Staying True to Its Mission: Celebrating 40 Years, the Tribal College Movement Remains Committed to Sustaining Native Culture, Language and Community, Officials Say

By Pember, Mary Annette | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Staying True to Its Mission: Celebrating 40 Years, the Tribal College Movement Remains Committed to Sustaining Native Culture, Language and Community, Officials Say


Pember, Mary Annette, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

   In beauty I walk
   With beauty before me I walk
   With beauty behind me I walk
   With beauty above me I walk
   With beauty around me I walk
   It has become beauty again
   It has become beauty again
   It has become beauty again
   It has become beauty again

Prayer, Dine (Navajo)
Blessing Way Ceremonies

Dine, the very first tribal college in the United States, and the tribal college movement are both celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Dine College president Ferlin Clark says the formation of the institution was a sacred act.

Tribal college leaders agree that the movement is, indeed, deeply rooted in American Indian spirituality and culture. As an example, Clark recalls an oft-told story about the groundbreaking ceremony for the Navajo Community College, now Dine College.

In 1968, U.S. Representative Wayne Aspinall, D-Colo., reluctantly attended the college's groundbreaking ceremony. He had been an outspoken critic of tribally controlled education and was loathe to lend any appearance of support to the Navajo's efforts. During the ceremony, Dine medicine man Charlie Benally offered up many prayers, including those of the Blessing Way, which signal a renewal of spirit, an honoring of the past and thanksgiving to the elements for life and hope for the future. As Benally prayed, he invited Aspinall to join him in holding the ceremonial Navajo digging stick or "gish." After the ceremony, a deeply moved Aspinall is reported to have said to Dr. Robert Roessel, one of the founders of the college, "I have been to mosques; I have been to synagogues; I have been to churches all over the world, but I felt God when I held that stick. You will get your college."

Aspinall became a vocal supporter of the Navajo Community College Act that became law in 1971. The act allowed federal finds to be appropriated directly to the tribe rather than through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This legislation established an invaluable precedent for tribally controlled education.

The seeds of the movement were sown many decades before the debut of the Navajo Community College. Indeed, since native peoples began attending mainstream U.S. colleges and universities 350 years ago, they have sought to put their own spin on education, according to the report of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Assimilationist leaders of the day, however, were determined that American Indian education remain controlled by Whites, with a strict emphasis on Western-styled instruction. BIA-controlled schools' use of Western education had largely proved to be a failure for American Indians.

For years, efforts to gain federal funds and support for native-controlled education failed. During those years, the BIA was an active opponent of Indian-controlled education and often testified in Congress against such efforts.

Several events during the 1960s and 1970s, however, provided a flashpoint that set the tribal college movement in motion.

Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty Community Action Programs, the Higher Education Act, the philosophy of the civil rights movement and its influence on Native American activists, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act are among the events that played significant roles in creating an environment favorable to developing American Indian-controlled education. The Office of Equal Opportunity, central to Johnson's War on Poverty, provided direct federal rids to native peoples for education for the first time.

Laying a Financial Foundation

Success built upon success as colleges began to spring up throughout the West. In 1973--six colleges, D-Q University, Navajo Community College, Oglala Community College, Sinte Gleska College (now a university), Standing Rock Community College (now called Sitting Bull College) and Turtle Mountain Community College--chartered the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). …

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