both facilities and money, in 1981 Crow educators opened a two-year college in the impoverished town of Crow Agency, the reservation's administrative seat. First located in an abandoned irrigation house, two trailer homes and a garage, Little Big Horn College soon moved to an abandoned tribal center and gymnasium. The building had been trashed, the windows, doors and fixtures gone or smashed. Its only occupants were dogs and horses.

No matter, said Pretty on Top: The tribe couldn't afford what she referred to as "an edifice complex."

"Higher education is a relationship between a teacher and a student," said Pretty on Top, who has served as president of Little Big Horn since 1982, and whose efforts on behalf of her students earned her a "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. "It doesn't matter if we gather and learn under a tree or around somebody's kitchen table. That learning is a primary function of the college. And we weren't going to be delayed by the fact that we didn't have a wonderful building, that we didn't have elaborate laboratories, that we didn't have world-class technology."

The two-story stone building has since received a considerable facelift. Initially, 80 volunteers showed up to scrub it down for a week, and eventually the college's building trades students constructed offices, classrooms, furniture for the lounge area, and a library that houses 18,000 volumes, including an extensive collection of material on the Crow tribe. And there are computers, where students as well as community members can access the Internet.

Harvard it's not. But the 35,000 square foot, self-contained campus, augmented by two converted trailer homes, an archival facility and a converted sewer plant, houses an educational success story -- one that a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching calls "the most significant development in American Indian communities since World War II."

"More than any other single institution," the report says, the nation's tribal colleges "are changing lives and offering real hope for the future." They are doing so by offering educational opportunities that are accessible, affordable and sensitive to tribal culture, said Paul Boyer, the report's author.

And the colleges are run by educators who are familiar with the needs and customs of tribal members, not by outside agencies like the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

And that, according to Pretty on Top, is revolutionary in Indian country. The 30 tribal colleges that belong to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) are located in 12 states west of the Mississippi. Most tribal colleges offer two-year degrees, but seven also offer bachelor's degrees, and two have master's degree programs.

Tribal colleges distinguish themselves from the nation's other junior colleges and universities with a radically different agenda. They are less interested in preparing students to be global citizens than in preparing them to be tribal citizens -- though "they're not really that different," pointed out AIHEC president Dr. Gerald "Carty" Monette. "A good tribal citizen is a good American citizen," said Monette, who also is president of Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, North Dakota.

Like other tribal colleges, Little Big Horn designs its curriculum around the basic needs of the community. Nursing, business and computer studies are among the more popular majors. All tribal colleges also offer some vocational training and general education classes.

Historically, attempts to educate Indians concentrated on assimilating them into mainstream culture. Indians were forbidden to speak their own languages and practice their own religions and traditions. Tribal colleges, on the other hand, place tribal language and culture at the heart of their curricula. Along with biology, computer studies, American history and business, students at tribal colleges also learn about their heritage.

According to its mission statement, Blackfeet Community College (BCC) in Browning, Montana, for instance, tries to "achieve a balance between educational advancement and cultural preservation." That includes requiring BCC students to take 18 credits of Blackfeet language, philosophy or history.

However, some have not always seen the wisdom in such a policy. College president Carol Murray said she had to battle a lot of skeptics -- including many elders -- to get Blackfeet courses included in the curriculum. "They asked: 'Why should I learn Blackfeet? What kind of a job is it going to get me?'" she recalled.

But Murray, herself a BCC graduate who felt she had benefitted from discovering her culture as an adult, stood her ground: "I wanted everyone to experience that feeling of inner strength, and I thought: Even if I have to force them to do it, I will," she said.

At Little Big Horn, students fulfilling their Crow studies requirement can take a course in Crow socio-familial kinship, or study the history of the Crow chiefs.

"The highest form of discrimination is invisibility," said Pretty on Top. "And Native Americans are virtually invisible in the grand educational enterprises in this country. Tribal colleges and tribally controlled schools are just a few outposts where those images exist in the classroom."

These sorts of courses improve the self-esteem of Indian students. But they also serve a very practical purpose, Pretty on Top added. "This is more than 'feeling good about who I am,'" she said. "This is about: 'What information do I need to make a living, to live in this society, in this countryside? What information has come to me over thousands of years from the scholars of this tribe?'"

Not only do tribal colleges teach different subjects; they teach differently. They may integrate traditional knowledge into their courses, or structure their classes to reflect Indian values or learning styles.

Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, hired two tribal elders to teach a year-long Cultural Leadership Program that concentrated on language and cultural knowledge. To indicate that such skills are valued as much as "Westerern" knowledge, the college paid the program's instructors the same as those with master's degrees.

