Engaging Life: TCUs and their Role Building Community

Volume 27, No. 1 - Fall 2015
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slider-engagingAmerican Indian and Alaska Native people, as well as other Indigenous groups throughout the world, have always understood that education is integrated into the social fabric of their communities. As education became formalized through child-care centers, schools, and colleges, tribal people found ways to ensure that it wasn’t just sitting in the classroom but rather a larger experience that encompassed community life. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) fulfill this expectation by integrating community-based and formal education through their ceremonial life, programs, partnerships, and outreach efforts.

The tribal college founders created institutions rooted in place, extending beyond academic and workforce education to serve as centers of tribal and community life. For example, Turtle Mountain Community College’s early philosophy statement included the phrase “desiring curriculum directly addressed to the multiple areas of education necessary for community development” (Stein, 1992, p. 81). In the late 1970s, Navajo Community College (now Diné College) stated that it sought “to provide a program of community service and community development” (Stein, 1992, p. 14).

Throughout so many TCUs’ mission and purpose statements, the commitment to community is reiterated. Here are some of the ways that tribal colleges engage with their communities.


Perhaps TCUs’ most important role has been their steadfast and deeply rooted commitment to cultural knowledge and the ceremonial and ritual life of their people. Fostering the identity of tribal people who practice traditional ways and helping Native people translate their traditions into modern society are essential elements in rebuilding tribal nationhood.

The most obvious contribution of TCUs in cultural revitalization is their work with tribal histories, traditional knowledge, and language revitalization in their classes and academic programs. But TCUs offer an equally valuable contribution through their efforts to engage community cultural informants and to provide knowledge to a constituency that is broader than just the enrolled student body. Michael Wassegijig Price speaks to this fundamental role in his essay “Indigenous Taxonomy, Ethnobotany and Sacred Names” (2010). Price shows how the names of indigenous plants and sacred places were restored by those in his tribal community who possess that traditional knowledge. Jessie Antonellis, a faculty member at Little Priest Tribal College, reinforces this theme of community connectedness in her essay, “Third Space for Cultural Relevance and Conceptual Understanding in the Tribal College Science Classroom” (2013). Antonellis recalls how she invited her students to incorporate their own cultural values and practices into their understanding of science. This invitation celebrates the connection that exists between community engagement and teaching and learning at tribal colleges.

At all of the tribal colleges, symbols of tribal art, lifestyle, and architecture are integrated throughout the campus. Sinte Gleska University built a tipi-shaped classroom/office building with an observatory for its Lakota Studies Department. The building has a circular shape and poles that reach into the sky. Using the observatory, students can study Lakota star knowledge to reinforce their understanding of themselves.


Since the founding of Navajo Community College, the first tribal college, community development has been integral to the mission of all TCUs. Photo courtesy of Diné College

Little Big Horn College has symbolic art throughout its facilities. One attractive feature is the gateway to their campus, which includes teachings from one of the tribal leaders, Chief Plenty Coups. Upon entering the campus, visitors can read his memorable quote: “Without education, you are the White Man’s Victim.” When leaving the campus, students and community members are left with another one of his teachings: “With education, you are the White Man’s Equal.” Similarly, Nebraska Indian Community College showcases the stories of their people through posters and a winter count that are displayed on building walls throughout campus.

Building a new campus for Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) involved finding ways to honor the tribe’s teaching practices and knowledge of plants and the land. TOCC was able to create a walking path with native plants and their traditional names along with wathos, tribal gathering places used for storytelling. Thus the cultural practice of gathering to learn and share is honored by the physical infrastructure of the college itself.

Tribal colleges host a range of cultural events, art and crafts workshops and shows, powwows, and Native games and athletic activities such as archery, hand games, and lacrosse. TCUs are often the location for special events such as naming ceremonies, wakes and funerals, and honoring ceremonies for graduation, military service, and special achievements.


In the realm of community education, TCUs are leaders in providing resources to develop community life. Several tribal colleges offer a range of adult education services, including the attainment of alternative high school credentialing such as the GED; financial literacy courses; cultural arts activities such as basket-making, beadwork, and regalia-crafting classes; and wellness activities such as exercise clubs, alcohol and drug abuse prevention, and intramural sport.

Several tribal colleges have developed comprehensive financial literacy initiatives. Northwest Indian College (NWIC) has one of the most extensive programs, which includes community education courses on budgeting, banking, credit, shopping, and how to reconcile tribal values with one’s financial resources.

