During the recent 40th anniversary celebration of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Sinte Gleska University president, Lionel Bordeaux (Lakota), stood before a crowded ballroom and recounted how back in the 1970s he and the other AIHEC founders regularly trekked to Washington, DC to secure legislation that would help fund newly established tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Through those early days they rented $19 rooms and would work out their strategy until 3 a.m., using the begrimed motel bed as their board table. They had doors shut on them repeatedly and even had one congressman tell them that Indians would be better off building hog pens and chicken coops than colleges and universities. Despite such deterrents, the AIHEC founders persevered, continuing to support the establishment of new tribal colleges and eventually securing passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. This landmark legislation has allowed TCUs to develop innovative new programs and work toward not only the economic empowerment of Indian Country, but also the social, behavioral, and cultural well-being of America’s first peoples.
It was a long time coming. Throughout the course of American history, tremendous effort and energy were devoted to decimating Native familial structures, spirituality, and “the people’s way of life,” as Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, puts it in this issue’s feature article. For Indigenous people of the Great Plains, this meant eradicating the bison herds, which the perpetrators knew would ultimately lead to a complete collapse of tribal economies and subsistence patterns. Once accomplished, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887 in an effort to break up the tribe—the very social unit from which people drew their strength and formed their identity. The legislation carved tribal lands into neatly aligned parcels and assigned each “head-of-household” to a homestead. The purveyors of this policy elevated the individual over the community and forbade people to live in extended family units. They expected Natives to engage in the same form of intensive agriculture that non-Natives employed east of the Mississippi River, despite the fact that such practices weren’t suited for the Plains. The result was crop failure, food shortages, and misery.
The assault on subsistence patterns and social organization served as the foundation of a policy that ultimately sought to assimilate Native peoples and stamp out their cultures. The Office of Indian Affairs expressly forbade traditional feasts, ceremonies, and dances. Even customs practiced since time immemorial, such as Lakota expressions of grief over the loss of a loved one, were deemed illegal. A “Court of Indian Offenses” oversaw the enforcement of these rules, doling out fines, sentencing lawbreakers to prison or hard labor, withholding rations, and incarcerating medicine people. Once the policymakers in Washington, DC thought they had succeeded in destroying ceremonial practices, missionaries moved in to spread Christianity, while Native children were moved out to boarding schools far away, where they would be culturally molded into Euro-Americans.
Many people today find it hard to believe that such cruelty was heaped upon American Indians, let alone understand how this historical legacy continues to impact behavioral health in tribal communities. One example of how this legacy continues to the present day is illustrated in the article, “Working Together: Wellness and Academic Achievement at Tribal Colleges and Universities,” where Bonnie Duran (Opelousas/Coushatta) and her team of researchers from the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington show how drug and alcohol abuse are serious concerns for American Indians. But there is hope. Tribal colleges and universities, they argue, can work to mitigate this problem, citing that a large majority of both students and faculty recognize the important role that traditional activities play at TCUs. Crazy Bull examines such activities in her feature, “Healing Ourselves.” Native-based initiatives such as Cankdeska Cikana Community College’s “Think Dakota” campaign employ tribal values to reclaim behavioral health and work for the general wellness of the people. Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation has similarly employed Native philosophy and tradition in its programs. As Amanda Takes War Bonnett (Oglala Sioux) reveals in this issue’s Talking Circle, the university’s human services faculty, in concert with the Lakota Studies Department, has established a master’s degree program to train a new generation of counselors and healers.
Such efforts to improve tribal and behavioral health rely on the continued growth and funding of TCUs. Former Fort Peck Community College president and early AIHEC leader James Shanley, Ed.D. (Assiniboine Sioux) notes in TCJ’s webexclusive column, Current Reflections, that TCUs have relied on the goodwill of Congress for basic operating funds since the passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. With the present sequestration crisis in full bloom, we can only hope that Congress will set aside obstructionist politics and recognize the vital role that TCUs play in some of the most marginalized communities in the United States. Historical legacies don’t just go away—a point that Oglala Lakota College president Thomas Shortbull (Lakota) astutely makes in his article on voting rights. The historical legacy that American Indians have been handed, and the very real effects it continues to have across Indian Country, are greater than debates over balanced budgets or deficit ceilings. And the work that TCUs are doing to cope with that legacy and restore the people’s way of life is something that cannot be put on hold.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal. He thanks Professor Ross H. Frank, director of the Plains Indian Ledger Art Publishing Project at the University of California at San Diego, for his assistance and generosity in selecting the ledger images for this issue of TCJ.