BISMARCK, N.D. - In 1972, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium started with six tribal colleges, gaining official charter as a nonprofit and basing its home office in Denver.
From those beginnings, AIHEC has now grown to more than 36 tribal colleges and universities as members from all over the western United States, including one college in Canada and a recently admitted member, Ilisagvik College of northern Alaska.
"Its real principal purpose is to promote and build tribal colleges and its member colleges in order to more effectively serve and promote tribal college students and opportunities for them and our tribal communities," said Standing Rock Sioux tribal citizen David Gipp, who has been the president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck for nearly 31 years. He was also the first full-time executive director of AIHEC, serving in that capacity from 1973 - 77.
One of the primary purposes of AIHEC is the promotion of student learning on both the academic and the vocational/technical levels. Many tribal colleges offer two-year associate degrees and technical certificates, while older, more established tribal colleges offer bachelor's and master's degrees. Tribal colleges that are members of AIHEC also promote community service and focus heavily on integrating tribal language and culture into core curriculum.
"Most of our tribal colleges are providing some aspects of the tribal histories and heritage by researching and developing the cultural and heritage histories of each of the tribal nations and providing them through classroom teaching," Gipp said. "We do the same in the languages.
"Almost all of our tribal colleges are providing some aspects of language to really preserve and promote language in our communities. They do that through researching in the communities, taking a look at what's been done in the past, consulting and talking with tribal elders and people knowledgeable of that heritage, history and language. They're becoming reservoirs of knowledge of tribal epistemologies that I think are so critical to saving tribal nations and helping tribal nations create a whole new renaissance."
Gipp said the criteria for new tribal colleges to join AIHEC is based on what was originally set forth in its founding days. These criteria include being founded by tribal charter or resolution; seeking accreditation from organizations such as the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; having an enrolled tribal population of more than 51 percent; and promoting academics and Native culture within the classroom, thereby serving both the tribal and student body.
Another function of AIHEC includes advocating for tribal colleges and universities. In 1982, AIHEC moved its offices from Denver to the Washington, D.C., area, where they are now located in Alexandria, Va. The current executive director, Gerald Gipp, is retiring in June and will be succeeded by Deputy Director Carrie Billy.
"The chief work of the AIHEC office is to do two things: one is to provide advocacy and education about the tribal colleges in Washington, D.C.," said David Gipp. "We do that by letting members of Congress and their staffs know about what the value and importance of tribal colleges is all about. The second part is to continue to create a dialogue and explore opportunities for tribal colleges and their students with the various federal agencies. We do that through information that we provide, meetings that we hold either with these agencies or various members of Congress."
One of AIHEC's primary events since 1981 is the annual student conference, attended by more than 1,200 students, faculty, staff and friends of tribal colleges. The location of the annual conference rotates each year, giving students a chance to experience the histories and issues of other tribes within the AIHEC organization.
At this conference, students not only attend sessions, but can dance at the AIHEC annual pow wow and compete in a wide variety of events such as an art competition, basketball tournament, handgame tournament and Knowledge Bowl competitions. People placing in the competitions can win anything from cash prizes to annual conference T-shirts, depending on how well they place.
Some of the competitions are for the love of the event, while others have a more practical aspect to them. Kim Killer, a student at Oglala Lakota College, was part of a team with Stephanie Sorbel and Chayo Torres, who placed third in the Business Bowl with their business plan. Titled "The Lunch Box," the plan consists of a mobile kitchen to not only expand the lack of dining choices on the Pine Ridge reservation, but also to offer more nutritional alternatives to combat diabetes, juvenile diabetes and high cholesterol levels.
Killer said their plan would be effective by starting with travel to five communities. On Pine Ridge, there are only five restaurants and five gas stations selling food to serve 35,000 people, with many people traveling outside the reservation to buy food.
"The business plan will address the healthy and financial needs," Killer said. "It's the convenience of a home-cooked meal. A lot of parents, especially the working parents, don't have time to cook a meal. A lot of the parents, their babysitters are elderly, like the grandparents. When we order food, we're going to be ordering from the local grocery stores. We're going to create some type of contract where we order from Native-owned grocery stores. We're going to help the economy with that."
Killer said that she and her team have already raised $2,000 and have a vehicle ready to make their plan a reality by traveling to not only Pine Ridge communities but also local pow wows.
In many of the competitions, the students know ahead of time who won. At the high-energy annual handgame tournament, many teams played down to the wire throughout the course of the competitions. Wind River Community College took first place, winning a hand drum, beaded sticks and jackets.
For other events, such as the Mr. and Ms. AIHEC competitions, the winners did not know until the closing brunch, with Steven Raining Bird of United Tribes Technical College and Allison Steinmeyer of Comanche Nation College winning a jacket, plaque, $1,000 scholarship and the opportunity to represent AIHEC for the following year.
"It is the way in which we can do and say and actualize what we want for ourselves, as opposed to what non-Indian education and non-Indian higher education have dictated upon us in the past," said David Gipp about the importance of tribal colleges. "We take control of our destiny, is what it boils down to. We have then the option of building the quality and quantity of what that education is all about, and it's controlled totally by us - by our locally controlled tribal college boards."