Although tribal colleges vary in their ability to maintain organized sports or to provide a formal gathering place for wellness activities, all TCUs engage their tribal communities with programs that support healthy lifestyles. TCUs have been able to implement community initiatives with academic components to address issues such as alcohol and drug education and treatment, smoking cessation, and heart disease and obesity prevention. Stone Child College, NWIC, and Leech Lake Tribal College have all implemented healthy initiatives through the American Indian College Fund’s Community Innovators Program. Stone Child College launched a rural health initiative to address issues of drug addiction and mental health, and has expanded its efforts to include health education and leadership development. Leech Lake Tribal College’s program focused on student wellness, addressing smoking cessation, diabetes, and stress; while NWIC sought to strengthen its food and plants programming. Fort Peck Community College, in partnership with local and tribal government, established one of the first tribal college fitness centers and set up exercise programs for tribal and local citizens. And Salish Kootenai College built one of the first wellness centers with a gymnasium in order to encourage physical fitness in the community.



Tribal college libraries serve as community hubs where people of all ages can utilize Internet and media resources. Photo by Mary Virginia Stroud

Although often integrated with other services, TCUs are leaders in providing local communities with access to technology. Many tribal areas do not have reliable access to broadband services and are effectively cut off from much of the news, cultural and educational programming, and social interaction that Internet access fosters in modern society. Tribal colleges have historically been one of the few locations on rural Indian reservations where computers are available for public use and where Internet access, including wireless access, is open for both student and community use.

Likewise, in nearly all of the rural tribal communities which TCUs serve, the tribal college library is the only library. Recognizing this, many tribes have designated their library facilities as public libraries, which has provided TCUs with access to additional resources available to tribes to support public libraries. Several tribal colleges also serve as the main archive and as the tribe’s cultural museum, housing tribal histories, as well as significant cultural artifacts and artworks. Oglala Lakota College, out of concern for the loss of tribal stories, history, and scientific knowledge, was an early leader in collecting, storing, and cataloguing the teachings of tribal elders through digital media (Billy & Kuslikis, 2009, p. 207).


Since their beginnings, TCUs have helped their communities increase capacity and improve the use of tribal resources. Two ways that TCUs do this are through community-based research initiatives and through their status as land-grant colleges.

Tribal communities have long been the subject of research in many areas, including cultural practices, social issues, economic development, and public health. However, in recent years tribal colleges, along with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), have been able to use community- based participatory research methods to promote solutions-based research in their communities. Through this approach, participants identify community needs and priorities-associated research. They participate in the research experience itself, including the analysis of findings, which they use to address needs. It is an empowering experience that requires equitable partnerships among researchers and the tribal community alike. Cankdeska Cikana Community College’s Native American Rural Center for Health (NARCH) works with the other North Dakota tribal colleges to support place-based research focused on health and the environment. TCUs’ land-grant status has also increased research and capacity building. In 1994, Congress named tribal colleges land-grant institutions, enabling their participation in a variety of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and expanding their access to other federal and private grants. Land-grant status led to greater place-based research with the natural resources found in tribal communities, including studies on their status and best use. Other studies have focused on the cultural and social economies of water, forests, lands, animals, fish, and food sources. Although there are many areas of research and development, of particular application to community engagement is the way TCUs are using this research for education to improve food and traditional wellness strategies. Most of the tribal colleges have greenhouses, provide community education services for food gathering and preparation (especially traditional foods), offer nutrition education, and give instruction in gardening. TCUs have trained farmers, ranchers, gardeners, and natural resources managers and technicians.

Land-grant programs often include partnerships that bring expertise to the tribal college and its communities. For example, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College received nearly $880,000 from the National Science Foundation to partner with its tribe, area schools, and the University of Minnesota to study wild rice lakes on their reservation (“NSF,” 2010). Through land-grant programs, TCUs build the capacity of the tribal community to use its resources and to support local economies.



The Tribal Business Information Center at Sitting Bull College supports business endeavors in the local community. TBIC staffer Jennifer Martel (left) helps artists such as Maya St. Cyr (right) find economic outlets for their talents and efforts. Photo by NDREC/Kent Brick

Poverty in tribal communities remains one of the most challenging issues facing tribes and their institutions. Tribal colleges address poverty through formal academic programs in business, accounting, technology, entrepreneurship, and through extensive communitybased technical assistance and training. According to AIHEC, business is the number one major at the tribal colleges, but TCUs have long recognized that support for poverty alleviation comes in many forms.

Sitting Bull College’s Tribal Business Information Center (TBIC) is an example of a partnership that can provide support for businesses. The TBIC offers several layers of consultative services and training for community members, linking them with valuable technical assistance and access to capital. Sitting Bull College was also a recipient of one of the College Fund’s community innovator awards, focusing on training community members by using a culturally relevant leadership and development curriculum in an effort to build community pathways to economic development and poverty alleviation.

