John Trudell, the poet-laureate of American Indian activism had it right when he said in 1996 that Indian education had changed much for the better in the past generation. American systems of education went from indoctrinating young Indians against their own cultures ("education was there to beat you down," Trudell put it), to an attitude of more respect, even celebration of Indian cultures and identities. Additionally, many schools these days are managed by communities themselves and now directly teach a more positive, value-oriented attitude to the new generations.
A principal element in institutionalizing and strengthening the Native cultural base has been the tribal community colleges, now numbering 33 and growing. The advent of the tribal community colleges in North America, dating from the founding of Navajo Community College in 1968, signaled a huge change in potentials for American Indian students and their communities. It began the building of an indispensable higher education base within communities, and created the opportunity for severely disadvantaged young people who clearly have wanted to pursue an education to achieve increasing degrees of success.
As Assiniboine educator James Shanley has said: "Tribal colleges promised to help individual tribal members become able to survive economically in the modern world and to help our tribes develop the economic base needed to allow the tribe to survive as a people on their own land in their own way."
The record of the tribal colleges is impressive. Enrollments are high, more than 25,000 annually from 250 tribes, and levels of every type of achievement are higher among tribal college graduates. A year 2000 survey released by the Institute for Higher Education Policy ("Creating Role Models for Change: A Survey of Tribal College Graduates") showed that "91 percent of 1998 Tribal college and University grads are working or attending college one year after graduating." The same survey, conducted by the IHEP in collaboration with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the Sally Mae Education Institute, revealed that nearly three-fourths of tribal college graduates are female and that most of those attending tribal college are from "first generation" college-bound families.
Among a population saddled with endemic poverty over generations, the tribal colleges have made it possible for tens of thousands of young people, particularly single women with children, to overcome poverty and the limitations of living in remote communities to embark on a path of useful instruction and successful careers. Sixteen percent of graduates go into health care fields; thirteen percent into teaching; twenty-four percent go on to management or entry level administrative/clerk positions. Forty-eight percent go on to further education, with more than eighty percent pursuing the Bachelors degree. Of those, about forty percent pursue business management and computer science fields.
Thus, the news that the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community had donated nearly one million dollars to the American Indian College Fund strikes us as a great signal to all of Indian country to support the growing strength of Indian education. If there is one area upon which tribal philanthropy (such as it is) should focus, it is education. It is the single most important nation-building element. Reach and hold your young people through a pleasant and instructive educational experience, guide them into serious study habits and help them develop clear thinking about their professional potentials -- the nations will grow. Attach to a sound modern education the central principle of sustaining Native language and language appreciation curricula through middle school; revitalize and teach the cultural, historical, and legal base of tribal sovereignty -- the nations will certainly deepen.
Education was a major issue in the presidential campaign of 2000, when both candidates endorsed serious new expenditures for infrastructure building and more Native teachers in Indian country. Finding good middle ground with the new Republican administration on education issues, Indian country leadership later emphasized education's priority importance to Indian communities during congressional hearings and information sessions in the spring of 2001. The tribes of course strongly supported current trends to tribal control and self-administration of education.
However, given the slump in the economy and shifting global priorities, the education of American Indian generations could potentially recede in importance at the federal level. Indian country leadership must remain vigilant in this respect. In each instance, there needs to be a commitment to sustain the necessary institutional support for the educational initiative that is greatly helping Indian country to fulfill its potentials. While not every tribe benefited from the relative affluence and business opportunities of the 1990s, generally, for Native, college-bound students opportunities have grown. This is an area of major promise, as surveys show that large percentages of Native college students would opt to take their training and talents home, to settle and work in their communities.
Not that tribal colleges are alone in the pursuit of higher educational profiles for Native peoples. The self-determination trend has touched everywhere, including Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. The Office of Indian Affairs at the BIA operates 185 schools in 23 states, serving 55,000 students from 63 reservations. It funds programs that impact upwards of 400,000 Native students of all ages. Yet, of their 185 schools, about two thirds are tribally-controlled and operated. It was mostly these schools, which certainly can use the infrastructure support, that the administration has sought to fund.
All efforts to upgrade the educational opportunities of Native youth are welcome and need support. This season we welcome the example of the $900,000 gift to the American Indian College Fund, from the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community, put up as a three-year challenge to other financially-strong Indian communities. This effort resonates and deserves ongoing attention. It signals not only generosity of spirit; it serves as a teaching on philanthropic strategy. This season, tribes seeking a good project to support might consider meeting this worthy challenge on behalf of the American Indian College Fund, which distributes scholarships to Indian students going to the tribal colleges.
Tribal colleges hold tremendous promise right now for a great range of talented Native students only asking for the opportunity to get on their way. To all those who can we say: Support the tribal colleges, individually, or via your tribal institutions, organizations, and national networks. This timely initiative signaled by the Mdewankanton deserves to be kept strong.
(On the Internet: http://www.collegefund.org)