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Eddie Chuculate
Special to Indian Country Today

Much like the nation itself, Native American colleges and universities across the country have a mixed approach as they open the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Some schools, such as Haskell Indian Nations University, decided in July to stay off campus with online instruction only.

Others, such as the Institute of American Indian Arts, will have a mixture of virtual learning and on-campus classes.

Meanwhile, Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, is forging ahead with an on-campus semester, but giving students the option to stay at home, come to campus or a mixture of both.

Bacone, the oldest higher-learning institution in Oklahoma, anticipates a 15 percent drop in enrollment due to the pandemic, but plans to welcome between 235 and 250 students when the semester begins Wednesday. Bacone had 271 students enrolled at the start of fall 2019.


The start date is two weeks later than usual to provide a staggered move-in to the dorms, reducing overcrowding and the chance at spreading the virus, said Bacone Vice President of Student Affairs Kaila Harjo.

Fifty-five first-time freshmen will reside on campus and be given a care package including washable face mask, disposable masks and hand sanitizer.

“It’s my job to ensure our students remain as safe and healthy as possible. They are my family here on campus, and I’m dedicated to creating a safe, home-like atmosphere for them all,” Harjo, Creek and Seminole, said in an email.

Students will be required to wear masks at all times, except when eating or when they’re in their dorm rooms. Faculty and staff have the same requirement, Harjo said.

Classroom attendance will be capped at 10 with social-distancing guidelines in place in common areas such as the library and dining halls.

The school still plans to compete in men’s and women’s basketball this fall in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, Harjo said.

The association, however, has moved its basketball and other fall and winter sports championships to the spring, letting the schools and conferences decide on their own whether to play their seasons this fall.

Bacone College was founded in 1880 and is now chartered by the Keetoowah Cherokee, Osage, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho and Otoe-Missouria tribes.

It is a liberal arts college offering bachelor’s degrees and has renowned Indian art and radiography programs.

At the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the school has formed partnerships with Presbyterian Health Services and the Indian Health Service amid the pandemic.

Presbyterian will provide initial on-campus testing for all staff and students while IHS will conduct follow-up testing, said school President Dr. Robert Martin, Cherokee.

IAIA expects up to 550 total students from 90 tribes across all programs, which is a enrollment decline of 20 percent from last semester that was anticipated due to the coronavirus.


There are 57 new freshmen, down from 74 last year, and 43 MFA students, who work entirely online. Two-hundred students are continuing their education this semester, which began online last week. Seventy percent of classes will be conducted virtually, with the remainder on campus with a six-student maximum per classroom.

“Obviously, as a fine arts college we cannot effectively transition all of our courses to an online format,” Martin wrote in an op-ed published in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.

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“A number of studio arts, cinematic arts and performing arts will be held in person on campus for the first eight weeks of the semester (for) access to studios and special equipment,” Martin wrote.

IAIA has reduced on-campus tuition by 10 percent and online tuition by 25 percent and is also providing laptops, paying for internet connections and data plans for cellphones, and providing emergency financial aid for rent, housing, gas and vehicle repairs, Martin wrote in the op-ed.

IAIA is the only four-year degree fine arts institution in the world devoted to contemporary Native American and Alaskan Native arts.

It is one of 37 tribal colleges in the United States accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, according to its website.

It has creative writing, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and video programs in addition to museum studies and other classes such as Native Art history.

In Lawrence, Kansas, campus will be more or less vacant this semester as students at Haskell matriculate 100 percent online via the Blackboard system when classes begin Monday.

Haskell Indian Nations University

Haskell Indian Nations University recently completed interviews for a new president.

The school, which averages about 1,000 students each academic year, is charging $715 for the online fall 2020 semester, according to its website.

Normally some of those costs go toward activity fees on campus, housing and food, but since students will be at home this fall, some are troubled that costs will remain the same, according to published reports.

Off-campus students last year previously paid $240 per semester, according to online records.

Other schools, such as Bacone and IAIA, have reduced fees while others, such as Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, aren’t charging anything for the upcoming online-only fall semester.

Meanwhile, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, is beginning the fall semester Monday on campus.

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

Fort Lewis College is considered a Native American-serving, nontribal school.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, United Tribes Technical College is starting on-campus classes Tuesday with social distancing and other safeguards in place.

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 United States. It had 64 graduates last spring/summer in associate, bachelor’s and certificate programs and 323 full-time and 23 part-time students during spring 2020.

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek and Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis.

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