Among many tribes there are words or phrases that describe acts of helpfulness and selflessness. The Dakota word wawokiya means generosity. The Hopi phrase hita’nangwa refers to one who has the initiative to take care of something without having to be instructed, asked, or reminded. In both Native languages the meaning also includes the idea that you do the work regardless of whether or not anyone notices your efforts. In English these words and phrases can also describe volunteerism.
Today, the spirit of volunteering is very much alive at every tribal college and university (TCU). From fundraisers for food pantries to educational activities that help fellow students, TCUs help forge reciprocity among students and staff. Volunteerism is integral to the tribal college experience.
Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) sits on 20 acres of prairie land that’s part of the Spirit Lake reservation in Fort Totten, North Dakota. Two hundred students attend classes, enjoy social events, and, yes, do their share of volunteering on a regular basis. President Cynthia Lindquist says volunteering is part of traditional Dakota values: “I believe Indigenous people have an innate value that is volunteering but we do not identify it as such. Dakota people are taught that we help out whenever we can, however we can.” She says students often give one another car rides to school or share food and even shelter. “Sharing whatever we can and especially when someone asks for help. . . I often say that it’s only at a tribal college or university that you will have a vice president hanging quilts or the athletic director setting up chairs or the president ironing table clothes at 11 at night,” she adds, speaking as a veteran of many long nights and busy weekends. “At CCCC we practice, or try to practice, Dakota values that we are teaching to our students. If we did not have helpers we could not get our work done. This includes Natives and non-Indian employees.”
Lance Abraham, a student at CCCC, agrees. “Volunteering for my tribal college is very self-rewarding,” he says. “It keeps me busy and helps everyone stay involved.” That, he observes, leads to more engaged students. Abraham says it also helps build students’ leadership skills and allows them to discover their unique capabilities when they help out with a new project or event. “Students at my tribal college help out with things such as 50/50 raffles, food sales, donating items for silent auctions, rummage sales, and weekly bingo during certain times of the semester. Students volunteer their time with the different sales, career fairs, visiting local high schools, and assisting other students through study groups or one-on-one tutoring,” he explains.
Abraham maintains that a spirit of volunteerism is integrated into the college environment at CCCC. “Our tribal college has a pretty good system in place and I don’t see many areas that really need volunteer improvements,” he says. “We have pretty much everything covered when it comes to fundraising because there are a lot of students who are willing to help.” Abraham sees this as a good thing because “our current student body seems to be really motivated, and we all are willing to put in a little extra effort to get everything done.”
One way volunteering is tracked at CCCC is through the “Wolves Points” program. Every time students volunteer for a project, they get points. Students also get points for attending workshops, meeting with an adviser, updating their contact information, attendance, and participating in surveys. The college started this program a year ago to encourage volunteering and to help students academically. Abraham won the challenge the first year and received a laptop computer, which is helping him with his schoolwork. The college also gave out two Kindle Fire tablets. “It’s a good feeling knowing I’m helping out,” says Abraham.
“Whenever we get into a situation where we’re very comfortable, where we have shelter, friends, we should want to give back to those who are at the bottom. There’s always people who need help.”
Dixie Omen, director of student success, says the Wolves Points program also encourages students to help tutor each other. The first semester they had 30 students signed up. As the formal program grows, she hopes that number will increase. “We try to encourage students to stay engaged,” she says. Omen knows the more a student is actively involved with the campus, the more he or she is likely to graduate. For this reason, students earning an “A” on a midterm exam are given points. If they help a fellow student or a faculty member they can earn points as well. “The idea is to encourage students to be helpful citizens. So if a student gives another student a ride or donates clothes to a student’s family, they earn points,” she explains. Recognizing the high poverty rate on the reservation is another driving factor for this program. Pure volunteering doesn’t require payment, but this program does reward good and positive behavior in ways that mutually benefit the student and the larger community. Smaller prizes include gift cards for the campus cafeteria and bookstore. Omen also says sometimes a student won’t self-report a good deed—instead she learns about it from other students who benefited from the act of generosity.
Hunter Collins started volunteering when he was in high school in Owasso, Oklahoma. He would go to the local retirement home to play board games with the senior citizens living there. It was fun and it was humbling he recalls, laughing, “We’d routinely get our butts kicked in dominoes.” When Collins enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University he joined his older brother Zach who was already volunteering at a homeless shelter. “When I first came to Haskell he was the one to show me the shelter,” says Collins. “Everyone recognized him and it made me proud that my brother was helping.”
Collins quickly lent a hand at the Lawrence Community Center. “I work on the kitchen staff. I prepare the meals, clean the dishes, clean up the tables, take out the trash, mop the floor,” he says, as he lists off his many tasks. Collins also prepares the leftovers for those who work and return to the shelter after hours. “It’s really nice when I recognize the people,” he says. “I’m really happy to see them and I know that others who have left, have left for greater things.”
What’s hard for him to see are the children in the homeless shelter. “When I first started there were a lot more children,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable. I never imagined children in there.” It saddened him, but also made him more determined to make the environment kid-friendly. “There’s a playground we built and we have our own little library, it’s not the best but we make it the best we can,” he explains.
Collins also recognizes the effort some parents are making to do the best they can in this situation. “I really respect that,” he says. “I wish there was more I could do. I hope the kids can make something of themselves.” Collins uses his time with the kids to tell them about his own college experience: “I always talk to the older teens. I tell them what they can do in their situation. I try to tell them, they can go to college.” He points out that even his own high school teachers didn’t think he was bright enough to attend college.
