In August of 1930, a Nebraskan writer named John G. Neihardt drove up to Manderson, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge reservation in search of an old, blind holy man named Black Elk. Neihardt’s main interest was to collect oral histories about Wounded Knee and the great Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. Along a desolate, dusty road that meandered through the hills of that remote corner of Oglala country, Neihardt came upon Black Elk’s cabin—and there, outside, the old man stood, seemingly waiting for him. They sat down together and after a prolonged silence, Black Elk began to speak.
He said that Neihardt was sent to save his words so that others may learn from them. The two men met several times after that and Black Elk related epic stories about the battle at Greasy Grass, the death of Crazy Horse, and the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Neihardt recorded it all and compiled the accounts in the classic book, Black Elk Speaks. But most significant was a vision that Black Elk shared—a spiritual vision that expressed great tragedy and suffering, but which culminated in hope and perseverance.
It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of Black Elk Speaks. Millions of copies have been sold worldwide, and it remains influential to this day. Even more important is the spiritual impact that Black Elk’s Great Vision has had. Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) called it “a religious classic” that has become “the central core of a North American Indian theological canon.”
In his vision, a voice spoke to Black Elk and said that his people would confront tremendous difficulties and that his “nation’s hoop was broken.” He transformed into an eagle and saw a great tempest and his people running:
For the storm cloud was coming on them very fast and black, and there were frightened swallows without number fleeing before the cloud.
He spoke of loss, but, in glimpsing the future, also hope:
The bison were the gift of a good spirit and were our strength, but we should lose them, and from the same good spirit we must find another strength.
Black Elk never clarified what that other strength was, but some 50 years later a new generation of tribal leaders had an answer: education. In 1979, Sinte Gleska University launched the first baccalaureate-level teacher education program at a tribal college or university (TCU) in an effort to train culturally responsive educators. Since then, teacher education programs have proliferated but have confronted many trials along the way.
In this issue’s feature essay, “Struggle and Success,” longtime educator Carmelita Lamb (Lipan Apache) offers an overview of the state of teacher education at TCUs. Lamb underscores the many challenges which all teacher ed programs face, such as enrollment, funding, accreditation, and licensure. But she also illuminates the incredible fortitude among TCU faculty and students alike. “Each student represents a vested interest in the future of their tribe,” she writes. And regardless of budget, TCUs are determined to succeed.
Education is what will give tribal nations a new strength.
Success means to break a vicious cycle in education that has plagued Native communities for far too long. In this issue’s Voices column, Robert Cook (Oglala Lakota), who sits on the board of directors for the National Indian Education Association, calls for TCU teacher education graduates to give back to their people and teach the children in their tribal communities. Cook also heads Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative and passionately advocates this as an avenue of reciprocity. Such homecomings, when coupled with a culturally responsive teaching pedagogy, can be particularly effective. In TCJ’s Talking Circle department, Jolene Bowman (Stockbridge-Munsee), the education director for the Mohican Nation, maintains that teachers should strive to develop paradigms modeled on their tribe’s values and philosophy. This approach not only offers a sound way to develop a culturally rooted curriculum, but can also serve as a road map for educators working with Native students.
While culturally responsive teaching strategies, community connection, and positive role models all play a large part in the success of any teacher education program, in the end it requires great dedication on behalf of the students themselves. In her original study, Lisa J. Benz Azure, vice president of academic affairs and chair of the Teacher Education Department at United Tribes Technical College, conducted a battery of surveys and interviews to investigate how 10 TCU students successfully completed a teacher education program and attained state licensure. Her research methodology is particularly potent, as it gives voice to the students themselves. Azure concludes that success is based on two overarching factors: the students’ unwavering commitment to their goals and the full- fledged support of the teacher education program itself, including caring faculty who go above and beyond the call of duty.
As evidenced in the articles throughout these pages, TCUs are the institutions best poised to produce professional Native educators for Native communities. In this spring issue of Tribal College Journal, let us celebrate the hope and regeneration that TCUs and education offer. And let us reflect on these words from Black Elk’s Great Vision:
And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is the managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
DeMallie, R.J. (ed.). (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Neihardt, J.G. (1932). Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1979 ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.