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Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

Across the country, Native American higher-education institutions are dealing with financial loss, delayed graduations, distance learning and varying degrees of uncertainty with the upcoming fall semester in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools were able to complete their spring semesters with virtual classrooms, but commencements were postponed or canceled as students were unable to return from spring breaks due to the timing of the virus and states’ lockdown orders.

The Institute of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has already canceled its makeup graduation ceremony scheduled for Aug. 22 and is planning a half-virtual, half on-campus fall 2020 semester.

Since the school became a four-year, bachelor’s-degree-awarding institution in 2001, this spring’s 92 graduates, which includes 30 MFA earners, is a record, said school president Robert Martin, Cherokee.

But those graduates will receive their degrees virtually. U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, an Institute of Indian Arts alum, Muscogee (Creek), was scheduled to be the keynote speaker and was slated to be awarded an honorary doctorate in on-campus ceremonies.

“We decided not to ask the students to come back to campus in light of the way this thing (pandemic) appears to be headed,” Martin said via telephone from his Santa Fe office. “During our talks with students over the last few weeks one thing they’ve always said is, ‘Just keep us safe.’”



The Institute of Indian Arts had about 500 students from 90 tribes around the country this spring.

Fall semester will start Aug. 16. For the first eight weeks, only students in studio arts programs will be on campus, while the remainder continue distance learning. 

After the first eight weeks, all instruction will be online, Martin said.

“We’ve been needing to move to more online classes anyway so this is just giving us a push,” said Martin, president since 2007. “A lot of people don’t have four or five years to take out of their lives (to move to campus) to pursue a degree.”


Martin said some students had technical problems continuing the semester due to lack of connectivity or computers, but overall it went smoothly.

Home > Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA)

“We had some incompletes, which we’ll address this summer and allow them to complete their courses,” Martin said. “But attendance overall was better with virtual. Even with board meetings, we’ve had three-hour Zoom sessions and nobody left.”

The school refunded over $300,000 in housing and food costs to students and disbursed at least $51,000 in emergency aid covering food, travel and housing expenses, including internet upgrades and hotspots in students’ homes and for personal laptops, Martin said, and will do so again this fall.

Thirty-one students are still on campus, Martin said. Twenty were living full time in family housing on campus called the Casitas, while 11 stayed over during spring break and indicated they had no other place to go and were allowed to move into the Casitas.

The school is facing a loss of $150,000 this summer in rental revenue as it often leases out its prime Santa Fe properties for events such as the Santa Fe Institute’s summer school, which annually brings in 80 scientists from around the globe. The institute canceled this summer due to the pandemic.

Martin said Harjo will be offered the choice to live-stream or make the trip to Santa Fe to receive the doctorate and deliver the address virtually.

Bacone College back to campus for fall

In Muskogee, Oklahoma, Bacone College, founded in 1880 and chartered by the Keetoowah Cherokee, Osage, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho and Otoe-Missouria tribes, fall semester will start on campus Aug. 12.

Commencement for 40 graduates will be held in December for Spring 2020, and housing deposits for fall will be waived.

Instruction went online in March after an extended spring break for 243 students. Bacone is a liberal arts college offering bachelor’s degrees and has renowned Indian art and radiography programs.


Like other schools, students never returned from spring break but were able to finish the semester in May. The summer session begins June 8 online only. Tuition has been reduced 10 percent and fees 70 percent for summer classes in an offer to offset COVID-19 financial woes.

Lisan Tiger Blair, Creek, of Muskogee is a 3-D major and said he adjusted to virtual classes.

“We uploaded pictures of our work, and everyone critiqued it,” the 24-year-old junior said via cellphone from his home in rural Muskogee.

“It was OK. On one hand, you have more time (to do art), but on the other really no help from a professor to help you work things out.”

Blair said some students who were previously on campus in the studio classes didn’t continue virtually. He said he’s ready to return to campus in the fall.

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“I miss hanging out with the students, getting better answers from the professors. The lessons were better explained (in physical classrooms) than in just 30-minute Zoom sessions,” said Blair, a sculptor who took 3-D, figure drawing, human biology and Native American History II this spring.

Bacone College | Muskogee OK | Serving Native Americans since 1880

Bacone School of Indian Art director Gerald Cournoyer, Oglala Lakota, mailed out or personally delivered art materials to students during lockdown.

Bacone’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics sports programs got in about half a season before they were forced to cancel in early March. The softball team finished 1-14, while the baseballers were 1-23.

One strategy for returning students this fall, said Bacone spokeswoman Wendy Burton, is to stagger their return over several weeks to aid social distancing.

Haskell delays graduation, hires new president

In Lawrence, Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University went online via the remote Blackboard system on March 23 after an extended spring break.

The school, which averages about 1,000 students a semester, is anticipating a fall commencement, but that and the status of the fall term are to be determined.

Many students were forced to leave their belongings at Haskell, which staff has secured, according to a video posted on Haskell’s Facebook page by Manny King, Northern Cheyenne, school guidance counselor.


Like Bacone and the Institute of Indian Arts, Haskell has students from across the country. The school bought gasoline cards for students or flew some home and forwarded scholarship checks to students’ residences.

Around 70 students remained on campus. The school had daily brunch service at the Curtis dining hall and delivered meals to Winona and Blalock dormitories.

Haskell Indian Nations University: Home

The spring powwow was canceled, along with sporting events. The softball team finished 3-14.

The campus is shut down to the public. People are asked to call 785-830-2770 or email for developments.


Amid the pandemic, the school hired Ronald Graham, Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, as its new president on May 11, filling a vacancy of over a year.

Graham comes from the Victor Valley College in Victor Valley, California, where he was a dean of instruction, according to the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World.

Fort Lewis, UTTC adjust

In Durango, Colorado, Fort Lewis College is holding a virtual commencement for grads on May 29 and has scheduled a physical cap-and-gown ceremony for Aug. 29-30.

Fort Lewis College historically offers free tuition for qualified Native Americans by state mandate and had about 1,100 Indian students this spring out of an overall enrollment of 3,300.

Fort Lewis College is considered a Native American-serving, nontribal school. It, too, converted to distance learning after spring break. The school offered prorated refunds to students who had to leave residence halls.

Fort Lewis College | Durango, Colorado

Students were encouraged to leave, but allowed to stay, according to the school. Around 125 remained on campus.

United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, closed its residence halls on March 31 and converted to online-only. It had 64 graduates this spring/summer in associate, bachelor’s and certificate programs and 323 full time and 23 part time students this spring.

It started summer session online-only on May 19, but is planning a campus-based fall semester starting Aug. 24. Coronavirus data will be reviewed by the school on June 26 to make a determination on a social-distancing policy for the remainder of the summer.

United Tribes Technical College: Home

UTTC is operated by the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, the Spirit Lake Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

In its 50-year history it has served over 75 tribes across the U.S.

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Eddie Chuculate (Creek/Cherokee) is a writer in Minneapolis. @eddie_chuculate,