But today Hunter Collins is a senior at Haskell Indian Nations University majoring in business administration. And last semester he took 19 credit hours, made straight A’s, and was named to the dean’s list. Besides volunteering at the homeless shelter he is on the track team and competes in 10 events. Collins recently won the gold medal for javelin and now serves as the team captain. He gives motivational speeches to other athletes in his division as they all learn leadership skills. Collins volunteers five to seven hours a week in the off-season for track. But even then he’s doing other volunteer work like tutoring fellow students. “I tutor college algebra because that’s my best subject,” he says.
Collins belongs to the Phi Sigma Nu fraternity and does even more volunteer work with his frat brothers. Each year they set up and tear down the tents for Haskell’s annual Indian art market. During the event you can find Collins directing traffic in the parking lot. Once when a local cemetery was vandalized, his fraternity helped clean up the graffiti and spruced up the landscaping.
“I’ve become very successful,” he says, attributing it all to hard work and diligence. “Anyone can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it. You just have to find it, and you have to work for it. Never give up on it.” Encouragement from his parents is vital. “My dad, he doesn’t have a high school education but he’s the hardest working man I know. Mom did one semester of college [and] one of her worst decisions was to drop out of college,” he says. “They gave us a path to better ourselves. I’m going to do everything I can to pay them back, to succeed.”
Once he graduates, he will enroll in a firefighter academy. His dream is to become a firefighter and paramedic. He wants to live in Denver where he can enjoy the many outdoor activities and do some kind of volunteer work. “As a Native American, I believe that we of all people should always want to help out. We know what it’s like to be at the bottom,” he observes. “Whenever we get into a situation where we’re very comfortable, where we have shelter, friends, we should want to give back to those who are at the bottom. There’s always people who need help.”
In Lame Deer, Montana, you might catch a glimpse of Dr. Richard Littlebear and other volunteers picking up trash along the highway. Amost humbling task to be sure, but as he sees it, it’s the least he can do. “For me, it’s historical. We earned this land back with a lot of blood and I want to keep it looking nice and pristine,” he says. It goes back to his traditional values of caring for the land and the people.
Littlebear has been at Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC) for 20 years, 17 of them as the college president. “I’ve done a lot of volunteering,” he says. “Right now I’m teaching our reading and writing class for 20 students. It’s from 6 to 9 p.m. and I don’t get paid for this.” His job as a tribal college president certainly keeps him busy, but he still finds time to serve in a variety of capacities, such as on the boards of the American Indian College Fund and the Boys and Girls Club. Each one offers some tie-in to his role as a college president. “Well, for my Boys and Girls Club I see them doing a lot of things,” he says. “I really want the students to think about going to school, to college.” When he’s working with them he gets to talk about the opportunities a higher education will offer.
After graduating from Boston University, Littlebear spent 10 years working in Alaska. When the position opened up at CDKC he jumped at the opportunity. “I like being on my rez,” he exclaims. One big reason is the opportunity to speak his native Cheyenne language every day. “Yes, I know how to talk Cheyenne,” he says. “I can switch languages without having to think about it.” That ability has led him to volunteer to write a column in his local paper. “I put Cheyenne words into my column,” he explains, because, “It’s important to help save the language.”
CDKC student Erin Timber shares Littlebear’s love for volunteering. As a Northern Cheyenne woman she was raised to be helpful. “In our culture you’re always supposed to help,” she observes. That has led her to tutor classmates in the Cheyenne language and to teach her peers and even some elders how to play traditional hand games. Timber has taught her classmates and they in turn have gone with her to the Heritage Center to play the games with elders. “We usually have between seven and 12 elders,” she says. “They really like being around the youth.” They play during the day and she incorporates Cheyenne words into the games, noting that “left” is hen’e’mostestse, “right” is heste’amaxestse, and “middle” is setove. Timber has offered her tutoring skills and her hand game skills to fellow students for the past two years. She dedicates her hand games knowledge and volunteering efforts to the memory of her aunt, Sereda Littlebird, and her cousin, Junior Costillo. As she explains it, hand games are also healing games that help people come out of mourning after losing a loved one. “It helped me come out of mourning,” she says. “I feel the happiness when I play. That’s what I want to share with everybody.”
For Timber, attending a tribal college was critical to her success at CDKC because she’s around people who understand her and get her humor. She believes most Cheyennes are shy by nature, but when they play hand games they can’t be shy. “I really like the teasing aspect of it,” she laughs. President Littlebear also can relate. He enjoys being around his Cheyenne people. “I go visit people who are in the hospital because they’re tribal members,” he says, adding, “I’d like to have somebody do that for me if I ever end up in the hospital. It makes me feel good. It makes the person feel good.”
At Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College in Baraga, Michigan, President Debbie Parrish says the students and staff volunteer a minimum of eight hours a year on community projects The projects are a mix of contemporary and traditional. “Students have opportunities to volunteer throughout the year,” she explains. One such opportunity is the Kids Fishing Derby, which is an annual event for youth and is sponsored by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources Department. Along with the fishing derby, the tribe also sponsors an annual environmental fair.
In her spare time she too volunteers, mostly at the Ojibwa Senior Center. She helps with fundraising activities which provide revenue for student scholarships as well. Like President Littlebear, Parrish and her students participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, cleaning up litter along a 2-mile stretch near the college. And of course there are traditional Anishinaabe activities that attract student volunteers. “They also volunteer at the tribal sugar bush where they collect sap and assist in boiling the sap for maple syrup,” she says.
And that may just sum up the feeling one gets when volunteering. You show up, lend a hand, and leave feeling all the sweeter for helping out. Or, as Gandhi put it, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Patty Talahongva is a freelance journalist from First Mesa in the Hopi Nation.