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Thinking Indian at tribal colleges

We are rooted in a way of life that for centuries has sustained our people and the earth in a peaceful way. We encountered a people who came to our land and looked upon us as someone without culture, moral values, or social value.

Gradually these people attempted to eradicate our culture, including our art, sacred sites, language and traditions. Our children were forcibly removed from home to be educated at boarding schools, where cemeteries are filled with the bodies of children who were starved, beaten and abused. Although we endured, we are treated as quaint relics of the past, and see our cultures exploited for commercial gain.

This is the process of colonization that American Indian people endured. This process also occurred in India, Africa and South America as colonizing nations sought to take land and natural resources while killing indigenous people or squelching their lifeways to ensure their success. In the process, much was lost: knowledge of government and council processes, traditional healing ways, environmental sustainability, animal husbandry, soil science, astronomy and more.

Indigenous knowledge that was lost or stolen is intellectual capital. Just as our knowledge today of statistics or computer programming makes us valuable in commerce, so does the knowledge of our languages and practices, especially when global climate change mandates that people live in harmony with the planet. Ancient practices of fertilization of the earth, crop rotation and hundreds of years of careful observation of plant biology, not unlike a biologist’s studies, can make the difference between survival and extinction.

However, because American Indians are not part of the dominant culture, their contributions are often unrecognized or undervalued. And because of poor experiences with boarding schools, many American Indians became distrustful of education, putting them at the bottom of the ranks of educated Americans and contributing even further to their impoverishment.

According to the American Council on Education only 0.7 percent of American Indians attained a bachelor’s degree in 2005, compared to 6.4 percent of Asian Americans, 6.6 percent of Hispanics, 8.7 percent of African Americans and 68.8 percent of whites. There is a high correlation between poverty levels and low education attainment rates amongst American Indians.

Nearly 26 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live below the poverty line, contrasted with a national poverty rate of 12.4 percent. The gap is even larger for people living on reservations with limited economic opportunities, with 51 percent of the population living below the poverty line. And even though the nation’s poverty rate dropped from 11.8 percent in 1999 to 11.3 percent in 2000 (the lowest in 21 years), American Indians and Alaska Natives poverty rates did not drop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But poverty is not just a lack of income or material goods. Poverty is also the mental state in which people no longer are confident in themselves or their traditions.

The American Indian College Fund educates the mind and the spirit of Native college students by providing scholarships to tribal and mainstream colleges and universities.

Despite the experiences of most tribal groups with education, elders encourage their people to seek a higher education in order to escape the side effects of oppression, including high unemployment, increased domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and an epidemic of obesity and diabetes due to forced removal from Native environments and culture and subsequent reliance on government commodities. American Indians have the highest rates of suicide, domestic violence, cancer, diabetes and other health and mental health problems in the country. When the spirit is fed, people can reclaim their intellectual capital.

Through tribal colleges, American Indians are reconnected with the Indian way of doing things, or “Thinking Indian.” This holistic approach to learning incorporates traditional and western knowledge. We have seen amazing results. For example, at one of our tribal colleges, American Indian students are conducting research about a traditional medicinal therapy that treats and seems to reverse the effects of diabetes.

An education at a tribal college reintroduces American Indian students to their culture, their tribes’ intellectual capital, and allows them to step outside the negative images that are the legacy of colonialism. In turn, the tribal colleges are repositories for Native intellectual capital, and they empower students across Indian country.

Jessie Bennett, Navajo, who was named student of the year at the Institute of American Indian Arts, said, “I was always told I was a nobody. Now I feel like a somebody.”

American Indian students are forging their own paths, combining their traditions with invaluable skills they acquire at tribal colleges. Tribal colleges are imbuing in them the sense that they are somebody – somebody special with something valuable to offer the world.

Richard B. Williams is the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships for American Indian students seeking to better their lives and communities through a college education at the nation’s 33 accredited tribal colleges and universities.