Upon accepting a position with the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid, Minority Serving and Under Resourced Schools Division six years ago, I attended an American Indian Higher Education Consortium board meeting and made the following bold statement: “I am from the government…and I am here to help you.” I received a good laugh from the tribal college presidents in attendance, especially since we had all heard that one before.
As many of you know, I started my professional career in Spearfish, South Dakota at Black Hills State College (now university) in 1973. One of my first roles was to assist two tribal colleges prior to receiving their Title IV accreditation—Sinte Gleska College (now university) and the Lakota Higher Education Center (now Oglala Lakota College). Eventually, I helped monitor the two tribal college’s Title IV programs, as Black Hills State College served as the home institution that processed their Title IV aid. I would jump into a state car and drive the checks to the colleges, and I made sure the students met all eligibility requirements for their Title IV aid.
As a misplaced Cherokee, I must admit I did not completely understand what the tribal college movement was about. Words that I heard—and that we need to continually share—were self-determination, tribal sovereignty, accreditation, and culturally based education.
In 1997, I left Black Hills State and went to work for the American Indian College Fund in Denver, Colorado. Leaving the college was hard for me because I truly enjoyed my role there, but the move proved to be amazing and life-changing. One of the most powerful statements I ever heard about the tribal colleges came from Rick Williams, shortly after he became president and CEO of the Fund. He told someone on an airplane that he “works with a group of people and schools that are changing the history of Indian education.” Those words are so true. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are changing a sad history of Indian education. They are gaining ownership over who and what they support, and in defining their important mission to American Indians.
Working at the American Indian College Fund was eye opening, rewarding, helpful, and student centered. I grew to fully appreciate the role of the TCUs and all the remarkable people working there or advocating for them. You quickly learn to be a hands-on advocate of the TCUs. The colleges teach students, faculty, staff, and donors it is important to be grounded in who you are and where you come from. I heard many a student say they learned so much about themselves. I heard countless stories of being down and out, and then coming home to the tribal college.
I have immersed myself in this movement. Three of my sons attended and two graduated from Salish Kootenai College, of which I am very proud. I lost my youngest son Trevour while he was attending school there. The outpouring of support and compassion from the college and the entire TCU family was incredible during this difficult time. Faculty and staff from the college drove over 14 hours to honor him at his funeral. While a difficult time for everyone, it taught me the importance of the TCU community. I learned that when we lose someone, many share in that grief and offer support.
In some ways I feel my work career has come full circle. I will never forget meeting Lionel Bordeaux and Lowell Amiotte during my college days in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The first time I saw Lionel, he was taking former South Dakota congressman Ben Reifel to task in an open forum. And Lowell quickly took me under his wing, offering me the opportunity to work at Black Hills State College. It changed my career from wanting to be a teacher to landing in the financial aid office. At the time I did not understand his motive, but he knew I could do the job. He had a lot of faith in me.
Where do we go next as TCUs? It is wonderful to see the expansion of tribal colleges on reservations everywhere, offering accredited and culturally based educations. From my time at the College Fund to the present, I have seen White Earth Tribal and Community College, Little Priest Tribal College, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, Ilisagvik College, College of the Muscogee Nation, and Tohono O’odham Community College become a part of the tribal college family. We are waiting on Comanche Nation College, Wind River Tribal College, Pawnee Nation College, and the nascent San Carlos Apache Tribal College and California Tribal College to become accredited. And who knows where the next TCU will come from. It is a fast-growing movement.
What have I learned from these experiences? TCUs are a family, and committed to educating their respective communities in a culturally sensitive way. I have often said the tribal colleges are true community colleges—they listen to the community needs and respond accordingly. There is no competition (other than hand games and knowledge bowls) in the classroom. Families look out for each other and offer help when needed. You will find that same commitment in a TCU classroom.
One of the proudest moments you will ever witness is a TCU graduation. Pomp and circumstance will never be the same. Hearing the drum or a song led by an elder, hearing people ask for blessings in their own languages, seeing the pride of the graduates and of their parents, spouses, children, and grandchildren is simply amazing. It is a true celebration of the community
I have learned what pride really means. I have learned how important my family is. I have learned the true meaning of education for the future.
John Gritts (Cherokee) is a management and program analyst for the Minority Serving and Under Resourced Schools Division, Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education.