New Book Pays Tribute to Women of the Tribal College Movement

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Janine Pease, former president of Little Big Horn College and a past chair of AIHEC, is one of four tribal college leaders recognized in Anne-Marie McCartan’s new book, Unexpected Influence.

Four female pioneers from the early years of tribal colleges are featured in a new book, Unexpected Influence: Women Who Shaped the Early Community College Movement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) by Anne-Marie McCartan. The book profiles 16 women who made “singular contributions” to the community college movement.

In a chapter entitled “Women of the Tribal Colleges: Extending the Model” McCartan highlights key players in the early years between 1968–1995. Two of the four women discussed, Ruth Roessel and Janine Pease, helped found or lead early tribal colleges; another, Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, had a hand in shaping and securing passage of key federal legislation; and the fourth, Barbara Bratone, was able to marshal extensive private resources to support the cause. McCartan was able to interview three of the subjects and benefited from speaking with a dozen other key players from that period. 

Ruth Roessel, along with her husband Bob Roessel, was instrumental in getting the Navajo Tribal Council to establish the first tribal college in 1968. The book relates a colorful story of how Ruth caught the attention of a key congressman who went on to author the Navajo Community College Act of 1971.

One of the first people to recognize that the future of the tribal college movement depended upon federal funding was Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, then director Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Because of her understanding of the federal bureaucracy and congressional processes, Scheirbeck was able to help secure federal funding for tribal colleges. “Helen Scheirbeck changed history by altering Washington, DC’s attitude toward Indian people,” says one of her former colleagues. 

In addition to being the founding president of Little Big Horn College, Janine Pease is acknowledged as a national leader in the tribal college movement during its crucial early years. Before Congress, she was able to articulate the vision for tribal colleges and led the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) to success on the Hill. Equally important, Pease was instrumental in building the effectiveness of AIHEC.

In 1989, tribal college presidents launched the American Indian College Fund, hoping to draw support from corporations and foundations for scholarships and programs. Within a few years, the College Fund was receiving generous contributions from individuals and corporations. Key to its rapid success was the selection of Barbara Bratone as the first executive director. Reports one leader, “We went on to do some remarkable things [after hiring Barbara]. Her understanding of the philanthropic world made all the difference.”

Tribal colleges receive scant reference in mainstream community college literature. As former Tribal College Journal editor Marjane Ambler wrote in 2002, “For some reason [the faculty and administrators] at the 33 tribal colleges and universities in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium seem to be invisible to the rest of the country as they quietly go about their work of changing lives.”  McCartan says that she was thrilled to include the uplifting stories of these four women in her book.

In the course of her research, McCartan says interviewees identified other women who played pivotal roles in the movement, most of whom made their mark as college presidents. Jim Shanley, a major player himself in the tribal college movement, pays tribute in the book to the American Indian women who make up the majority of the staff at the colleges. “They do the day-to-day things that we need to get done on the reservation.”

Indeed, Roessel, Scheirbeck, Pease, and Bratone are but four of the women who, through their contributions to the tribal college movement, helped American Indian peoples take this positive, significant step toward educational self-determination.


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