Capturing Education: Envisioning and Building the First Tribal Colleges

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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Capturing Education: Envisioning and Building the First Tribal Colleges by Paul BoyerBy Paul Boyer
Salish Kootenai College Press (2015)
110 pages

Review by Marjane Ambler

This slim text provides volumes of wisdom gleaned primarily from six people Paul Boyer calls “visionaries” who helped invent the tribal college movement. Although several books have been written about the tribal colleges, at least three of them by Boyer himself, this is a unique contribution. It provides an opportunity for these luminaries to share not only the creation stories but also their evolving philosophy and vision for the movement’s future. Boyer interviewed six people who served as presidents of their tribal colleges: Carty Monette, David Gipp, Janine Pease, Jim Shanley, Joe McDonald, and Bob Roessel. His interviews over 25 years also include others, both Indian and non-Indian, who helped get the movement on its feet. As Boyer points out, oral histories are fragile, and we are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of the first tribal college, Navajo Community College. Its first president, Bob Roessel, has died, and the others are getting older. Hostility to the concept of Indian-controlled education was fierce and widespread. In fact, Boyer says, the support by non- Indians was more surprising than the opposition. The presidents credit the birth of the movement to several factors, including divine intervention.

The holistic nature of the colleges’ missions is critically important, the presidents say. In addition to providing academic, vocational, and cultural curriculum, they have nurtured a love of learning that has empowered reservation communities. Jim Shanley says this fulfills a basic premise of American Indian religious thought and worldview: “The intent is not to develop a rich person, but to develop a wise person.” This broad mission may be in jeopardy, Boyer says, due to increasing internal and external emphasis on job training and other narrower priorities.

The author has been writing about tribal colleges for more than 30 years. After serving as the founding editor of Tribal College Journal for seven years, he earned a doctorate in educational theory and policy. A grant from the National Science Foundation funded this book as part of the Tribal College History Documentation Project, which also involves digitally archiving interviews.

If the book has any shortcomings, it would be the lack of an index and a bibliography. However, it is a short book, and most of the contents derive from the author’s interviews. It does not include later presidents, who have their own remarkable stories. That job is left to another book by Boyer or someone else. In the final chapter, the presidents reflect on the movement’s accomplishments and emerging challenges. The book, and especially this chapter, should be read by everyone interested in this remarkable movement at what Boyer calls “the ragged edge of social change.”

Marjane Ambler was editor of Tribal College Journal from 1995 until 2006, and is author of Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development.

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