Tribal Colleges Promote Ancestral Language, History: Cultural Mission. Sparks Pride, Preserves Heritage
by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
For Tanya Shendo, the Pueblo lifestyle has been a source of strength and pride, but she has always felt that half of her heritage was missing.
Although she grew up surrounded by the rich traditions of her father's Pueblo culture in New Mexico, and learned to speak the native Jemez language, she longed to know her mother's history. Shendo's family was distanced from that culture decades ago when her mother moved from the Rocky Boy (MT) Indian Reservation and her Chipewa Cre tribe.
"I always told my mother I wish I, could dance and participate in powwows," said Shendo. "I think I missed out...on the costumes and the dancing and the symbols."
Shendo returned to the reservation in Box Elder, MT to attend Stone Child College (SCC), the tribe's 10-year-old community college. As she begins her last semester, she has been able to find a part of herself.
"I was always interested in...how they do the sundance and the powwows and the purpose of them. I wanted to learn what the colors on the costumes represent and the directions of the dances," Shendo said. "It has given me a greater sense of pride and makes me feel more Native American to understand where I came from."
The main mission of the 31 member institutions of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), is to "promote and encourage the development of language, culture and traditions of the American Indian, Eskimo and Alaskan Natives," according to the consortium literature. Most of the colleges offer significant coursework in a curriculum designed to fulfill that mission within their own tribes.
For many of the tribes, the community colleges are revitalizing or maintaining the languages, arts, music and ancestral life force that has long been in danger of being forgotten, ignored or neglected.
At Little Big Horn College (LBH), run by the Crow tribe of Plains Indians in Crow Agency, MT, most of the nearly 300 students and about 25 percent of the faculty speak the native language, a relatively high rate of proficiency compared to other tribal colleges, according to President Janine Pease-Windy Boy.
To promote and reinforce the importance of the language and in keeping with tradition, all administrators, staff, faculty and students who are fluent speak the language when conducting school business or addressing each other. Tribal studies are built into the general education curriculum and courses in Crow literature, language, art and music are core requirements.
Such courses as "Oral Literature of the Crow," "Social Issues of the American Indian" and "History of the Chiefs and Economics in Indian Country" are all part of one mechanism for sustaining the tribe's cherished way of life, Pease Windy-Boy said.
"We are at a crucial time in our tribal history where fluency is diminishing rapidly," she said. "There are many mechanisms in the community that promote the culture...a lot of education and strong [emphasis on] language."
Native American Studies courses at Oglala Lakota College (OLC) are developed under the direction of a Sioux elder council, which also certifies teachers of the Lakota disciplines. A bachelor's degree in Lakota Studies, which prepares many teachers interested in working on the reservation, requires courses in the Lakota language (an oral dialect with no written form), oral literature, a history of the culture, family structure, music and art, sociology, philosophy and aspects of the tribe's major ceremonies.
Although the tribe's medicine and holy men, along with singers and dancers, have been the main source for cultural education, in a community where Lakota is spoken in only about half of the homes, the 23-year-old college is playing an increasingly significant role in getting students excited about the legacy of their ancestors. …