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AIHEC Spring conference shows vitality

RAPID CITY, S.D. ? Tribal colleges are growing. From the number of colleges, to the number of students attending them, to the breadth and depth of the skills and disciplines they teach, tribal colleges are growing like wildflowers. And they're doing it in spite of some pretty rocky soil.

The 21st Annual American Indian Higher Education Consortium Conference, held March 24 - 26 at the Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center here, gave vivid evidence of the vitality and diversity of the tribal college movement. It was hosted by the five South Dakota tribal colleges: Oglala Lakota College, Sinte Gleska University, Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College, Si Tanka-Huron University, and Sitting Bull College.

More than 1000 students, faculty and staff from the 33 tribal colleges throughout the United States mingled while attending the workshops, the pow wow and the banquet. The students' voices and drums livened up the rooms and hallways of the convention center during competitions in academic and cultural events.

The competitions included the Knowledge Bowl, Science Bowl, a juried art exhibition, a Poster Showcase and competitions in hand games, speech, writing, business skills, web design, traditional plants and critical inquiry.

Each of the tribal colleges chooses a student of the year who receives a $1,000 scholarship from the American Indian College Fund. They were presented this year by Rick Williams, Lakota, president of the AICF, who called them "the best of the best."

In 1970, Din? College was the first tribally run Indian college founded, but its example found rapid replication in South Dakota. Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation followed suit as the second tribal college; it is currently the second largest in the U.S. A mere month later, Sinte Gleska University was founded on the Rosebud Reservation. From those beginnings came the establishment of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Within the next two years its membership is expected to grow to 45, including an institution in Hawaii.

Tribal colleges were not always welcomed. In the early days, some state governments hampered or even attempted to prevent their establishment. In the 30 years since, however, obstacles have diminished as the tribal colleges have picked up some allies. As Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, said, "Most of the institutions are coming out of a subsistence or survival mode."

Even for the oldest and most successful, however, it is still a daily struggle to get respect and funding. In a recent visit to OLC, Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D., noted with frustration that federal funding for tribal colleges continues to be "absurdly low." He said Congress provides tribal colleges with only 50 percent of the funding for non-tribal community colleges. Compared to non-tribal four-year institutions, the funding is even less.

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Tribal colleges are growing at a rate of approximately five percent per year, said Williams, making them the fastest-growing higher educational institutions in the country, but they could grow even more quickly if Indians interested in higher education had access to funds to pay tuition.

"This past year we [AICF] were able to give approximately $4 million in scholarships to students attending tribal colleges, and we're proud of that," Williams said. "However this only represents about 15 percent of the unmet need for students in our institutions. In order to fully meet the needs of our students, we would need to raise at least $28 million a year, every year."

The need isn't only limited to tuition costs for students. Williams said that $60 million must be raised in the next couple of years simply to meet the most basic facility requirements.

Tribal colleges are not only growing in attendance, the institutions themselves are continually improving. With full accreditation, many offer four-year bachelors degrees in addition to two-year associate's degrees, and some have established masters degree programs. The curriculum includes agriculture and natural resources, nursing, education, information technology, cultural studies and tribal languages.

This growth is benefiting both Indian people as individuals and the reservations on which they live. "We not only have improving facilities, we have access to resources that are allowing us to collaborate a lot more with our Indian communities," said Dr. James Shanley, president of Fort Peck Community College and of AIHEC. "And tribal colleges are having a huge, huge impact on tribal government itself."

But this growth could be a double-edged sword, cautioned Dr. Kenneth Provost, president of Si Tanka-Huron University. To maintain it, he said, "will demand high levels of integrity and accountability."

The very survival of the essence of being Indian may depend on the tribal colleges, the presidents said. The institutions are important in the preservation of the languages, religions and history of Indian people and they must help retain the natural Indian intellect and philosophy. They must teach their students to "think Indian." Otherwise, said one college leader, "we'll end up being white people speaking Indian languages."

"The tribal college movement is truly changing the history of Indian peoples in America," said Williams. "And I'm so proud to be a part of that."