This column contains an update.
Authors’ note: The term “Indian Country” appears in this column because it is frequently used by Tribal nations to describe their communities.
When the movement to build Tribal colleges took off in the late 1960s and 1970s, their founders squeezed classes into whatever spaces they could find, including trailers, sheds, church basements, an unused sewage treatment plant in Montana, and a condemned building in South Dakota in which “asphyxiation was felt to be an ever-present risk” because of a poorly vented oil stove.
Such was the need and desire to preserve and advance Native American knowledge, nurture homegrown talent, and offer an alternative to mainstream universities that were failing American Indian and Alaskan Native students. And such was the lack of resources the founders faced as they grappled to establish sustainable teaching institutions.
A half-century later, 35 accredited Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) serve about 23,000 degree-seeking students each year. Most are Tribally chartered and located in the American West and Midwest. All offer associate degrees and certificate programs, about half offer bachelor’s degree programs, and a handful offer master’s degrees. As President Joe Biden noted last fall in an executive order launching a White House initiative on opportunity for Native Americans and strengthening TCUs, these institutions are the only colleges in some of the most economically disadvantaged and rural areas of the country. Indeed, TCUs are open-enrollment institutions serving non-Native students as well; currently, about 20 percent of TCU students are non-Native.
Policymakers, particularly at the federal level, must look to TCUs as important partners in sustaining Indigenous communities through economic security, health, and cultural vitality.
Tribal colleges educate students for a whole spectrum of careers—from teaching and nursing to engineering and environmental science to welding and law enforcement—while also preparing students to be leaders and Tribal citizens and offering programs in Native language studies and cultural preservation. In many cases, Tribal colleges also serve as the center of their entire community, feeding families hit hard by the pandemic, teaching traditional Tribal practices such as harvesting wild rice, and giving elders technology skills to email or FaceTime with faraway grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
TCUs over the past 50 years have protected highly endangered languages, addressed poverty and other related inequities that are legacies of U.S. government policies, provided access to higher education for students who might not ever have had the opportunity to go to college, and, most recently, helped Native Americans overcome the disproportionate loss of life and livelihood from COVID-19. Yet despite their many achievements, Tribal colleges have yet to gain the level of recognition and funding they need to reach their full potential—and, in turn, to provide equitable education opportunities to Native people so that they may do the same.
Only 24 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults have at least an associate degree. The need to step up support for Tribal colleges is clear. Policymakers, particularly at the federal level, must look to TCUs as important partners in sustaining Indigenous communities through economic security, health, and cultural vitality.
In addition to source materials noted in the text, this series was informed by interviews with TCU presidents, faculty and staff, current students, and graduates; by presentations TCU presidents have made at multiple events; and by the expertise of the American Indian College Fund.
Colleges built on a shoestring gain recognition in the COVID era
In 1968, the Navajo Nation chartered the first Tribally controlled college, Navajo Community College—now known as Diné College—to educate the people in its remote, rural reservation community. When the chairman of the Navajo Nation announced his plans to start the college at a meeting with corporate and university leaders and several governors, one CEO stood up and declared, “Good God, Mr. Chairman, you don’t mean to think that you Navajos can run a college?” Everybody laughed. That story is recorded by Paul Boyer in the book Capturing Education: Envisioning and Building the First Tribal Colleges. It is just one example of the many common and freely expressed views at the time that “Indians couldn’t run colleges or didn’t even need a college education.”
Diné’s founders were undeterred. The college took the lead yet again in winning the first federal appropriation for a Tribal college in 1971. That came after Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-CO)—who had rebuffed several attempts to win his support for the college—was lured to its dedication ceremony. Aspinall, who chaired the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, changed his mind after what he described as a spiritual experience while he and the other dignitaries prayed over a traditional Navajo digging stick.
Not only are TCUs tied to their communities and cultures, but they are also at the center of nation-building and cultural preservation efforts in Indigenous communities—and that is central to their missions.
In the wake of that success, a group of TCU presidents banded together to push for the federal support they needed. As the leaders of these educational institutions operating on a shoestring, they moonlighted as their own lobbyists, traveling to Washington frequently and, Boyer wrote, “subsisting on hotdogs bought from street vendors and staying in cheap boarding houses.”
In the years since, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which was chartered by TCU founders to represent Tribal colleges and universities, has won several major victories, including one with potent symbolism in 1994, when Tribal colleges received federal recognition as land-grant institutions.
