By Kathy Witkowsky
Crow Agency, 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
|President Jeanine Pease Pretty on top of Lttle
Big Horn College is shown near the campus in southeastern Montana.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
"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."
|Crow Agency, Montana, home of Little Big Horn
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."
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."
|More than 300 Little Big Horn students have
earned degrees since the two-year college opened in 1981.
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
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
"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.
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.
|Rhea Beatty, who graduated from Little Big
Horn College this year, plans to major in computer studies at Montana State University.
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
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.