America is often called the land of opportunity. It’s heralded as a place where anyone from any background can get ahead through hard work and determination. While there’s no one path to certain fortune, often-dispensed phrases such as “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” or “put your nose to the grindstone” reinforce the idea that all it takes to succeed in life is tireless self-determination. It may be heartening for some to hear these phrases, but the world they reference doesn’t reflect the reality many Americans face. Simply put, in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” opportunity isn’t distributed equally. Through no effort of their own, some people are born with privileged demographics that allow them access to prospects others can’t even imagine. Yet despite having the deck stacked for or against them, the single greatest equalizer our country can offer its citizens is access to education. Through a quality education, people from all backgrounds can become equipped with a skillset that enables them to climb the ladder of upward mobility. Recognizing this truth, American Indian people throughout history have fought for educational opportunities. Now is a time for each of us to contribute to the fight.
In his book, Born a Crime, African comedian Trevor Noah explained how the apartheid government reigned over its black and mixed race citizens. He wrote, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’” For Noah, and the world as a whole, the fishing rod represents the opportunity to apply and perfect the skills one needs for self-sufficiency and self-elevation. Whether intentionally or not, a country that restricts access to the possibility of advancement is dually fortifying the rights of its privileged citizens and condoning the subjugation of the rest.
Study after study, the results remain the same—the level of one’s education is often proportional to one’s potential earnings. While wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness, it does afford one the potential to build equitable possessions, access quality healthcare, and the freedom to make choices for one’s family. From Rebecca Rolfe to Sequoyah, from Sitting Bull to the founders of the tribal college and university (TCU) movement, American Indian people have been advocating for their educational rights and the opportunities afforded to those who seek an education. TCUs are proof of their enduring success, but the work of the champions for American Indian education is far from over.
Every one of us who attends a TCU or serves the students who walk through our doors is a part of a movement much bigger than themselves. Our schools not only allow the current generation to seek their aspirations, but they also serve as an anchor for scholarship and cultural celebration. At TCUs, traditional Indigenous wisdom compliments exceptional Western learning to foster a climate that affirms the legacy of Native nations’ past, present, and future. The fact that our campuses have a foot in both worlds illustrates the necessity of federal funding to preserve the traditional teachings of our communities and assure that quality Western education is available to all American Indian people.
With every presidential administration comes a new philosophy for education. It’s up to each generation of American Indian advocates to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them and ensure that the future includes opportunities for Native people to receive a modern, culturally affirming education. In his keynote address at the 2017 AIHEC winter meeting, U.S. Representative John Lewis said, “It is time for all of us to make some trouble…good trouble.” As a decorated civil rights advocate who marched alongside of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was one of the “big six” leaders of the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis has spent his life making “good trouble” on behalf of marginalized people. His call to action shouldn’t be ignored by any of us.
As always, making “good trouble” in this or any administration must be done through practicing the values that define America. We must use the five freedoms promised by the First Amendment to the Constitution to assure that all politicians realize that American Indian people have an inalienable right to realize the American dream. We must insist that America’s first citizens have every opportunity guaranteed to them by both their U.S. citizenship and the treaties their ancestors signed. We must assure the continued and expanded funding of TCUs and other programs that elevate Native communities. To put it another way, we must tirelessly remind the keepers of America’s purse strings that Native people from throughout “the land of opportunity” aren’t simply asking for fish—they’re demanding fishing rods.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Lewis, J. (2017, February 4). Keynote Address at the AIHEC Winter Meeting. Washington Court Hotel, Washington, D.C.
Noah, T. (2016). Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
U.S. Department of Labor. (2016, March 3). Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment Projections. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.