These successes opened the door to new federal funding, but the federal government has made nothing remotely approaching the level of investment in TCUs that it made in the original 1862 land-grant universities. That support, offered in land worth half a billion dollars in 2020 dollars, seeded many of the largest and most prominent universities in the United States, such as the Ohio State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And poignantly, that land was largely stolen from Native American tribes.
Tribal college alumni: By the numbers
strongly agree, “my education was worth the cost,” compared with 39% of college graduates nationally. This partially reflects the low tuition TCUs generally charge.
work in an area related to American Indian communities or Tribal lands.
strongly agree, “my professors/instructors cared about me as a person,” compared with 32% of college graduates nationally.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Congress and the Biden administration have made significant investments in Tribal colleges and in critical services in Indian Country, including about $190 million for TCUs from the American Rescue Plan and $2 billion for expansion of broadband in Native communities from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Congress is currently considering a $9.2 million increase for the Strengthening Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities program for this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Build Back Better Act, which passed the House last November, included new support for Tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions as well as a host of other benefits to Indian Country, including $200 million to train Native American language educators. While this legislation did not gain passage in the Senate, Congress and the administration should find a path forward for the measures included in that bill that would benefit TCUs and Tribal nations.
While TCUs have grown enormously since those early days when classes were convened in hallways, basements, and a sewage treatment plant, facilities remain one highly visible indicator that further investment is needed. Many Tribal colleges are using decades-old trailers that are hand-me-downs from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Iḷisaġvik College in Alaska relies on buildings designed to house Navy scientists in the 1940s, which have been battered by Arctic conditions for 70 years. And Salish Kootenai College in Montana turns away hundreds of students each year due to a lack of student housing, according to President Sandra Boham.
The federal government has a legal responsibility, rooted in its political relationships with Native nations, stemming from the U.S. Constitution and hundreds of treaties, to fund Tribal colleges. States don’t have that obligation, and thus, most of the states in which TCUs are located do not provide them any funding, even for non-Native students. But the key federal program that provides TCUs a set amount per student—$8,676 in 2021-22—only applies to Native students, meaning that Tribal colleges are serving 20 percent of their student bodies at a financial loss. A more educated population is to the benefit of the economy of any state, and more state leaders should step up to support Tribal colleges, at the very least by offering funding for non-Native students.
What we want, really, is for someone to make that big investment in Tribal higher education that has never happened. There were those initial big investments in the state land grant systems that never happened for Tribal colleges and for Indian Country. What have we lost because that investment was never made?
AIHEC President and CEO Carrie Billy
Carrie Billy, who has lead AIHEC since 2008, is used to getting into the weeds with congressional staffers year after year to hash out increases in funding. She is grateful for the heightened recognition her institutions have received since the beginning of the pandemic. But she still dreams of something more transformative.
“What we want, really, is for someone to make that big investment in Tribal higher education that has never happened,” Billy said. “There were those initial big investments in the state land grant systems that never happened for Tribal colleges and for Indian Country. What have we lost because that investment was never made?”
Building nations, improving economies, making sandwiches
The Center for American Progress and the American Indian College Fund collaborated on this series of columns to show how valuable Tribal colleges are to the communities they serve.
Many Tribal colleges have low graduation rates, which reflects underfunding and the difficult path to graduation for students living in poverty, often while working and raising a family. (Strikingly, 21 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live below the poverty level, more than double the poverty rate of the white population).
Federal government statistics don’t fully capture the deep relationships and cultural ties that faculty and staff at Tribal colleges have with their students and their communities.
While much of this can also be said for mainstream community colleges, federal government statistics don’t fully capture the deep relationships and cultural ties that faculty and staff at Tribal colleges have with their students and their communities.
It is not unusual for TCU professors to pitch in to make sandwiches for high school students attending a summer program, for leaders to provide listening sessions to students struggling with grief amid the pandemic, for the colleges to run Head Start and GED programs, for TCU libraries to maintain historical archives of their people, for students to learn about their people’s relationship to and responsibility for stewarding their lands in a changing environmental landscape, or for the Tribal government to snap up a college’s business majors before they finish their degree.
In essence, not only are TCUs tied to their communities and cultures, but they are also at the center of nation-building and cultural preservation efforts in Indigenous communities—and that is central to their missions.
Return on investment—in economic and health benefits—for every dollar invested in Tribal colleges
Every dollar invested in a Tribal college returns $5.20 in economic and health benefits, according to an independent 2015 study commissioned by AIHEC. Moreover, a survey conducted by Gallup and the American Indian College Fund found that about three-quarters of Tribal college graduates work in areas related to American Indian communities or Tribal lands. It also found that TCU graduates, whether Native or not, are twice as likely as other college graduates to say that their instructors care about them as a person.
