Indian Country Fellows: Foundations pool resources to support TCU faculty dissertations, research

Volume 22, No. 3 - Spring 2011
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VALERIE PRETTY PAINT SMALL: “You can’t finish a Ph.D. and work full time and be sane.” Photo by Jaime T. Aguilar

The Crow Sundance relies on the cottonwood tree, making it one of the most important objects on the Crow landscape. But now, it’s being crowded out by the Russian olive, a thorny shrub native to Western Asia. Little Big Horn College (LBHC, Crow Agency, MT) instructor Valerie Pretty Paint Small (Crow) wants to change that.

By relying on state-of-the-art technology as well as interviews with tribal elders, Small is identifying the Crow Reservation’s vegetation changes over the last four decades. Her research will help the tribe efficiently use limited resources to eradicate the invasive species from the most threatened areas of the reservation and prevent its spread.

Small will fold her research results into her dissertation, the final step to complete her Ph.D. in Weed Sciences. An ecology and statistics instructor, Small had completed all of her coursework for the Ph.D., but had yet to conduct research and finish her dissertation. “I was working, and you can’t finish a Ph.D. and work full time and be sane,” she says. “I needed to have time to devote to completing my dissertation.”

LANE AZURE: “It’s like we’ve all been on a shipwreck together and survived.” Photo by Jaime T. Aguilar

As luck would have it, LBHC’s President Dr. David Yarlott (Crow/Korean) forwarded information to her about a Ph.D. and scholarly research fellowship program administered by the American Indian College Fund. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the fellowships pay a one-year stipend of $36,000 to tribal college and university (TCU) faculty members to help them conduct research or complete a Ph.D. “It enables you to focus all of your energy on completing your doctorate,” says Small. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it without it.”

In 2003, recognizing that tribal colleges need to foster faculty scholarly research and professional development, College Fund President Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/ Northern Cheyenne) encouraged the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide initial funding to help tribal college faculty complete their Ph.D.s.

After the project proved successful, the Mellon Foundation continued to support tribal college Ph.D. candidates, and in 2008, began funding a separate program to help cultivate tribal college scholarly research. The research program also provides stipends for tribal college students to serve as research assistants to faculty fellows. In 2010, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation contributed funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) research and Ph.D. completion for tribal college faculty as well.

DIANE CANKU: “It’s difficult to get (dissertation) committee members to understand tribal issues.” Photo by Jaime T. Aguilar

Small is one of 29 TCU faculty members who have benefited over the past seven years from the fellowship programs administered by the College Fund. The tribal college fellows tackle unique challenges in their research and educational pursuits, and they often lack institutional resources and support that is more readily available at larger research universities. Finding published research specific to tribal colleges and contemporary Native American issues is also a challenge, says Dr. Diana Canku (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), 2009-2010 Mellon Ph.D. fellow and now Sisseton Wahpeton Community College president.

Academic advisors’ cultural ignorance is also a problem. “It’s difficult to get [dissertation] committee members to understand tribal issues,” says Canku. Many don’t comprehend the everyday reservation realities encountered by the fellows such as lack of food and gas and families in crisis, adds Small.

Additionally, the fellowship stipulates a strict time limit. “Tasks must be completed in one year or less,” says Canku.” I was determined to get it done.”

ALPHIA M. CREAPEAU: “You need to be able to apply the results so that they are effective and accessible for Native populations.” Photo by Jaime T. Aguilar

Conducting research in Indian Country also requires that fellows comply with the guidelines of their institutional review boards (IRBs). IRBs are established to protect people from exploitation. With reports of abuses and misuse of data by researchers, some IRBs have become overly vigilant, slowing down time-sensitive research, says Pamela Bennett (Cherokee), 2010-2011 Mellon Ph.D. fellow. “Stories need to be told, and you have to do it quickly,” Bennett says. Small echoes that sentiment, joking: “I finally got approval to speak to my in-laws.”

Many fellows hope tribes will use their research. “I want to empower my tribe with tools to manage the land and eradicate invasive species,” says Small. In addition, she hopes that LBHC can use her interviews of tribal elders for Crow Studies courses and Ethnobotany classes and provide additional research opportunities for students. “It’s part of our cultural history,” she adds. “It’s knowledge that needs to be passed down.”

Fellows emphasize that Western methods of research don’t necessarily coincide with traditional Indigenous methods. “You need to be able to apply the results so that they are effective and accessible for Native populations. If we are using Western methods of research, how would the results really apply and be helpful to Native peoples? Native science and Western science are not comparable,” says Alphia M. Creapeau (Stockbridge-Munsee), 2010-2011 Mellon Ph.D. fellow.

JESSICA RYKER-CRAWFORD: “A Ph.D. is a piece of paper, but what we can do with that is amazing.” Photo by Jaime T. Aguilar

Speaking at a recent retreat for the College Fund’s Mellon/Sloan fellows, Dr. Shawn Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree), presented a possible solution to the complex issue. He discussed an Indigenous research paradigm as outlined in his book Research is Ceremony. He described how Indigenous ceremonial methods can complement Indigenous research, and he discussed how these methods can be applied. “If you want to build on traditional knowledge, you have to use traditional research methods,” says Wilson.

Despite the challenges, the fellowship program has proven to be successful, says Dennis Carder (Sauk/Cherokee), program officer for the College Fund. In its seven-year history, 17 out of 18 Ph.D. candidates have completed their doctorates. Those numbers are particularly impressive given the national average of Ph.D. program completion. According to a 2008 report from the Council of Graduate Schools, on average, only 58% of candidates complete their Ph.D. within 10 years.

Many agree that pursuing a higher degree is worth the effort. “A Ph.D. is a piece of paper, but what we can do with that is amazing,” says Dr. Jessica Ryker-Crawford (White Earth Chippewa), a 2008-2009 Mellon research fellow.

Getting to know the other fellows has also been an enriching experience. “It’s like we’ve all been on a shipwreck together and survived,” says Lane Azure (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), a 2010-2011 Mellon research fellow.

Rachael Marchbanks has been publisher of Tribal College Journal since 2006. For more information about the American Indian College Fund TCU faculty fellowships, see TCJ, Vol. 22, No. 2, and contact Dennis Carder at (303) 430-5346 or

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