An Act of Sovereignty: Governing Tribal Higher Education

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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In the mid-1970s AIHEC leaders worked tirelessly for legislation that would meet the federal government’s trust responsibility to support education in Native communities. Their toil paid off in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act.

Governance at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) affirms the connection between the sovereignty of tribal nations and regional accreditation standards. Shared governance where faculty, administrators, and trustees all contribute to oversight and decision-making is a central component at TCUs and has unique implications for tribal environments.

It is important to continue to explore how TCUs implement governance principles in order to promote effective tribal college development. While there have been various studies on the development of tribal colleges, including descriptions and assessments of governing boards, this article offers insight into the challenges and opportunities in governance that TCUs face today.


The establishment of tribal colleges and universities, as well as the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1978, are among the key developments which have actively supported the sovereignty of tribal nations. Sovereignty is often defined as the authority of a state or nation to govern itself. In a keynote address at the Association of Community College Trustees’ (ACCT) annual meeting in October 2014, Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota) defined sovereignty as tribal people living the inherent rights given to them by the Creator, including the right to the socialization of their children and citizens through education. The experience of a more defined sovereignty in higher education dates back to the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 (TCCCAA), as amended, and to the Higher Education Act. As recognized in those acts, tribes have the inherent right to the education of their citizenry. Treaties affirm their rights to provide education with the support of the federal government, and provisions in tribal governing documents lay the foundation for tribally chartered post-secondary institutions and K-12 schools.

One of the characteristics of governance which supports the assertion that tribal colleges are an act of sovereignty is that the six original founding TCUs were chartered or sanctioned via a tribal resolution or other form of authorization. This was so important to Native leaders and the tribal college movement that tribal control became a key membership criterion for inclusion in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and the TCCCAA. In short, tribal sovereignty is the key to the existence, role, and service of TCUs.

Further, tribal colleges exemplify their direct connection to Indian tribes and tribal sovereignty through the various curricula they offer. These most often are in the form of programs and courses in American Indian studies, tribal languages, history, heritage and spiritual practices, the arts, medicinal practices, tribal government and Indian law, and other similar place-based, culturally specific curricula. Tribal experts and elders serve as advisors, teachers, and resources for such offerings. Each TCU provides the rationale and documentation for its curricula and faculty credentialing guidelines to regional accrediting agencies.

The course offerings, programs, and research endeavors at tribal colleges, in turn, improve the expertise of tribal governments through the graduates they produce. TCU students become active, organic elements of what the tribal college offers, helping rewrite and revitalize tribal identity and development.



In her keynote address at ACCT’s annual meeting, Crazy Bull maintained that American Indian sovereignty in education stood as an inherent right.

When the first tribal college was established in 1968, the common form of oversight for post-secondary institutions was the governing board. Known by a variety of names—board of trustees, regents, or directors—these boards served as the means of chartering or incorporating colleges or universities and of assuring some measure of accountability to the publics they served. That public could be the general population, as is the case with state institutions and nearly all tribal colleges; or it could be a more specific public, such as a church or business, as is the case for religious and proprietary colleges.

The emergence of tribal colleges during an era of social change driven by the civil rights movement and the expansion of public education was accompanied by an increased level of governmental commitment to community-based activism and community-driven planning, decision-making, and evaluation. The Great Society initiatives on reservations where tribal colleges emerged were heavily immersed in Community Action Projects and Office of Economic Opportunity programs, both of which promoted community involvement. These factors—historical models for college governance and the drive to ensure grassroots involvement—contributed to the development of governing boards that would oversee TCUs.

Given that TCUs intended to support the governance expectations of their community-based constituencies while seeking to participate in the regional accreditation process, grassroots leaders expected inclusion, cultural integrity, and accountability to the values held dear by the community. For TCUs there are uniquely tribal expectations that go beyond the principles of good governance promoted by education associations such as ACCT and the Association of Governing Boards. These expectations often include an expressed desire for the college to assure access to all tribal citizens regardless of resources or preparedness, a commitment to giving students multiple opportunities to pursue their educational goals, and a strong desire for the institution to build programs with cultural integrity.