The two CAP columns that follow this introduction to TCUs will highlight two programs at Tribal colleges and how they are serving their students and communities:*
- At Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota, the law enforcement program is training future police officers, including a mother of five so outraged by police brutality and unsolved murders of Indigenous women that she set out to fix the system from the inside.
- At Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, an advanced manufacturing program is not just preparing students for well-paid high-tech jobs, it’s also creating them—right in the students’ homeland on the vast Navajo Nation.
Modern-day knowledge keepers
Though training Native American students for good careers is extremely important, Tribal college leaders are equally concerned about something more timeless: fundamentally sustaining the living, breathing cultures of the Native nations and the Tribal members they serve and contributing to the advancement of Indigenous knowledge. In the words of American Indian College Fund President Cheryl Crazy Bull, “Tribal colleges and universities have emerged from the sacred to do the necessary, present-day work of our ancestors. They teach our languages, socialize our children and support their families, protect and manage our resources and assets, and preserve our identities and our ways of living for future generations.”
At Salish Kootenai College (SKC) on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, for example, a science course for education students covers ancestors’ understanding of bioindicators, such as their recognition that the blooming of buttercups in spring heralded the spawning of cutthroat trout. It also looks at how their people traditionally used fire to nourish the land and soil, clearing out brush and allowing majestic ponderosa pine trees to flourish—a science sorely needed in today’s era of devastating wildfires.
Another education course addresses how students, in their future teaching roles, can help young people learn and ultimately sustain their own culture by exploring self-expression in ways that mash up the dominant American culture and Native culture, whether through the arts or even basketball.
Tribal colleges and universities have emerged from the sacred to do the necessary, present-day work of our ancestors. They teach our languages, socialize our children and support their families, protect and manage our resources and assets, and preserve our identities and our ways of living for future generations.
American Indian College Fund President Cheryl Crazy Bull
These courses are part of a rapidly expanding array of programs focused on culture and language at SKC, undertaken in partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). That includes a project in which students become full-time language apprentices with the Tribe’s Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee, immersing themselves in the severely endangered Salish language while also earning an education degree in the evenings and on weekends, so they will be well prepared to teach Salish or other subjects in Salish. The goal, set in 2016, is to have 40 teachers using Salish in a variety of settings across the reservation within 20 years. This is urgent work, as today there are only a handful of first-language speakers of Montana Salish alive—meaning they were raised in the language as children—the direct result of assimilation efforts by the U.S. government over the past century.
Even newer, the Culture and Language Studies (CALS) Department offers a bachelor’s degree in Séliš and Ql̓ispé culture and language studies that is designed to create new cultural “knowledge keepers”—in essence, elders in training. SKC is building out similar efforts with the Kootenai Culture Committee, which represents a distinct culture and language within the reservation.
Indigenous languages hold precious knowledge of the natural world—and the medicines it offers—as well as of human history and culture. But these programs are about more than preserving knowledge for its own sake. Language is seen as identity in Indigenous communities, and its healing power has been supported by research. These courses are changing the lives of today’s Native people—and the lives of their children and grandchildren.
It provides me with confidence in myself. Knowing who I am and what our people have gone through and where we're at. Feeling whole.
Jan Gardipe, a Salish language apprentice and student at SKC
Jan Gardipe, 50, left her job of many years working in human resources for the CSKT government to become a Salish language apprentice and to study education at SKC. She loved it so much, she’s now in the culture and language studies degree program as well. Learning the history of American Indian education made her realize that, as someone who grew up without the language of her forbears, she experienced intergenerational trauma stemming from the abusive boarding school system designed to forcibly—and cruelly—assimilate Native Americans.
Gardipe is now charged up about helping to heal her people by finding ways to share the Salish language with her own kids, her extended family, and other children and adults. She was inspired by the metaphor another student used: The language apprentices will collectively spark “little Salish fires” across the nearly two-thousand square miles of the Flathead Reservation. Meanwhile, studying Salish around the clock for two years changed her deeply.
“It provides me with confidence in myself,” she said. “Knowing who I am and what our people have gone through and where we’re at. Feeling whole.”
Read CAP’s interview with the president of Diné College
* Update, January 12, 2023: This column has been updated to reflect that the series will now feature three installments, not four.