Tribal colleges have great impact

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The federal covenant with the American Indian tribal colleges deepened on July 3 as President George W. Bush signed the new Executive Order on Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), also naming its new Advisory Board. Gerald Gipp, Ph.D., (Hunkpapa Lakota), executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) called the signing and the new order confirmation "of this Administration's support" for the tribal colleges and universities.

We found it very welcome news. We believe the whole movement to establish and strengthen our tribal colleges and national universities is one of the finest efforts that can ever be made for Indian country.

The most exciting element of Indian education is the concept of "Full Circle." First coined in relation to education by Mohawk educator Ron LaFrance, the term refers to the practice of Native students returning to their tribal communities. It is a brilliant idea, made even more powerful by the way Native students have embraced it. While not exclusive to the tribal colleges and universities, nevertheless, it is in that context that the impetus and the opportunity to "return home" are most clearly prevalent. The histories and objectives of the tribal college movement are fully woven into the fabric of Indian community life. Empowerment, cultural and economic development, informed planning ? all grow and thrive as the educational base of communities expands.

Still, in this new century, over a quarter of the American Indian population lives below the poverty line. Casinos and bingo halls have injected much-needed resources but only throughout less than half of Indian country; the other half suffers from extreme deprivation. Health, housing, education and employment opportunities are dire indeed. Slowly but surely, the expansion of the tribal colleges and universities is confronting these issues. While unemployment rates on reservations often exceed fifty percent, some three-quarters of tribal college and university graduates are employed, according to a 1999 report by the AIHEC.

The tribal colleges and universities often initiate projects in cultural and economic development in their home territories. The transforming power of these learning centers is difficult to overestimate. According to the Tribal College Journal, a fine national publication that reports on this unique educational movement, "at least seven tribal colleges study renewable energy with plans to rely more on solar and geothermal energy for their communities' needs." This approach to culturally appropriate development is a natural fit that combines the scientific resources of the college faculties with the Native natural world traditions. Consider also the need for practical energy solutions for Indian communities that often pay exorbitant electricity and heating fuel rates. Various colleges, including the Turtle Mountain Community College, will see much reduced energy expenses as they convert to wind and geothermal energy sources.

Economic development initiatives are also increasing in popularity. Joining forces with the Rural Community College Initiative (RCCI), six tribal colleges in Montana and the Dakotas ? Salish Kootenai, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, Blackfeet, Sitting Bull and Sinte Gleska ? used the project's Ford Foundation connection to leverage grants and investment from a large circle of donors. Highly successful initiatives, such as the Center for Family and Community Development, were unique, even controversial at first when they provided small grants to community members to stimulate a variety of ideas for small business development. The resulting information base has provided college and community planners with new insights into the main areas of community need. Just in the past four years, according to the Tribal College Journal, the center helped to initiate 40 new businesses, co-designed some 150 business and project funding plans and served over 1,500 clients. The reservation's wellness center has reduced out-of-control blood pressure cases by a remarkable 38 percent, including a reduction of 23 percent among diabetes patients. Other colleges have targeted tribal tourism, home ownership and various forms of small business development, depending on specific situations.

Very importantly, most tribal colleges and universities have moved to create institutional endowments that will help guarantee a self-sufficient source of revenue long into the future. Nine of the 33 members of AIHEC offer four-year degrees. All are growing rapidly and some 20 new colleges are expected to be founded in the next decade.

The positive development with President Bush follows a White House initiative on tribal colleges facilitated by AIHEC and presidents of many of the tribal colleges. The present goal of the initiative, as Dr. Gipp expressed it, is to "overcome the most prevalent obstacle of establishing parity in Federal government funding of the nation's TCUs on a level equivalent with mainstream institutions." When accomplished, we fully expect that this seeding of American Indian higher education today will produce informed and effective American Indian leadership tomorrow.

There is great pride in witnessing the amazing and steady success of the tribal colleges and universities. Recently, the Oneida Nation Foundation granted $20,000 to tribal colleges. We encourage other economically successful tribes to contribute as well. The effort is significant and stands as one of the great hopes to have emerged for Indian country in the past quarter century.