Culturally Relevant Governance

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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Untitled by Scott Charles Arnoux

Untitled by Scott Charles Arnoux

Flares lit up the night sky so brightly that you could have read a book, while tracer bullets, followed by bursts of machine-gun fire, buzzed through the air like a swarm of angry hornets, recalls Dennis Banks (Ojibwa), a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Such was the scene at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation during that cold March of 1973. For 71 days, Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson’s police squad, accompanied by a federal force of artillery and aircraft, laid siege to a group of occupiers who claimed to be the founders the “Independent Oglala Nation.” The event stands as one of the central episodes of the Red Power era and figures prominently in modern American Indian history. What’s often forgotten, however—what’s lost in the media frenzy surrounding AIM and its larger-than-life leaders—is that the occupation of Wounded Knee was first and foremost a grassroots struggle over governance, initiated and carried out by local Oglala Lakota people.

To truly understand the occupation, we must turn the clock back to 1934, and the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). This landmark legislation marked a radical change in the U.S. government’s Indian policy, leading to greater self-determination and sovereignty for federally recognized tribes. Those which voted to accept the IRA would establish a new tribal council, effectively ending decades of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ direct oversight of dayto- day governance. What the act’s authors failed to consider, however, was that the form of governance they prescribed was modeled on their own and not necessarily that of the myriad nations for which it was intended. It created a strong centralized government consisting of one chief executive and a legislative body of representatives elected via the ballot box. For some Native nations, this tribal council system worked out well, but for others it failed miserably. Prior to the U.S. invasion of their homeland, the Lakotas followed a decentralized system of governance where leadership was based largely on one’s achievements. They didn’t electioneer, have a government charter, or claim to represent all people in a designated area marked by clear borderlines. But the Oglala Lakotas would wind up with such a governmental structure following the narrow passage of the IRA. For the next 40 years, they struggled to adapt and balance traditional Lakota values with what was, for all intents and purposes, a foreign system of governance.

In the early 1970s, the situation came to a head as many people began protesting the chairmanship of Dick Wilson, who critics claimed ruled with an iron fist, refused to recognize the legitimacy of traditional Lakota leaders and medicine people, and failed to take into account the voices of local people. “There are no traditional chiefs or headsmen on this reservation,” Wilson stated bluntly. The protests grew in size and timbre, and before long, whatever balance that had existed between the traditional and the Western-style leaders collapsed. Wilson’s detractors ultimately made the decision to take a stand at Wounded Knee, the site of the grisly massacre of Ghost Dancers over 80 years before. For 10 weeks, news from Pine Ridge echoed across the United States and even the world, as audiences tuned in nightly to follow the epic saga. Although two died in the siege, in the end there was no final apocalyptic confrontation. Wounded Knee ended peacefully, but complaints concerning Wilson and his government persisted.

Many have lamented this chapter in Lakota history, and the event still evokes strong emotions from all sides. But the occupation of Wounded Knee, and the events and policy decisions that preceded it, can serve as a valuable lesson for today’s tribal leaders and tribal college governance. As Cheryl Crazy Bull, Cynthia Lindquist, and David M. Gipp illustrate in their feature article, “An Act of Sovereignty,” tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) developed during an era of community-based activism, planning, and decisionmaking. Grassroots leaders expected inclusion, cultural integrity, and accountability to tribal values. Indeed, Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge reservation embodies this spirit today, where the Piya Wiconi Okolakiciye offers staff, students, and faculty a means to participate meaningfully in the college’s operations.

Tribal college presidents Verna Fowler of College of Menominee Nation, Maggie George of Diné College, and Cynthia Lindquist of Cankdeska Cikana Community College affirm this commitment to community in Barbara Ellen Sorensen’s article “Walking the Talk.” As the leaders of their respective TCUs, they must incorporate tribal values in their governance strategies, and listen to and engage everyone present. Meeting the cultural mission of their colleges is inextricably connected to this obligation. In her Research article, Deborah His Horse Is Thunder outlines how the chief academic officer at any TCU must take the institution’s cultural mission seriously: “Every class should be offered in a manner reflective of the values and morals of the tribal nation that the college represents.”

But the fact that TCUs operate in an environment where Western educational values and structures dominate the higher education landscape presents a test. In his web-exclusive article, “The Challenge of TCU Leadership,” Monte Randall, the dean of student affairs at College of the Muscogee Nation, points out that TCU leaders need to be cognizant of funding and accreditation standards, which hinge on conforming to Western modes of governance and curriculum requirements. “Both areas of education—Native American and Western—have a unique set of standards that will be tested for rigor by respective authorities. TCU leadership will have to be versed in both worlds to guide the institution down the two paths,” Randall maintains.

Appeasing Western accrediting bodies can prove difficult for TCUs focused on their cultural mission and the needs of the local community. D-Q University’s struggles, as showcased in the On Campus news department, highlight the pitfalls of failing to meet accreditation standards. In this issue’s Voices department, Donna Powless, who is a faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) and a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), notes that TCU models simply don’t “translate” for Western accreditors who have a completely different life experience. Unfortunately, the burden is on the TCUs to appease accreditation agencies while staying true to their cultural missions. Powless suggests that TCUs look into alternative accreditation pathways, such as HLC’s Academic Quality Improvement Program, which has proven a great success at CMN.

For a TCU to stay true to its cultural mission, tribal values, and traditional governance structures while meeting Western education standards requires “a balancing act,” to borrow the words of Barbara Ellen Sorensen. And balancing the traditional with the Western is no easy task, as evidenced by the dramatic events on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1973. But part of an effective governance structure is seeking out a pathway that sustains the TCU academically and maintains it culturally. Today’s tribal college leaders are showing the way to culturally appropriate leadership, on campus and beyond.

Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.


Banks, D. with Erdoes, R. (2004). Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Reinhardt, A.D. (2007). Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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