Fostering partnerships that seek to create affordable housing is the focus of Oglala Lakota College’s community innovator award. The college worked with several partners to establish a sustainable project that provided workforce training while helping fill the need for housing and the renovation of community facilities.

In recent years, studies have examined the economic impact of tribal colleges on local and regional economies. In 2012, North Dakota State University conducted a study on the economic contributions of North Dakota’s tribal colleges. The study found that the colleges directly contributed $48 million to the state’s economy and had an overall economic impact of $142 million. The total economic impact of student spending alone was almost $40 million. Most important was the study’s conclusion that TCUs’ economic impact was significant not only for its immediate benefits but also for the long-term advantages that stem from a post-secondary education (Coon et al., 2013, p. 15).


Since 2004, TCUs have graduated more than 31,000 people. Hundreds of teachers, human-service providers, managers, technicians, health care providers, and entrepreneurs have been educated by the tribal colleges through workshops, training sessions, and certificate and degree programs. Besides business development, tribal colleges also build the capacity of the community to establish and improve non-profit organizations that provide critical support services in areas such as domestic violence prevention, wellness activism, and youth outreach. TCUs conduct extensive social and scientific research that promotes the best use of tribal resources, builds human capital, and restores tribal knowledge.

TCUs build the skills of student and community members to engage in social change and social justice issues. Many tribal colleges are on the leading edge of developing community responses to climate change and environmental issues. They are facilitating critical community conversations about how to appropriately use tribal assets to promote prosperity while honoring traditional values and practices. Haskell Indian Nations University, with the support of AIHEC and other partners, formed the Indigenous People’s Working Group on Climate Change, engaging TCU faculty and students with researchers, community activists, environmentalists, and government and educational partners to build broader awareness of climate change issues in Indigenous communities across North America.

Tribal colleges also create opportunities for community engagement with local educational institutions. This includes early childhood education centers such as those supported by the College Fund’s Wakanyeja, Sacred Little Ones, and K’e Early Childhood Initiative projects. The centers associated with these projects are places where cultural knowledge, including language, is integrated into the curriculum; where parent and extended family participation is facilitated; and where partnerships that foster life-long learning are created. TCUs are experts at establishing partnerships that benefit all tribal people, not just their students.

Engagement with individual tribal and local citizens, tribal governments, and with diverse strategic partners creates numerous opportunities for TCUs to work on issues facing their communities. Tribal colleges join forces with both grassroots organizations and established institutions to bring opportunities and resources to students and their families. TCUs serve nearly 20,000 students annually, but over 70,000 people take advantage of their workshops, gatherings, and activities (AIHEC, 2013). TCUs also provide significant support to their community members by improving leadership and citizenship. Many tribal colleges host candidate forums, train elected and prospective government officials, conduct voter registration drives, and encourage participation in government through legislative hearings and committee meetings.


Tribal colleges matter. People who are informed about conditions in our reservation communities recognize that education is the answer when striving to address issues of economic and social disparity. Tribal colleges are themselves resilient institutions capable of overcoming incredible odds in order to provide desperately needed programs and services. Tribal colleges build bridges that help people lead themselves through various education transitions, from home to school, from early childhood to K-12 education, and from college to career. Tribal colleges engage community strengths and assets, revitalize languages and traditional practices, restore tribal knowledge, and provide access to technologies, research strategies, and cultural experts and informants.

Cheryl Crazy Bull is the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.


American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). (2013). AIHEC AIMS Report, 2012-2013. Unpublished data set.

Antonellis, J. (2013). Third Space for Cultural Relevance and Conceptual Understanding in the Tribal College Science Classroom. Mellon Tribal College Research Journal, 1, 77–105.

Billy, C., & Kuslikis, A. (2009). Technology at the TCUs. In L.S. Warner & G.E. Gipp (Eds.), Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities (pp. 201–208). Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Press.

Coon, R.C., Bangsund, D.A., & Hodur, N.M. (2013, February). Economic Contribution of North Dakota Tribal Colleges in 2012. Agribusiness and Applied Economics Report No. 709. Fargo: North Dakota State University.

NSF, Fond du Lac Research Wild Rice. (2010). Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 21(3), 52.

Price, M.W. (2010). Indigenous Taxonomy, Ethnobotany and Sacred Names. In P. Boyer (Ed.), Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science: The Integration of Native Knowledge in Math and Science at Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (pp. 1–13). Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Press.

Stein, W. (1992). Tribally Controlled Colleges: Making Good Medicine. New York: Peter Lang.

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