We Rely on Old Traditions, Modern Vision

Volume 20, No. 4 - Summer 2009
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The Tribal College Movement is just over 40 years old. It is often said that the birth and survival of tribal colleges is just short of miraculous. After the miracle comment, leadership is mentioned as a key factor in the birth and survival of tribal colleges. If that is so, what characteristics of tribal colleges’ leaders are so unusual?

Gordon Belcourt, a Blackfeet and former tribal college president, once said, “We are people of dreams and visions.” This is profound in many ways and indicates an abiding characteristic of the Tribal College Movement.

In the beginning there was a vision that these colleges would provide a pathway to a better future for tribal people. This overall vision is manifested in the individuals who work at and guide the colleges. Individually, some of these people obtain visions through traditional fasting, ceremonies, and self-sacrifice. Others feel a vision in their hearts and through connections with other tribal people. The vision sustains the colleges.

The future for tribal colleges, particularly in the early years, was often unclear. At times, there were threats to funding for individual colleges (which there still are) and for all the colleges as a whole. At one point, the federal Tribal College Act was vetoed. Throughout the hard times, college leaders persisted, and we persisted together, always trying to look out for the weaker institutions.

Remembering the history of how others tried to divide and conquer has strengthened the persistence of individual leaders. The Plains warriors also had traditions of staking themselves out in battle – fighting until victory or death. Some of this same thinking persisted in tribal college leaders.

Many of the Western European models of leaderships seem to be based on the ego of the individual. The tribal perspective (which differs somewhat from tribe to tribe) does not focus on the ego of the individual. Tribal college leadership follows a tribal model. Circumstances demand that an individual steps forward and provides leadership in a given situation (whether the individual wants to or not). The objective of leadership is always to shape events so that it helps the people survive.

Occasionally there are rewards for this type of leadership; however, there should be no expectation of an individual reward. Often there are no rewards. In the traditions of the Plains tribes, the true leaders were the poorest of the poor. It was felt that these people would be sustained by their connection to the powers that are the universe. Leadership was a cultural mandate that a person performed according to the dictates of his or her individual vision. This was connected to a sense of destiny, but it was felt that free will could change events.

Sacrifice still is a basic concept of tribal leadership. In this sense, sacrifice means working and striving so that others may benefit. A corollary to this philosophy is action without recognition. Another tribal college leader, Barbara Bratone, the former director of the American Indian College Fund, once told me, “It is amazing what can be accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

As we move into a new era of leadership in the United States, tribal college history can give us lessons about the potential future. We need common visions that can unite our efforts. We must persist. In the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Lone Watie (played by Chief Dan George) says, “Endeavor to persevere.” And try to do it with a sense of humor.

Future tribal college leaders will have to act with a spirit of self-sacrifice for the survival of the people. Many other viewpoints of life and leadership will arise from the tribal colleges. Hopefully the valuable old traditions will be strengthened and tempered by new realities of the modern world.

James. E. Shanley (Assiniboine), Ed.D., is serving his 25th year as president of Fort Peck Community College (FPCC, Poplar, MT; he has been there since 1984. His Nakoda name is Wamni tiopaya nagi (“Stands by the door of the eagle lodge”). Shanley has published many articles on evaluation, welfare reform, and higher education in national publications, including the Tribal College Journal. He is an author of The History of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana, 1800-2000, which was recently published by Fort Peck Community College.

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