The day was deceptively fair as the snowstorm crept up the eastern seaboard toward Washington. All of the weather forecasters were predicting a “snowpocalypse” that would force the nation’s capital to close down the following day. Despite such news flurries, delegations of tribal college and university (TCU) students and presidents diligently made their rounds on Capitol Hill, visiting with their respective congressional representatives and senators to illuminate the gross inequities that TCUs face in basic funding. Demetria Simms (Diné), a student at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), joined the New Mexico delegation. But for her, the day’s work required even more diligence. That morning, her family told her that they needed to decide whether to take her brother off life support. He had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident and had virtually no chance of recovery. Two thousand miles away from her family, she waited, wondering if she would ever see her brother again.
Demetria Simms carried that weight with her as she marched up to the Rayburn House Office Building to meet with her state’s representatives. She sat down and told whoever would listen about how TCUs were changing lives and rebuilding nations. Indeed, her own story embodied that narrative. After serving in the United States Army for eight years, she worked a variety of jobs, but could never really get ahead. “I didn’t want to be just a statistic,” she recalled. Finally, a friend told her about SIPI, about how the institute had an open-door policy where, regardless of her struggles and circumstances, she could find a new beginning—a place where she could get a solid education and set on a course that would enable her to work for the betterment of Indian people. Like so many TCU students, Demetria flourished; she is vice-president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) student congress, a member of the Society of American Indian Government Employees and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, an American Indian College Fund Walmart Scholar, and she serves as SIPI’s president of Phi Theta Kappa National Honor Society.
Such successes affirm what the tribal college movement is all about. They are what drive educators such as Sherry Red Owl, the subject of this issue’s Profile, to work tirelessly for 43 years to improve Indian higher education. Or what motivate the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to invest over $11 million in a new tribal college campus, as illustrated in Dan King’s and Eugene McArthur’s feature article. Each and every TCU student success story is one more block that helps rebuild Native nations.
Today, many nation building efforts focus on harnessing the natural resources found on Indian lands. Although tribes have come a long way in gaining greater control over their mineral wealth, the exploitation of such resources, especially those used as fossil fuels, illuminates new problems that lack simple solutions. In her feature article, “Soil and Oil, Trees and Seas,” Helen Hu tells us how TCUs in North Dakota like Fort Berthold Community College, United Tribes Technical College, and Turtle Mountain Community College are preparing students for jobs with the energy companies that are tapping into the wealth of oil and natural gas found in the state’s Bakken formation. Since much of the deposit lies within the borders of the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain reservations, there is great employment and revenue potential. But, as Jim Shanley (Assiniboine Sioux) explains in TCJ’s web-exclusive column, Current Reflections, there is a tradeoff: the oil boom presents a variety of challenges to Native peoples’ cultures and to the sacred land itself. Subodh Singh, faculty at Sinte Gleska University, underscores this theme in his feature article on guar cultivation, raising the question: should tribes invest in a product used in the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing? For Singh the answer is a resounding “yes,” but others may disagree. I invite you to register your opinion in the fall issue’s Letters to the Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org/new-tcj).
Control over natural resource exploitation and economic development is just one form of tribal sovereignty confronting TCU leaders. In this issue’s Voices column, Paul Willeto (Diné) argues persuasively for sovereignty over accreditation. Since their inception, TCUs have struggled with this process, bending to meet the standards of Western, non-Native accrediting agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission—often at the expense of their respective cultural missions and nation building efforts. Willeto, a longtime educator and administrator at Diné College, maintains the time has come for TCUs to create their own sovereign, Native-run accrediting agency. He argues that such a step would help enhance and expedite tribal nation building.
Establishing such an agency, however, will take money, further underscoring the importance of AIHEC’s work to rectify inequities in funding. This stood as one of the foremost requests of those TCU delegations who travelled to Washington in February. The facts are plain: TCUs receive less than $6,000 per student, compared to nearly $30,000 per student at other institutions. If TCUs hope to move forward in all of their respective nation building efforts, they must continue working together, as one movement, for redress of such disproportions in funding. In such an endeavor, every effort counts.
It was this sense of purpose that led Demetria Simms up to Capitol Hill that foreboding day. At the debriefing session, before the teams of TCU students and presidents departed and made their way home, we learned that Demetria was in a hotel outside the Baltimore airport hoping to catch a flight back to New Mexico. Although her friends at SIPI had done everything possible to get her home, the snowstorm had kept her from being by her brother’s side as her family took him off life support. When I saw her a couple of weeks later, she said, “My heart’s heavy, but I have to keep going.” She told me she would continue to advocate for all TCUs and that she would work tirelessly in doing so.
This is nation building.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal. He would like to thank Demetria Simms for sharing her story and for inspiring us with her courage, strength, and perseverance. This essay is dedicated to the memory of her brother, Craig Sheldon Simms.