At Diné College, which serves 2,000 students on two main campuses and five satellite campuses in New Mexico and Arizona, curriculum specialist Frank Morgan has been working since 1991 to incorporate Navajo tribal language, philosophy and knowledge into all classes -- even such traditionally "Western" courses as earth science, chemistry and ecology. "We say that the earth lives; earth has a consciousness; earth acts," explained Morgan. So a course in ecology might concentrate on sustainability, or an environmental class would concentrate on the cycles in nature.

"It doesn't say that Western knowledge is bad," Morgan added. "It's saying: Here's the way Navajo people look at this knowledge. Here's the way they would explain it."

Language expresses philosophy, too. So along with the English names for rocks and plants, students at Diné College also learn the Navajo names for such things. For example, they learn that the Navajo refer to igneous rock as tsé nii eii, or "rock that goes into the ground." The phrase is not only descriptive; it helps Navajo students understand the tribe's world view: that everything is interconnected.

Students also learn the traditional Navajo practice of talking to things before removing them from their home environment. Recently, for instance, students participated in a range management study. Before they collected their plant samples, they spoke to the vegetation and explained what they were doing and what they hoped to learn.

These teachings place the school in somewhat problematic territory. Some students dislike learning native traditions from non-native teachers, Morgan said. At most of the tribal colleges there are more non-native than native instructors, but the schools are trying to deal with this problem by offering more teacher education.

In addition, a small minority of devout Christians, said Morgan, have resisted what they perceive as a religious aspect to the Navajo approach. "Somewhere along the way they're taught that Navajo knowledge is antithetical to Christian knowledge, and that they shouldn't deal with it," he said. But Morgan characterized the Navajo teachings as philosophical, not religious. "There's no concept of religion in the Navajo way," he said. "It's harmony; it's balance. That's what you learn about."

Meanwhile, fourteen tribal colleges are participating in a $400,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation that seeks to integrate native teaching and learning styles into environmental science curricula. This is one of several dozen projects NSF has funded in an attempt to encourage Native Americans to enter the sciences, where, along with other minorities, they are vastly underrepresented.

Crow Agency, Montana, home of Little Big Horn College.
"Traditionally, environmental cleanups have been done by outsiders," said Karl Topper, co-director of the project and an associate professor of environmental restoration at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. "We want to empower the American Indians to be able to do this work themselves."

That may be as simple as applying a hands-on approach to learning, with an emphasis on a non-competitive process rather than the usual linear, result-oriented model. The project also encourages students to mine the vast wealth of knowledge their tribe has amassed over centuries on the land.

Students might be encouraged to interview tribal elders about the environmental history of the reservation, Topper said.

In part, this is an effort to stimulate renewed interest in Native Americans' own cultures, he added. But it also is a genuine effort to find non-traditional solutions to environmental issues.

"One of the problems we have is reconciling native beliefs...with what is good science," said the NSF's Donald Jones, who oversees Topper's project.

There is no such thing as "Western science" or "Native science," Jones said. "If we cannot test what we know and determine from that whether something is likely or not likely to be true, then it's not something we're interested in supporting." But Jones said Native Americans do claim a body of legitimate, useful scientific knowledge and that is what NSF hopes to tap.

Karl Topper takes a more radical approach, suggesting that "science" does not always solve problems. He suggested that prayer might be an appropriate part of a Native American science curriculum.

Controversial? Perhaps. But the cultural sensitivity demonstrated at tribal colleges appears to be paying off. Nearly 88 percent of tribal college students surveyed by the Carnegie Foundation said they felt comfortable at their college because it reflected the values of American Indians.

Family, for instance, plays an important role in Native American culture, so teachers have to be flexible. "I've made allowances in the way I do my grading and set up my course for [students] to be absent for obligatory cultural type things -- funerals and family problems -- so that they can come back and get caught up," said Richard Stiff, who teaches biology at Little Big Horn.

Stiff said he also has learned to be patient, since parenting and other familial obligations, as well as financial hardships, often mean students "stop out" -- a term used to describe a temporary leave from school. Many -- if not most -- tribal college students take more than two years to finish an associate's degree.

"They spoil you," said Ronya Hoblit, a 1994 graduate of Dull Knife Memorial College on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Wyoming. Now at the University of Montana, where she is scheduled to graduate in December with a double major in Native American Studies and Psychology, the 45-year-old Hoblit said she really needed that extra attention when she returned to school after years working as a journeyman carpenter.

Growing up in South Dakota, Hoblit said, "I always wanted to go to school." So why didn't she? "Too busy drinking and raising my child," she admitted, alluding to a pervasive situation among Native Americans.

Not only did the tribal college give Hoblit the confidence and remedial education she needed -- it also gave her a chance to learn something about her culture, she said. Hoblit believes she eventually would have gotten an education even if the tribal college hadn't existed. "I would have made it," she said. "I just would have cried more."

