Skip to main content

Williams: New beginnings: You can be one in three million!

It's back-to-school time for students of many ages. In Indian country, as in the rest of the nation, people from the tiniest tots to elder adults wanting a better life are heading to the classroom to discover new realms of possibility for personal and professional growth.

But in the Indian community, formalized education has not always been a good experience. After Indians were forced onto reservations in the late 1800s, the U.S. government opened boarding schools to attempt to assimilate young students into the predominant culture. Children as young as 2 were removed from their families and shipped to geographically distant boarding schools to prevent them from running away and to ensure their families could not visit them. While at boarding school, they had their Indian clothing removed and burned; their long hair, which for many tribes has spiritual connotations, was cut; and they were forced to wear government-issue western-style clothing. Children were subject to corporal or mental punishment for speaking their own language or practicing their traditional cultural or spiritual traditions. After finishing boarding school, graduates returned home to find their training did not match opportunities at home. And many boarding school graduates could no longer speak their Native language, and were distressed to discover they no longer felt at home in their culture.

It wasn't until 1934 that Indian parents had the right to determine the school their children attended. But discrimination and cultural repression didn't always stop there. Many American Indians tell stories about the hurtful words uttered or acts perpetrated by teachers or fellow students. It's hard to estimate the extent of damage that the boarding school ''education'' system and subsequent cruelty perpetrated by teachers, students and education officials impacted generations of American Indians and their view of education in general. It's probably no coincidence that American Indians once ranked lowest on the scale of groups earning a higher education after generations of bad experiences.

But no more. As a people, we have never let others define us, and we know we will not let others tell us what we are capable of. Today, American Indians are the driving force behind what we learn and how we learn it, from elementary school to our tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Education is a necessary part of life in Indian country, whether you plan a career in tribal government, forestry or law enforcement. Our more than 30 accredited TCUs provide that education for 16,986 American Indian and non-Indian students, serving people living on or near remote reservations. For many students who support families, attending a TCU is their only chance at an education.

I like to think that it's the efforts of education professionals at our tribal schools and TCUs; the Native community's support and embracing of knowledge; and the paradigm-shift towards culturally based education taught in a cooperative learning style, including Native language instruction, that has led to results reported in the 2000 Census. We are making great strides in education. The Census shows that American Indian students no longer rank in last place among Americans attaining a college education, whether an associate or advanced degree. More than 41 percent of American Indian students attend some college, with 11.5 percent of American Indian students achieving a bachelor's degree and 3.9 percent going on to earn an advanced degree.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

American Indian students still face many challenges, however. Many students do not have the financial resources to attend college and are forced to leave school when their funds run dry. Others are responsible for children and other family members, and cannot forsake their home responsibilities to attend college without assistance. The American Indian College Fund provides scholarships for students needing that extra financial assistance. But there is always more need, and every student deserves a chance at an education.

Despite the challenges our students face, our people don't quit easily. It is people like Richard Littlebear, who is working to teach and preserve the Cheyenne language while also serving as president of Chief Dull Knife College; or David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College, who pays personal visits to students when they become discouraged and leave school, to lure them back because he believes in their potential. These people ensure that our American Indian people are among the 3 million students projected to graduate from our nation's colleges and universities this year. Whether a student is 18 and studying nursing or 80 and studying computers, our tribal colleges have a place for everyone who wants to learn.

In addition to those 3 million estimated graduates, a projected 18 million college students will enroll in college this fall. Our tribal colleges are educating American Indian students who are taking their rightful place among the nation's college graduates to serve their communities as leaders in many fields such as education, medicine, environmental science, law and others, while preserving their traditions and life ways, and providing their communities with a voice. Will you be one of them?

Richard B. Williams has served as president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund since October 1997. A member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, Williams is a leader, educator, advocate and historian. In 2005, Williams received the Educator of the Year award from the National Indian Education Association, the largest and oldest U.S. Indian education organization. In 2007, he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.