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An AICF transformation

DENVER – The American Indian College Fund’s message has evolved to “Think Indian” in keeping with today’s need for Indian intellect to help solve problems like global warming, Richard Williams, AICF president and CEO, said June 4.

That message underscored an AICF-sponsored Colorado Community Celebration, where incoming AICF chairman Dr. Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Lame Deer, Mont., was keynote speaker.

Littlebear said AICF has helped people become “good students and good learners and to be able to cope with many of the ills on the reservation and (they) are going to solve them.”

Many of the students are the first in their families to complete higher education. “Now we have college students who are building a tradition of going to college.” Tribal colleges have also evolved, and now go through the same accreditation process as others, he said.

But contrary to the collective, non-Native belief, Indian students do not have a free college education if they want one and Littlebear said he found it a “constant struggle to stay in school.” A Cheyenne language advocate, “once the language starts dying, the culture follows shortly thereafter,” and culture is “who we are.”

Stephen Yellowhawk, Cheyenne River Sioux/Iroquois, talked about how he applied for scholarship aid to AICF and became a Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship recipient. It enabled him to recover his heritage, help at-risk youth, and bring his grandparents back to traditional dancing he learned to enjoy.

In an interview before the event, Williams discussed the evolving message of AICF on the way to “Think Indian,” which he described as an “ongoing campaign we’ve been doing for years to try to educate the American people about American Indians.”

Along the information path, “we’ve started with some more historic representations of Indians, transformed into, ‘Have you seen a real Indian?’ followed by needing young people with talent to stay in the community rather than leaving.

“We’ve said that reservations can be OK and, in fact, they can be the last frontier in terms of economic development in America.

“Now there are new images,” he said, explaining that “Think Indian” can encompass green energy, a symbiotic relationship with the environment, living in harmony, and being a race of people with an inherent responsibility to the earth.

“In the past, we found ways our people survived, even thrived, in environments that were very difficult,” he said. “That’s thinking Indian to solve Indian problems. Thinking Indian is generosity in taking care of each other. The first law of Indian people is respect, and respect is the foundation of ‘Think Indian.’”

The evolution in message is accompanied by a change in emphasis, with Denver and Colorado playing a larger role in AICF’s present and future. The organization’s major event, the Flame of Hope Gala, will be Oct. 28 in Denver.

AICF is known nationwide, but it is “seeking an introduction into the Denver community,” Yellowhawk told attendees June 4. “We’ve never really tried to be as important in the Colorado or Denver communities (as elsewhere), but that will change over the next months. It’s critical that Denver recognizes us as a player in the field of education, but also as a partner with business and philanthropy.”

Other speakers included John Brackney, president and CEO of South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, who said, “We value the American Indian College Fund here in Denver; it’s changing peoples’ lives.”

An honoring blanket was presented to Pat Roe, USA Funds associate. The organization supported the community event and also supports the annual gala and AICF’s scholarship program.

Now in its 20th year, AICF provides more than 5,000 scholarships to American Indian students nationwide and provides financial assistance to 33 tribal colleges and universities.