Although there is not much published literature on the effectiveness of tribal college boards, there has been important research that examines some aspects of board leadership and development. In his study of board membership at Midwestern TCUs, William L. Gourneau (2005) stressed the important roles of Indigenous values and traditional leadership at tribal colleges. Rissa (McCullough) Wabaunsee (1998) found that the process of accreditation significantly impacted the role of TCU boards. Her study reaffirmed the importance of good relations between the college board and the tribal government but also recognized that accreditation can be a tool to ensure limited governmental interference in college operations. Wabaunsee notes that the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a regional accrediting body of which nine TCUs are members, has stipulated that there should be an arms-length relationship between a tribal government and a TCU’s administration and board.


Turtle Mountain Community College has a two-tiered board, consisting of a board of trustees which safeguards the college’s mission, and a board of directors that oversees regular operations.

ACCT, in collaboration with AIHEC, conducted a study (2014) of the structure and composition of TCU governing boards. They discovered that nearly every TCU board has voting community members, over a third have student members, and another third have members who also serve as tribal council delegates or representatives. Many TCUs have non-voting members from among the college’s students, staff, and faculty. Two-thirds of the TCU board members are appointed by their tribal councils, affirming the close ties between tribes and their institutions of higher education. An interesting finding is that 78% of the colleges identified their boards as “governing,” while the remainder characterized them as “advisory” or “coordinating.”

In her essay prepared for the AIHEC Research Committee entitled, “The Identity of Tribal Colleges and Universities,” Crazy Bull (2014) maintains that TCU boards are a reflection of the community-based environment of tribal colleges. Tribal colleges have a reciprocal relationship with their communities, serving the vision and hopes of the local tribal people while also thriving in the heart of the community. “Regardless of whether elected or appointed, board members have governance roles at TCUs because of political, social, cultural, and familial relationships,” states Crazy Bull. “Many board members are graduates of tribal colleges (as are an increasing number of TCU presidents), but they may also have little or no formal education. Often they have deep ties to the grassroots members of tribal communities, to the cultural and spiritual leadership, and to the extended families who comprise most of our tribes. They also live in the communities served by the tribal colleges.” Such characteristics distinguish TCUs from other higher education institutions.

John Phillips (2003) found that tribal college trustees serve a critical function, providing the “intersection of internal and external interests.” The more apolitical the trustees, the more inclusive and community-engaged the college is perceived to be. Turtle Mountain Community College is an example of such governance. The college has a two-tiered board established by the tribal government to oversee the college, including a board of trustees whose purpose is to “advance and promote the mission of the college,” and a board of directors that is “responsible for the management and operation of the college” (Turtle Mountain Community College, 2014, p. 36).


The concept of shared governance whereby administration, faculty, staff, and the college board share in the decision-making and oversight of an institution emerged early in the establishment of post-secondary institutions. Elgin Badwound and William G. Tierney (1988) argue that leadership models with a central authority and hierarchy fail to account for the fundamentally different values of tribal people. Tribal people value “generosity, reverence for the earth, and wisdom”; they tend to create models of governance and decision-making that stress group welfare, consensus, and unity. Most importantly, TCUs represent the values held by the community they serve.

TCUs are mission-based institutions. Shared governance at tribal colleges is often derived from the efforts of TCU leadership to create a decision-making process that recognizes the social, political, and economic constraints of the institution while honoring the college’s unique mission. An example of this is the Piya Wiconi Okolakiciye of Oglala Lakota College (OLC). This group provides a means for all staff and students to contribute in OLC’s operations by addressing college-wide concerns and through building consensus on policies and procedures. Piya Wiconi Okolakiciye members are elected to represent constituencies including students, faculty, and staff. This inclusive representation is unique and, while there are committees within Piya Wiconi Okolakiciye that address specific issues, all representatives have opportunities for input.


TCUs in the United States must be accredited or candidates for accreditation to access federally appropriated operational funding. Currently, 28 TCUs seek accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), while nine look to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Attending an accredited institution is a requirement for students hoping to access federal financial aid. Accreditation is also required for a TCU petitioning for membership in AIHEC.