Native American students often are overwhelmed by the size and anonymity of a four-year university, said Hoblit, who serves as co-director of the University of Montana's Bridges to Baccalaureate program, which tries to ease tribal students' transition to four-year institutions. For many, it is the first time they have been away from their families, and the first time they have experienced minority status.

Tribal colleges also wrestle with the inadequate educational background of many tribal students. A recent survey showed that Indian high schools in Montana consistently posted test scores that ranked among the state's worst. According to a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, many tribal college presidents say one third or more of their students need remedial classes. The president of Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwa College reported that many freshmen arrive reading at a third-grade level.

It is not surprising, then, that many of the students have attended other colleges and dropped out. Tribal colleges believe it is their job to overcome those previous failures. They offer open enrollment to anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent -- and then they extend a helping hand.

"Anybody could teach the students at MIT -- I mean, you could throw them a book and those guys would learn," said biology teacher Stiff. "But here, you see these people coming in who can't do it, and then when they leave, they're just there! They might not be great college students, but they're legitimate college students, and that's pretty exciting."

More than 300 Little Big Horn students have earned degrees since the two-year college opened in 1981.
Stiff said he likes to think that this level of success is achieved through inclusion. "You know, when you go to a standard college or university, there are lots of classes that weed people out who aren't serious," he said. "Here, we try not to weed out anybody. We want them all to make it through, if they can."

That sort of caring attitude translates into high marks from tribal college students. According to the Carnegie Foundation survey, more than 94 percent of students believed their professors were accessible outside the classroom; 82 percent said their professors understood the problems facing the students.

"They give a shit about me when no one else does," one student responded, echoing an attitude found throughout the survey results.

A random sampling of students at Little Big Horn College revealed similarly positive attitudes. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to find anyone who will say anything bad about the place.

"The college is like a buffer," said Tony Torralba, a student at Little Big Horn. "You're not just a number here. They really care. They know your family. They know what you're going through," he said. Torralba attended Montana State University in Bozeman until he lost his financial aid as a result of academic probation. At Little Big Horn, he is raising his GPA so he can transfer back to MSU and finish his degree.

In part, tribal colleges are able to offer that one-on-one relationship because of the small class size -- rarely more than 30 students, and usually far fewer. But the relationship between the faculty and students seems to go beyond what you'd find even at most small colleges. Biology teacher Stiff, for instance, says he might stop a student in the hallway and ask about a missing assignment. Skeptics might suggest that such personal attention crosses the line from encouragement to enabling. But the approach seems to be working.

Of 300 Little Big Horn graduates, 87 percent are living -- and working -- on the Crow reservation. Ninety-three percent of South Dakota's Oglala Lakota College graduates are employed, including 21 of 26 instructors at a local high school and 50 percent of the nurses at the local hospital. The Crownpoint Institute of Technology's 1995 placement was close to 90 percent.

These statistics challenge the myth that there is a lack of jobs on reservations. While unemployment rates on reservations typically range from 40 to 60 percent, there are, in fact, often jobs available -- at tribal hospitals, schools and administrative offices. But to get those jobs, one needs an education. "It's a professional and paraprofessional workforce," said Janine Pease Pretty on Top. "It's not a high school graduate work force. If you have expertise, there are jobs for you. And we have been able to see that illustrated in the years since we began graduating students."

"These are very practical institutions," said Paul Boyer, author of the Carnegie Foundation report. "I think you can look at them and say changes have been made in society which otherwise would not exist."

American Indians still lag behind educationally. National studies show that only 27 percent of American Indian college freshmen were still in school two years later, compared to 41 percent of all freshmen. And only 30 percent of Indian students completed a bachelor's degree within six years of matriculation.

There are still no national data on tribal college graduation rates. But of those who do graduate, the transfer rate is often 35 percent or higher -- substantially above the estimated 22 percent transfer rate from the nation's junior colleges, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which represents the nation's 30 tribal colleges. Of 29 students who graduated from Little Big Horn College last year, ten transferred to four-year institutions.

These figures are all the more striking when you compare them to statistics in the days before tribal colleges. For instance, between 1935 and 1976, only 41 members of Montana's Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes earned colleges degrees. Since Salish-Kootenai College opened in 1976, more than 400 have done so.

Today, Indians still graduate from the University of Montana at less than half the rate of the general population: 13 percent of Native American students earn degrees, as compared to 31 percent of the general student population. But a recent study shows that students who transfer from tribal colleges are five times more likely to graduate than if they'd entered as freshmen.

