Native educator turns DNC star speaker

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DENVER – A series of fortunate events led to David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College, addressing the crowded Democratic National Convention on day two of one of the nation’s most hyped political events in history.

Gipp, of Hunkpapa descent, is well-known in the Native world as being a well-spoken, well-liked education-focused kind of guy. He’s also a strong advocate for tribal colleges and a mighty supporter of Sen. Barack Obama.

All of which helped him secure the choice speaking honor after Indian political pals, some of which hold positions on party committees, were contacted by the senator from Illinois’ presidential campaign asking for a prominent Indian to address the convention.

“I was quite taken aback by it,” Gipp said, adding that he learned just days before the convention that he’d been selected.

“Quite frankly, I thought it was going to be a tribally-elected leader. … In many ways I’m kind of like the common man who was given an ultimate opportunity.”

Speaking just after Rep. Mike Honda and just before Rep. Linda Sanchez, Gipp’s speech focused on government treaties, health care, and, of course, education. It lasted under 10 minutes due to time constraints.

His talk, received by roaring applause from thousands of convention delegates, took place on the same highly visible convention day during which Sen. Hillary Clinton threw her support once again behind candidate Obama.

Indian Country Today caught up with Gipp at the Pepsi Center just minutes after he exited the DNC grand podium stage.

Indian Country Today: So, was it good for you, Dr. Gipp?

David Gipp: Let’s just say it was a lot more intense than when we did it during rehearsal. [Laughs] It was a little bit overwhelming; but, on the other hand, it was wonderful to be able to present to the delegates and the others out there who may have seen or heard it on television or radio. I thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime to present at least some of the fundamentals that affect tribal nations and touch on issues that affect our people … even though I only had a very short period of time.

ICT: Do you ever get tired of having to sort of debrief non-Indians on issues that are pretty well-understood in Indian country?

Gipp: You know, when I was starting out in my 20s and 30s, it would get frustrating. … But I don’t get frustrated anymore because ours is a never-ending story about 567 tribes and beyond. Secondly, I realize we just have to really exercise our patience and continue telling our stories about who we are. Educating America is what it’s about. We need to remember that that part of life never really ends. And what’s wrong with telling our stories? Not just the plight and the difficulties – but all the good things we’re all about.

ICT: The DNC Native American caucus has been taking Sen. John McCain to task over lobbying issues – what do you think about him?

Gipp: My view is that Sen. Byron Dorgan, the current chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has done what John McCain did not do while he was chairman. That’s not saying that Sen. McCain hasn’t made some contributions to Indian country, but he hasn’t done enough. … I’d like to see a Native American leader who is well-grounded speak at the Republican National Convention, if that’s possible.

ICT: Do you think lobbying issues are tripping up Sen. McCain with Indians in particular?

Gipp: When you talk about lobbying, a lot of our Indian tribes have learned that this is part of the American political system. It’s the non-Indians who have trained us to say, “Hey, this is the way you get things done in Washington, D.C.” I don’t entirely agree with that perception. On the other hand, tribes have the right to exercise their rights as well. … But we do have to be careful of those who will take advantage of us, like the Jack Abramoff situation. But these kinds of things have been going on since even before we even signed treaties.

ICT: You’re an educator. What, in this political climate, would most help the 37 tribal colleges and universities?

Gipp: We need to be doing a better job at talking to all of the many community members who are affected by these colleges. And we need to get out the voters who care deeply about tribal colleges.

ICT: More TCU money is top priority, right?

Gipp: The need for operating dollars for tribal colleges is huge. Congress just reauthorized the tribal college law at about $8,000 per student, but I don’t know that it’s coming at that full level. So, it’s going to be short. Our colleges need to be funded at parity with other state colleges and universities. ... We should be able to serve even more students than the roughly 30,000 we have right now. We should be serving 50,000, but we don’t have the funds.

ICT: What good have the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities executive orders [signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush] done?

Gipp: Not enough has been done with that executive order. In fact, the top position at the WHITCU office is now vacant again. Each president has an opportunity to make sure that executive order is in place and is working. It hasn’t worked that well these past eight years. Nevertheless, it does give us some of the impetus to garner some of the resources that tribal colleges [need].

ICT: If Sen. Obama is elected, would you want him to re-sign the WHITCU executive order?

Gipp:Absolutely. Whoever is president needs to re-sign that executive order. That’s why, too, I want to know where Sen. McCain stands on this. We have a right to know.

ICT: What is it about Sen. Obama that makes you most want him to be elected the next president?

Gipp: The aspect of him that I think tribal people really respond to is his ability to listen. He seems to not just hear, but also listens. ... I really respect that.

ICT: Do you think Sen. Obama being a minority plays into his appeal for some Natives?

Gipp: I don’t think we should admire Sen. Obama just because he is African American, or part African American. I mean, we have an African American on the Supreme Court [Clarence Thomas], and the guy is about as anti-tribal as you can get. So, let’s not worship people just based on the color of their skin. Let’s take a look at what’s going on inside their heads. And if they have nothing going on in their heads, we should get rid of them.