A Pioneer for American Indian Education

By Pember, Mary Annette | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, July 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Pioneer for American Indian Education


Pember, Mary Annette, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


In 1978, Joe McDonald of the Confederated Salish Kootenai tribes dreamed of a decent building for the newly created Salish Kootenai College. At the time, classes were being held in an abandoned building on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. He envisioned a building that could serve 80 to 100 students per year, providing them with general education and occupational skills.

That dream of one building has since evolved into a campus of 53 buildings, measuring well over 200,000 square feet and covering more than 130 acres of land. The SKC campus of today includes athletic fields, gymnasiums and a golf course.

As McDonald prepares to retire next year after more than 30 years at the helm of SKC, he looks back with satisfaction and a bit of wonder at all that has happened for his and other tribal colleges since those humble beginnings.

"Yes," admits McDonald, "SKC and the tribal college movement have grown far beyond anything I envisioned at the time."

The college's guiding principles, however, have changed very little over the years, according to McDonald. The school's mission includes service to Indian people by providing quality postsecondary programs, maintaining Native culture, providing lifelong learning, assisting the community by helping in economic planning and finding financial resources, and maintaining diversity among students.

"Our founding principles have served the test of time," concludes McDonald.

At the time of the college's founding, it appeared to McDonald that many tribes seemed to be waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to step in and provide guidance. He and a handful of other educators in Indian country grew impatient.

"We didn't wait for the BIA. We did it ourselves," he says. "At SKC, we began charging students a building flee right from the start so we could generate our own funding to build the school."

Guided by this spirit of self-determination, McDonald was instrumental in establishing the federal Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which provides funding for tribal colleges. …

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