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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 25, 2003 - Issue 79


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Tribal Colleges a Study in Success

Credits: Art - Power of a Dream by Roy Thomas
Power of a Dream by Roy ThomasMT. PLEASANT, Mich. -- When college language instructor George Roy greets his students in Ojibwa 101 each semester, he tells them that he also goes by another name.

"My tribal family name is Signaak and it means 'Blackbird,'" explains Roy, 56, an instructor in the Native American studies program at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, located 65 miles north of Lansing.

"As a Native American, I've learned that tribal family names are a big part of your identity. And the language also is important because language is the glue that holds our culture together," he said.

The growing popularity of the Saginaw Chippewa courses in Native American studies and the Ojibwa language--spoken by the Ojibwe tribe--are an example of thriving times for America's 58 tribal colleges.

The schools were launched in the late 1960s to provide educational skills that might help Indians mired in poverty on reservations to compete better in the job market. The colleges are now educating more than 30,000 full- and part-time students each year, with most of the campuses located in the Great Plains and the Southwest.

Enrollment at these specialized community colleges--most offer two-year associate degrees--has nearly doubled during the past decade. Five of the reservation-linked schools have blossomed into four-year, degree-granting colleges, and several offer master's degrees.

Tribal colleges `here to stay'

"There's no doubt that the tribal colleges are here to stay," said Gerald Gipp, executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, a Washington-based lobbying group that includes 34 tribal colleges. "These students are learning everything from computer skills to traditional Native American medicines and language and art. In addition, nearly 40 percent of our students today are non-Native Americans in search of the job skills and general education you'd expect to find at any community college."

Gipp notes, however, that "the tribal colleges are doing a lot more for their communities than simply preparing Indian students to compete in the mainstream. Increasingly, they're helping many Native Americans to rediscover their own cultures, and relearn their own languages. They're teaching students about native plants and medicines, for example, or about traditional tribal arts and crafts.

"By helping Native Americans learn more about their own cultures, the colleges are giving them a new feeling of empowerment, a new feeling of pride in their own identity," he said.

Instructors at tribal colleges in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan emphasized the importance of the schools as centers for regaining lost culture and language.

"A lot of our Native American students do feel that there has been a cultural loss," said Roland Marmon, a North Dakota Turtle Mountain Ojibwe who teaches at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minn., near the North Dakota border. "Many students at White Earth come from the [nearby] Ojibwe reservation, and they're eager to talk about the wrongs that were committed in the past, and about their lost roots."

Regaining cultural identity

At Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, Native American arts instructor Patrick Collins said many students "are interested in regaining their culture. They're drawn to learn about Ojibwe arts and traditions by what we call `blood memory'--by the spirit that is inside them, and that has never been lost. And when they start to learn about drumming, or about traditional alabaster sculpture, let's say, then they start to feel the excitement of discovering their own buried identities.

"I remember when I went to my first powwow, 15 years ago," said Collins, 28, a Native American. "I'd grown up in Michigan without knowing the [Ojibwa] language or anything about our culture. But then I went to the powwow and I heard the drum. You know, they say the drum is the `heartbeat of our people.'

"I heard that, and it gave me goose bumps. My `blood memory' was starting to return. And this return of memory is what I often see in my students, when we talk in class about Native American arts. What I think we're experiencing at the tribal colleges is a kind of renaissance, a rebirth of Indian cultures and values all across the country."

Allen Caldwell, director of the Menominee Culture Institute at the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wis., about 50 miles northwest of Green Bay, underlined the need for language studies at the tribal colleges. "We have 8,800 tribal members," said Caldwell, "but only about 40 of them are still fluent in the language."

Caldwell said, "If we lose the language, a lot of the culture will go with it. There's a lot at stake at here, and the tribal colleges are a terrific resource for us in the struggle to maintain our Native American identity."

Tribal college administrators say they are also determined to build rigorous academic programs. At Bay Mills Community College in Brimley, Mich., an Ojibwe tribal college, President Michael "Mickey" Parish said the 400 students are required to meet high academic standards.

Homework still required

"We do our best to help with these cultural issues, but we still expect students to do their homework," he said.

Like most university administrators, consortium director Gipp frets about limited resources, particularly the lack of funding from the federal government. The government pays $3,800 in tuition assistance per Indian student. Under the 1978 law that recognized and helped fund and expand the colleges, Congress authorized a payment of $6,000 per student. But because most tribal colleges are institutions of Indian nations, they are ineligible for financial assistance from state and local governments. They must rely entirely on Washington for financial help.

The students pay about the same tuition as other community college students but many require scholarship help or grants.

"The tribal colleges are the most underfunded institutions of higher education in America today," Gipp said. Noting that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, decide how much funding to give tribal colleges, Gipp warned that these schools will need more resources, if they're going to grow and improve.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium
The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) is a unique—and uniquely American Indian—organization. It was founded in 1972 by the presidents of the nation’s first six Tribal Colleges, as an informal collaboration among member colleges. Today, AIHEC has grown to represent 34 colleges in the United States and one Canadian institution. Unlike most professional associations, it is governed jointly by each member institution.

Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College
The mission of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, a tribally-controlled community college, is to empower learners to realize their educational objectives. Reflecting the unique culture of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Community, the college provides higher education opportunities and strives for educational excellence.

Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is self-governed by a twelve-member Tribal Council. The Council includes 10 representatives from District 1 (the Isabella Reservation) and one representative each from District 2 (Saganing) and District 3 (members at-large). Tribal Council members are elected by registered voters in their respective districts. The Council then selects its executive officers, the Chief, Sub-Chief, Secretary and Treasurer.

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