Although popular culture perpetuates the myth that the exemplary generation of American Indians lived while the buffalo roamed freely, in my opinion it’s actually their grandchildren who’ve done the most to advance the cause of Indian people. It’s easy to understand why the pivotal 1876 victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn still resonates, and certainly Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Geronimo acted decisively on behalf of their respective tribes. Yet I believe it was the American Indian leaders who were born in the 1930s and 40s who did the most to improve the lives of Natives from every Indian nation. When one considers the depth of their contributions, it’s evident that these men and women are the “Greatest Generation of American Indians.” They’re responsible for a multitude of advancements that helped Native people across the country, and I believe that each tribal college and university (TCU) should both reflect upon their accomplishments and honor them for helping to make the world a better place for us all.
The Greatest Generation of American Indians was born into a society recovering from decades of trauma caused by the United States government’s tactics to void treaties and force America’s Indigenous people to assimilate. They came of age during the time of Termination, Relocation, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam War. Like other minorities in the 1960s, their quest for equality led them to fight for democracy on behalf of Uncle Sam abroad and against him at home. On American soil specifically, they founded storied groups such as the National Indian Youth Council, the American Indian Movement, the Indians of All Tribes, the Native American Rights Fund, the Indian Law Center, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and, of course, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Together they have affected positive change by supporting their people through litigation, educational endeavors, staged “fish-ins,” marathon walks, and even militant actions.
They won paramount legislative battles that culminated in the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which gave Native people a right to have a voice in federal policies affecting them and their children’s education. They saw the end of interference with Native religions with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. They also ushered in the Indian Child Welfare Act, which aimed to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families” by striving to keep Native children in tribal homes. And they mandated that the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare prohibit the common practice of forced sterilization of Native women by the Indian Health Service.
The Greatest Generation of American Indians went on to restore terminated tribes, further strengthen Indigenous sovereignty, and construct the foundations for Indian gaming, which allows many tribes to provide services to their people. They saw the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian, the repatriation of their ancestors’ remains that are both newly unearthed or were already in state or federal possession, and the commitment of federal intervention to protect Indigenous languages. They built TCUs to educate the generations that followed them, and many dedicated their talents to teaching the students who walk through our doors.
At College of Menominee Nation (CMN), where I teach, we lost such a hero this past month. Dr. Jerilyn Grignon (Menominee) was a retired member of our faculty whose personal impact on our students and the community is unquantifiable. She worked at CMN near the time of its founding and returned decades later to help S. Stephanie Spence develop our Bachelor of Science degree in early childhood/middle childhood education. Yet those facts don’t speak to the kindness, humor, and encouragement she offered to so many. Even in retirement, she was a wonder who always congratulated me after a theater production and asked about my family, before seamlessly moving on to discussing tribal business, student endeavors, and how CMN could continue to grow.
While many of her coworkers were well aware of Dr. Grignon’s incorporation of the Menominee clan structure into academia, it was a conversation I had with her in the spring of 2011 that helps exemplify what makes her generation so awe-inspiring. I went to visit her during her office hours and handed her a copy of Daniel M. Cobb’s book, Native Activism in Cold War America. She took one look at the cover, smiled, and asked, “Are you causing trouble around here?” I told her I might be, and showed her the photo of the “Workshop of American Indian Affairs, Class of 1963,” where a 22 year-old Jerilyn Grignon was seated in the front row. She was thrilled to see the image after so many years, and rewarded me with stories about how she intertwined her academic pursuits with her commitment to Indigenous causes. As I listened both then and in follow-up conversations, I marveled at her tenacity and optimism in overcoming obstacles that were both common to her peers and unimaginable to our students today.
Every TCU should take the time to reflect upon the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation of American Indians because the world would be unfathomably different without them. Ideally, this could happen through a series of discussions that would combine historical lecture with talking circles composed of students, staff, community members, and especially elders like Dr. Grignon. I think we all could benefit from sharing the stories of their generations’ successes, admiring what they achieved, and then laying out a vision for current and future generations. To be certain, TCUs’ unrivaled success is a testament to their efforts, but it’s actually the students we educate in tribally controlled colleges who are their legacy.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Cobb. D. (2008). Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.