Growing up in Garryowen, MT, Burdette Birdinground (Crow) didn’t plan to attend college. He planned to enlist in the Marines. But when his family wouldn’t allow him, he ended up at Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT), where a few of his friends were attending school.
“I’m so happy I went to college,” he says with a laugh. “I’m pretty thankful to my family for doing that.”
Many other people are likely thankful, as well. Birdinground has been a leader at his tribal college and within the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Student Congress. His peers first elected him as sergeantat- arms; he then took on the secretary’s position. In the spring of 2012, he concluded his term as president of the Student Congress.
“It was really hard but really fun,” he says, adding that during his tenure, he learned a lot about leadership. “You try to keep a cool head and hear everybody out all the time,” he says. “Not everybody’s on the same page all the time, so you have to manage people—which is a weird thing—and be a facilitator at the same time.”
Looking back on the AIHEC conferences he’s attended and the ways in which he’s served in student government, one other thing stands out: “Everywhere we went, people were supportive of the Student Congress and what we were doing, the goals we had set for ourselves, and how we benefit our communities,” he says. “It was really cool to know how much people were willing to help.”
Now in his senior year and studying environmental science at SKC, Birdinground plans to attend graduate school, and someday, law school, so he can combine his interests in law and conservation. Whether taking classes in ecology, botany, GIS, soils, or forestry, he is intrigued by how everything links together. Each class is interesting on its own, he says, but they’re also all tied together.
Which, in a way, is how he feels about the tribal colleges too. “They’re all unique in a similar way—they’re unique because of their locations and tribes— but they allow students to learn their traditions and learn Western education, too,” he says. “And they make students want to learn more about their culture.”
As more students are drawn to the community of tribal colleges—whether through friends, like Birdinground, or because family members attend—he sees students showcasing the “awesome capabilities” tribal colleges offer.
“I know tribal college students are doing amazing things, all across the country,” he says. “Students have always been involved, but even since I started participating, they’re getting more involved in the all-around aspects of their tribal colleges.”