Twenty five years ago, Paul Boyer backed his Honda up at the Sacramento Post Office dock to ship five boxes of magazines. His tiny vehicle was dwarfed by the semi-trucks also lined up at the dock, which could have easily crushed his car without ever noticing. His mission was worth the risk. He was delivering the premier issue of Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Some skeptics scoffed at the quixotic effort, starting a new educational journal with no major university sponsors and no financial backers.

As he described that first journal, it was primitive: 24 black and white pages designed on an early Macintosh computer and with a print run of only 1,000. When the tribal colleges’ demand exceeded the supply, Boyer ordered a second printing, and the journal was fully born. On Nov. 14, 1989, the tribal college presidents on the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) board passed a motion to support the journal with $15,000 to cover four quarterly issues, a huge commitment for the tribal colleges but less than most magazines would spend on postage alone for a single issue. A hybrid of refereed research and journalism, the journal fit into no established and proven niche. The AIHEC board gave it the editorial independence it needed to maintain credibility, so it was not a typical in-house publication. Boyer conceived of the magazine while touring tribal colleges to write a report on them. While visiting Navajo Community College, he learned that they wanted a television station. He assumed that the Navajos in Arizona knew that Salish Kootenai College was beginning to broadcast programs over its own TV station in Montana, but they did not. Although the tribal college presidents met frequently, there was no forum for college staff, faculty, administrators, and students to discuss their needs, successes, and evolving missions.

The journal’s history parallels that of the tribal colleges themselves

Unnoticed and chronically underfunded, they have survived. Many critics ridiculed the tribal educators who dared to conceive of tribally controlled institutions of higher learning without any firm source of funding beyond their tribes’ coffers. Yet the tribal college founders were driven by the great need. Mainstream institutions had failed to serve their students. The Indian communities would send their best and brightest away, only to see them return a few months later, discouraged and disheartened.

An article by Steven Crum in Vol. 1, N.1 of the Tribal College Journal traces the roots of tribal colleges back to American Indian scholars in the early 1900s. Recognizing that other educational institutions wanted Indian students to assimilate, the Indian scholars wanted colleges that would emphasize Indian culture. The map in the first issue showed 25 colleges, up from the six that formed AIHEC in 1973. They served 4,400 students at that time.

In 1989, Lionel Bordeaux was president of Sinte Gleska College. (He still leads what is now Sinte Gleska University). He was also the chair of the AIHEC board. In his introduction to the first issue of the journal, he wrote, “The publication of Tribal College Journal provides us with a new means to continue our sharing and expand our circle….Through Tribal College Journal, we hope to extend that mission not only from college to college and tribe to tribe but into the national and international educational communities where we look forward to enhancing our special and unique contributions.”

The colleges were inventing a new form of education

The colleges were inventing a new form of education, and the pages of the journal offered them a place to trade ideas with one another and with mainstream educators around the world. The mainstream media virtually ignored these miracles in the making. A few years ago, Tanya Ward, then president of Cheyenne River Community College, asked her faculty to incorporate culture into all their curriculum. They looked at one another in dismay until one of the instructors, Lanniko Lee, pointed to Tribal College Journal. “It’s a mentor on the desk,” she said. A writing instructor, Lee said she shaped her curriculum around upcoming themes. An issue last winter on assessment resulted in an informal network of tribal college faculty who trade ideas on this essential element of their accreditation process. && Certain articles from earlier issues (eg. Assiniboine leadership, the history of Indian education, racism in the classroom, traditional knowledge, tribal research guidelines, and Pocahontas as traitor) have become perennial favorites, still requested frequently by researchers at tribal and mainstream institutions. The journal has facilitated tribal college scholarly work by sponsoring annual meetings on curriculum development and a research conference in July 1996.

Entering a new century with more challenges ahead

As the journal enters the new century, the board and the staff see even more challenges ahead. The growth in the number of tribal colleges and in their innovative programs presents a constant challenge. For example, five of the colleges in the consortium are developing Anishinabe curriculum. We would like to facilitate sharing that work amongst the colleges and to others when appropriate. We need more diversity of voices and art on our pages. Few of the colleges have the resources or time to report to us about their work so we are constantly expanding our network of freelance writers and photographers. && The journal has published scholarship on the Diné philosophy of learning (Paul Willeto), cultural perspectives and the nature of science (Jack Barden), and combining community building with research (Mary Hermes). There is much more that could be done to encourage groundbreaking research by tribal scholars. && Distribution of the journal to tribal college communities and to mainstream universities, colleges, libraries, and tribal educators continues to increased. We have subscribers in countries such as Russia, New Zealand, England, Belgium, Israel, and Japan, but we would like to serve more of the international community of indigenous educators hungry for information about American Indian higher education. Should we translate into Spanish for educators in Latin America interested in replicating the tribal college models?

The journal survives and the future looks good

While challenges always exist, it is something of a miracle for the tribal colleges to have kept their journal alive for 21 years. In the media world, the list of publications that fold far outnumbers those that survive. In the world of tribal colleges, however, miracles are commonplace. AIHEC has grown from 25 to 38 tribally controlled colleges and universities, operating 77 campuses, and now serving 70,000 students and community members. The national media have begun to pay more attention to them, thanks largely to efforts of AIHEC and the American Indian College Fund, the colleges’ nonprofit fundraising arm. The journal, which has grown to 68 pages, has won several awards for design and general excellence. No longer published in the editor’s home, its readership is more than 10 times the size of the first issue. Advertising and the sale of back issues are now important sources of revenue.

The AIHEC board and especially the journal’s advisory board have devoted long hours to hard questions about the journal over the past decade. Our financial future is more secure after the board and staff prepared a five year business plan. The plan concluded that the journal would have to to rely upon grants for help for the foreseeable future, in addition to relying upon the tribal colleges and subscription and advertising revenue. The journal is grateful to foundations that have assisted us, especially the Lannan Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation as well as the Christian A. Johnson Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, Phillips Petroleum Foundation, and Handsel Foundation. After 25 years, it is still possible that one tribal college would not know about a television station started by another, but it’s more likely they have read about it in the pages of the journal. Just as importantly, more people around the world now know that tribal colleges exist. AIHEC, the Tribal College Journal, and the American Indian College Fund work together as brokers of hope, spreading the word about the colleges. These communities are not the dark pools of despair so often portrayed by the media. Tribal colleges and universities are creating bright circles of hope on their reservations with the glowing faces of their graduates at the center.