When John Blackhawk, interim president of Little Priest Tribal College, asked the class of '98 to ascend the stage of the community center to say a few words, all five graduates came forward. Beginning with Amy Bearskin, each spoke for a few minutes, expressing thanks to their parents and promising their professors -- four full-time and 11 adjunct -- that this day's success would lead to more.
Not that it was much noticed beyond the sere hills of the Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa, with the Missouri River in between, but the commencement ceremony had two links with history: one making it; the other remembering.
This was the first graduating class at Little Priest, a two-year associate degree college offering 43 core courses and 24 electives to some 100 students. Two-thirds are adults, three-fourths women. The Little Priest campus, which has one building atop a hill that is a pasture and creekbed or two away from the tribe's buffalo herd, is named after the Winnebago chief whose dying words in 1866 to his community were: "There is nothing more I can do for you. Be strong and educate my children."
The remembrance of history goes back to the 1832 treaty between the Winnebagos and the administration of Andrew Jackson, one of the most anti-Indian presidents in U.S. history. It required that the tribe cede 7 million acres of arable land in the central Missouri Valley to the well-armed white outsiders. In exchange, the government promised piddling rewards to the straitened Winnebagos: 12 yokes of oxen, 1,500 pounds of tobacco and a school to impart "whatever knowledge the president of the United States would prescribe."
For 166 years the Winnebagos, with 1,200 members currently on the reservation and 3,800 on the roll, has had its own views on what "useful knowledge" should be dispensed. Forced assimilation, the devaluation of traditional culture, attacks on tribal sovereignty, boarding schools and other forms of paternalism by federal officials assured that the tribe's potential for independence went untapped.
Educationally, that changed in August 1996. The Winnebagos opened Little Priest College, with John Blackhawk telling me at the first-day ceremonies that the school is "an institution of survival." Start-up funding of $500,000 came from the tribe's casino income.
Little Priest Tribal College is the latest display of self-reliance and educational excellence in Indian country. The school is one of 31 Native American colleges in 11 states. Such schools as Turtle Mountain Community College, N.D., Salish Kootenai College, Mont., Oglala Lakota College, S.D, and the rest are enrolling some 20,000 students from more than 200 tribes.
In 1968, I covered the opening of the first tribal college at Tsaile, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation. The early promise of that day has been fulfilled: Some 10,000 students have graduated, and current enrollment is about 1,500. Much of the 1968 funding for the Navajo Community College came from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Sargent Shriver, who directed the office predicted at the time that Indian educators would be both knowledgeable and motivated to teach tribal languages, culture and history, and that little of this would be available in non-Indian schools.
The prediction has proved to be true. A 125-page report, "Native American Colleges: Progress and Prospects," issued in 1997 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching summarized the findings of a survey of 1,600 Indian students. It showed that 69 percent were "very satisfied with the teaching at their college ... 68 percent strongly agreed that their professors enjoyed teaching, and 70 percent strongly agreed that the professors encouraged students to participate actively in classroom discussions."
More than a third of the surveyed students had previously attended a non-Indian college or …