Keepers of the Past, For the Future

Volume 25, No. 3 - Spring 2014
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Untitled painting by Raymond Johnson. Courtesy of Diné College

In the fall of 1967, Hopi Action News reported that hippies were invading Native communities throughout the Southwest. In direct contrast to the missionaries and assimilationists who preceded them, however, these alienated baby boomers venerated Indian cultures and traditions. Armed with Frank Waters’ Book of the Hopi and John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, the long-haired vagabonds hoped to learn from Indians, whose spiritual, ecological, and sacred knowledge was lacking in modern American society. They embraced tribalism as an alternative to their individualistic, bourgeois upbringing. They attempted to emulate Indians by establishing communes, living in tipis, growing their hair, and holding “powwow be-ins.” Of course many Native communities weren’t exactly mutually enthused. Cree folksinger Buffy Sainte Marie called the hippies “the worst soul suckers,” while the editors at Hopi Action News joked that they could send the outsiders to the Pueblos who would “throw the bearded society off the cliffs and mesas as they have historically done with unwanted missionaries.”

When viewed in its historical context, the hippy invasion of Indian Country may seem strange and was probably pretty annoying to many observers. But when one considers the traditional knowledge that tribal communities possess it makes perfect sense. Whether Hopi, Navajo, Winnebago, or Crow, traditional tribal knowledge has been built up over millennia. In the grand scope of human history, the emergence of modern industrial society is merely a flash in the pan. Social scientists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ana Norenzayan have argued that Western-educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (as defined by the West) societies are outliers best described by their acronym: WEIRD.

Nevertheless, the spread of Western culture has been ubiquitous, working to undermine traditional ways and cultural knowledge. Modern technological society often bills itself as superior or progressive or advanced, but in truth it is relatively new and untested. In our profit-driven, fast-paced, highly individualistic world, corporate enterprises and state governments are quick to embrace new technologies, methods of parenting, modes of social interaction, and foods and chemicals to consume without considering their long-term effects. Can we really say that sticking our elders in retirement homes and assisted living facilities advances our society? In most tribal societies, elders are revered, cherished, and valued for the knowledge they possess and can pass down. Similarly, is it prudent to conclude that the pediatrician-approved parenting strategies of the 21st century that employ strollers and cribs instead of cradleboards, encourage passive forms of entertainment, and compartmentalize family members in separate rooms are superior? Perhaps these strategies explain the rise of “Mommy and Me” classes that are increasingly needed to teach children how to interact with their peers.

Since time immemorial, Native peoples have devised practical solutions to myriad problems and continue to possess knowledge that if forgotten, would be a great loss to all of humankind. To preserve this knowledge requires effort. And tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are at the front lines, developing new strategies to protect and preserve the lessons and wisdom of the past for the future. In her feature article, “Like a Thunderbird,” Rhonda LeValdo-Gayton (Acoma Pueblo), former president of the Native American Journalists Association and a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University, illustrates the various ways TCUs across Indian Country are preserving and protecting knowledge. From Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan to Wind River Tribal College in Wyoming, maintaining culture and language remains the core of the greater TCU mission. LeValdo- Gayton also underscores the important role that elders continue to play in achieving that mission.

At Diné College and Sinte Gleska University, faculty are working to record the wisdom of the elders for posterity. Using state-of-the-art digital media, these two TCUs are paving the way by archiving oral histories that can be accessed with the click of a button. Readers can view and learn about these documentaries at

If these elders’ wisdom reaches the wider community where it can become living knowledge, much of the battle has been won. In the feature, “A Hundred Ways of Learning,” Martha Lee builds on this premise, maintaining that teaching and learning about cultural knowledge is a community endeavor. Lee points to Tohono O’odham Community College, where a board of advisors known as the Himdag Committee seeks to incorporate the operations of the college into the O’odham way of life—and not the other way around. This distinction is crucial, as it puts O’odham culture front and center and elevates the role of the larger community in the people’s education.

Elise Krohn, an instructor of traditional plants and foods at Northwest Indian College, likewise recognizes the importance of involving everyone in the learning process. In this issue’s Talking Circle, Krohn stresses that teaching is most effective when people collaborate as a group and share their experiences. She and her students frequently work in the field as a unit, collecting, identifying, and cooking traditional Native foods of the Pacific Northwest. The AIHEC Student Congress (ASC) joins Krohn in emphasizing the vital role that knowledge of traditional plants and foods can play for tribes. By strengthening food sovereignty, people gain greater control over their own communities. Jamelyn Ebelacker (Santa Clara Pueblo), vice-president of ASC, discusses what TCU students can do to foster this process in TCJ’s Voices column.

An active and interested student body is crucial in TCUs’ overall efforts to protect and preserve cultural knowledge. And so is funding. Fortunately, as Tanksi Clairmont (Lakota) illuminates in her article, “For Future Generations,” the American Indian College Fund has partnered with the National Endowment for the Humanities to offer TCUs financial resources to implement new plans and programs. Little Big Horn College, Navajo Technical University, and Oglala Lakota College, among others, have tapped these funds to fulfill their cultural missions.

Such investments will ultimately help shape the cultural knowledge of generations to come. It is essential that such knowledge is venerated to motivate people to preserve it and pass it on. TCUs are working hard to do just that.


Diamond, J. (2012). The World Until Yesterday. New York: Allen Lane.

Smith, S. L. (2012). Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal. He thanks Dr. Maggie George, Ed McCombs, and Harry Walters at Diné College for their assistance with the Raymond Johnson images featured in this issue.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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