That is good news for 22-year-old Rhea Beatty, a 1998 graduate of Little Big Horn College. Beatty plans to attend Montana State University at Billings in the fall to complete her bachelor's degree in computer studies. This summer she will leave home for the first time (not counting visits to relatives in Oklahoma), to work as an intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Like the majority of Little Big Horn's students, Rhea is a mother. The tribal college gave her the opportunity to live with her parents while getting her academic feet wet. "The reason why I want to finish school is because of my daughter," said Rhea. "I don't want to have to struggle."

It is a sentiment shared by her parents, Frederick and Rachel Beatty. They both did manual labor to support the family. "We kind of want her to use her brain instead of her back," said Frederick."You're going to get left behind if you don't have an education nowadays."

More and more Native Americans apparently agree. In the last decade the tribal college population has doubled to more than 24,000 students. And numerous other tribal colleges are in the fledgling stages.

Rhea Beatty, who graduated from Little Big Horn College this year, plans to major in computer studies at Montana State University.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of tribal colleges are working in conjunction with other institutions of higher education -- through research and distance learning. Such programs aren't meant to be just a one-way street: Soon tribal colleges will be able to send courses as well as receive them.

The collaboration comes after a period of suspicion on the part of long-established institutions, said Paul Boyer. "For many years, with some important exceptions, higher education did not take tribal colleges seriously," he said. Today, that attitude has changed.

The impact of these academic successes, according to college administrators, is greater than the sum of its parts. Most tribal college students are first-generation, so they serve as role models to their entire extended family.

"We may have 35 graduates, but we'll have twelve-hundred people come to celebrate with those graduates," said Little Big Horn's Pretty on Top.

"Once one person tries it, then the rest aren't so leery," said Blackfeet Community College student Dana Pemberton. Three of Pemberton's sisters, a brother and two nephews also have attended the college.

While most tribal college students are older -- in their upper 20s or early 30s -- tribal colleges also are beginning to attract recent high school graduates. "It's a definite asset to this community," said Laura Sundheim, a counselor at Hardin High School, on the border of the Crow Reservation. "Since it opened, a greater number of our students have started college right out of high school."

Most of the Hardin students who go on to Little Big Horn are Indian, but that's not always the case, Sundheim said. Tribal colleges are serving an increasingly diverse population. In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, 39 percent of tribal college students nationwide were non-native.

Of the many obstacles facing tribal colleges, first and foremost is a lack of money. Federal funding today remains at half the $5,820 per student that Congress authorized in 1986. Students who responded to the Carnegie Foundation survey lauded their instructors, but they also complained about facilities. Their requests were generally basic: better bathrooms, comfortable furniture, more places for students to gather and study. Many asked for recreational facilities, which few tribal colleges offer.

Nevertheless, tribal colleges offer educational opportunities for a fraction of what other institutions charge. Full-time fees and tuition for a semester at Blackfeet Community College, for instance, costs $467 -- about one third of what it costs to attend the University of Montana.

And facilities at tribal colleges, however outdated, still offer new opportunities for Native Americans. Many are the center, not just of their students' lives, but of the community as a whole, serving as a community library and meeting hall, and offering computer facilities as well -- an important asset, since few Indian families can afford their own computers.

All educational facilities face financial difficulties. The plight of tribal colleges is compounded by the fact that 85 percent of the students live in poverty, and there is virtually no tax base to support the schools. BCC President Carol Murray, in fact, says some students attend BCC for one reason: to get their Pell Grant. Once tuition and fees are paid, she says, they figure they might have some money left over to help feed and clothe their families.

Tribal colleges support themselves through a combination of federal monies and private grants. Few receive any funding from their tribes. "They say very nice things about us," said Murray with a demure smile, when asked if the Blackfeet administration supported the college.

That lack of financial support is a double-edged sword, said AIHEC president Monette, who said that while tribal colleges need more money, the fact that they are not tribally funded means they can function autonomously. Nevertheless, Monette said, the era of low-tech education is coming to an end -- and that means tribal colleges need an infusion of money to keep pace. "I'm not sure how long the movement can continue to offer high quality education out of their facilities," he said.

Ironically, the need is further exacerbated by the colleges' success. "I think the appreciation and knowledge of the worth of higher education is far greater now than it was 15 or 20 years ago, and that's an indication that tribal colleges and others in education are doing their job," Monette said. While characterizing the tribal college movement as a "success," he added, "We still have a long way to go."

"What took a hundred years to build in legacy is not going to be healed in a mere 20 years," said Pretty on Top. "People think just because we have an open door to a college that everybody will come roaring in. Well, there's a hundred years of reasons why they won't."

But thanks to Pretty on Top and her colleagues in the tribal colleges, there are at least 30 years of reasons why they will.

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance writer who loves in Missoula, Montana.

Photos by Michael Gallacher for CrossTalk

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