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Woksape Oyate Project Enhances Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges and universities, which serve mostly Native American students are benefiting from a $17.5 million grant.
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When one phrase can be offensive, find another, more acceptable one. That’s the principle that turned “intellectual capital” into “woksape oyate,” or “wisdom of the people,” in order to move a multimillion-dollar program forward in a good way.

Some people disliked the term “intellectual capital” because “it didn’t feel like a good cultural fit,” said Deborah Esquibel Hunt, Woksape Oyate project officer for the American Indian College Fund (AICF). “ ‘Capital’ was felt to be a Western term.”

So a $17.5 million, five-year grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. came to be known as Woksape Oyate after Richard Williams, AICF president and CEO, derived the term “and it began to work—after all, our greatest resource is our understanding of people and place,” Hunt said.

Semantics aside, projects that tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) undertook under the grant were discussed at a final, three-day Summit on Intellectual Capital at Tribal Colleges and Universities in Denver October 21-23. The five-year program officially ends June 30, 2012 and has been a “testament to Native genius,” Hunt said.

“My belief is that it is going to continue on in terms of the intellectual capacity created under this funding,” she said, particularly in the growth of Native American people with advanced degrees.

The summit was attended by officials from TCUs that made the transition from two- to four-year colleges, implemented language revitalization, and strengthened indigenous studies.

Overall, “We were damaged by education (in the boarding school era) so we want to get it back and do it the right way to reverse the damage done by Western education” in physical, intellectual, and emotional areas, Hunt said.

It was for each college to determine what the term woksape oyate meant and how they wanted to develop it, she said.

Under the grant, TCUs could initiate programs in three areas—academic, professional development, and recruitment and retention. Some colleges developed plans in all three areas, others one or two. The areas are to accomplish wider program goals that include training the next generation of leaders.

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“In the first year, tribal colleges could define for themselves what it was they wanted to accomplish with this investment,” Hunt said. “It was a gratifying thing to watch this unfold—people owned, named and embraced it—and proved, we have intellectual capital and here’s what we need to move forward in the future.”

Included in the $17.5 million were seven TCU projects at $700,000; 14 at $400,000; seven at $250,000, and four at $150,000, as well as supplemental grants.

Among $400,000 grantees was Fort Berthold Community College, in New Town, North Dakota, which focused on academics and completed several goals in the grant period. The college established a Native American Studies department, developed and is offering both associate and bachelor’s degree programs in it, established a Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Culture Honors program, created an All Chiefs Society (the Native club at the college), worked on a website for “The Student Journal of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Cultural Perspectives,” and offered a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and environmental science.

“The more you know about your own culture, the more grounded you’ll be,” said Thomasina Mandan, Mandan/Hidatsa/Dakota, an online education director of Native Studies at Fort Berthold college.

But she acknowledged not everything is positive, particularly when a reservation is “ravaged by the oil and gas industry,” as noted in material she distributed at the summit. The Fort Berthold Reservation and college are underlain by the vast Bakken formation where oil extraction has become a booming enterprise and where high wages are the rule, making it difficult not to lose students to work in the oil fields.

Among other programs is a professional development effort Hunt described at Blackfeet Community College, in Browning, Montana, where college employees created their own interdisciplinary master’s degree program at the University of Montana, traveling together and helping each other, as “tribal people moving forward.”

Although each of the plans had unique attributes, many, if not most, of the programs emphasized or included Native American language and cultural knowledge and usage, indigenous traditions and history, professional and/or business emphasis, leadership development and various methods of achieving academic improvement.

Preliminary data for the grant showed that 10 new baccalaureate and 13 new associate degree programs were developed at TCUs; 50 new positions were created at 16 schools; 41 new, highly qualified staff were hired at 14 TCUs; 44 new institutional policies were implemented at nine TCUs; 36 new teaching methods were developed at 12 TCUs; and 88 project-funded employee degrees were completed at 13 institutions, including 29 master’s degrees and three doctorates, Hunt said.

The data showed increases in a number of areas at TCUs including math ability, English skills, enrollment, retention, graduation, GPA, attendance, and indigenous language class enrollment and language use.

For many tribal colleges, the cultural emphasis is central, as in Fort Berthold Community College’s motto—“The Place Which Perpetuates Our Way of Living.”