The accreditation process is based on self-review and peer assessment for public accountability and for the improvement of academic quality. The HLC states that it exists to assess formal education activities and to evaluate “governance and administration, financial stability, admissions and student services, institutional resources, student learning, institutional effectiveness, and relationships with internal and external constituencies” (Higher Learning Commission, 2010). Presidents and leaders at TCUs point out that their institutions are accredited in the same manner and by the same entity as state colleges or universities. Such accreditation gives accountability, transparency, and creditability to tribal colleges as institutions of higher education. Being an accredited college or university implies that the institution has met standards for teaching and learning as defined through peer assessment.

Understanding and participating in the accrediting process is integral for the governance system of any institution. For TCU leaders and administrators, the process can be complex and challenging. Generally, the institution’s board, along with tribal government leaders who often appoint the board or oversee elections, need training to understand the accreditation process. Roles and responsibilities for each group must be clearly outlined and defined via bylaws and policies.

When a tribe charters a college, that institution is situated within the local tribal political culture that may or may not be equipped to respond to the requirements of higher education administration. Most tribal communities experience significant educational disparities that impact how a board may function. Sometimes TCUs can run into difficulties. In 2003, for example, HLC placed Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) on probation, citing the college for failing to provide evidence that it was “governed by a board consisting of informed people who understand their responsibilities in accordance with stated board policies, and have the authority necessary to preserve the institution’s integrity” (Higher Learning Commission, 2003).

The good news is that HLC eventually removed CCCC from probation, granting the college 10 years’ accreditation status in 2005 after it stabilized its leadership. Cynthia Lindquist, a tribal citizen of the Spirit Lake Dakota who holds a doctorate in educational leadership, had assumed the presidency at CCCC and helped the college establish a strong and positive relationship with the Spirit Lake tribal council. At the same time, members of the board of regents received consistent and regular board training.

Being an accredited institution symbolizes good governance. The accreditation process documents that a system of checks and balances is in place, with clearly articulated policies and, more importantly, that those policies are understood and practiced. Accreditation for a tribal college helps to insure that the governance system functions in an appropriate and open manner.


At Cankdeska Cikana Community College, board members receive regular training in governance. CCCC’s 2014-2015 board of regents (from left): Jeanette Herald, Lori Brown, Waynita Chaske, Collette Brown, and Wicahpi Tawacinhehomni.


Tribal college boards are among the most diverse and grassroots entities in higher education today. They serve as the voice of tribal citizens and the promoters of cultural integrity and the revitalization of tribal communities. TCU presidents are often among the best educated and most experienced among their fellow tribal citizens. They promote higher education standards and translate higher education priorities and practices for their respective boards and communities. In order to maintain a working relationship with TCU presidents and administrators, tribal college boards require ongoing training and development, as well as continued knowledge of best practices in higher education.

Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota) is president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. Cynthia Lindquist, Ph.D. (Spirit Lake Dakota), is president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College, the tribal college of the Spirit Lake Nation. David M. Gipp (Hunkpapa Lakota) served as president and chancellor of United Tribes Technical College for over 40 years.


Association of Community College Trustees & American Indian Higher Education Consortium. (2014). Tribal Colleges and Universities Governing Boards: Structure and Composition.

Badwound, E., & Tierney, W. G. (1988). Leadership and American Indian Values: The Tribal College Dilemma. Journal of American Indian Education 28(1), 9–15.

Crazy Bull, C. (2014). Woksape: The Identity of Tribal Colleges and Universities. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Gourneau, W.L. (2005). An Examination of the Perceived College Leadership, Governance, and Decision Making from Governing Board Members at Selected Midwest Tribal Colleges (Doctoral Dissertation, University of North Dakota). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (AAT 3220591)

Higher Learning Commission. (2003, February 21). Public Disclosure Notice.

Higher Learning Commission. (2010, January). Institutional Accreditation: An Overview.

Phillips, J.L. (2003). The Social Capital of Trustees and the Effectiveness of Tribal Colleges and Universities (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Missouri). Available at ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (AAT 3115577)

Turtle Mountain Community College. (2014, April). Turtle Mountain Community College Policy Manual. Amended April 28, 2014. Retrieved from 20Updated%20with%20April%202014%20amendments% 204-28-14.pdf

Wabaunsee, R.M. (1998). Accreditation, Tribal Governments, and the Development of Governing Boards at Tribal Colleges in Montana and Washington (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington). Available at ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (AAT 9908903)

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