Stories from the Heart

Volume 24, No. 1 - Fall 2012
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PROBLEM SOLVERS. At the AIHEC board meeting, students met with tribal college presidents during a planning session on behavioral health. From left to right, front row: Dennis Quigley (Rosebud Sioux tribe), Sharon Cooley (Navajo Technical College). Middle row: Vanessa Adams (Leech Lake Tribal College), Darcy Smith (Cankdeska Cikana Community College), Alli Moran (Institute of American Indian Arts), Sheena Begay (Navajo Technical College), Elizabeth Hattaway (United Tribes Technical College), Deborah Charley (Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute). Back row: Katrinka “Kit” Norby (Leech Lake Tribal College), Forrest Callaghan (Northwest Indian College), Tyson RunningBear (Cankdeska Cikana Community College), Terry Warren (Sitting Bull College), Felipa De Leon (Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute).

Even though the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Student Conference in Rapid City, SD, was months ago, I’m still feeling energized by the enthusiasm students brought to the conference and awestruck at the dedication of AIHEC staff and tribal college presidents, administrators, and faculty members. The games and competitions are exciting and the Student Congress elections suspenseful, but my favorite thing about the conference and associated board meeting is hearing the stories of people integral to the tribal college movement.

I loved, for instance, attending an AIHEC Student Congress meeting and hearing each student introduce him or herself. Sitting within the circle, I could put faces to names and learn where students had come from, who their families are, and what their dreams are for the future. Of course, the best part is sharing a laugh and throughout the conference helping students and new friends celebrate their successes. Stories also bring people together in overcoming challenges. During a board session about behavioral health, many of the tribal college presidents—including Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University; Dr. Sherry Allison, president of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute; and David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College—shared intensely personal stories of how poverty and alcohol have affected students and even their own communities and families.

During that session, AIHEC staff invited students to speak with the tribal college presidents. Again, people not only offered suggestions on how to create a new behavioral health model, but also spoke from personal experience. That way of communicating with one another—from student to president, from heart to heart—likely does not occur as often within mainstream universities. Storytelling is central to the tribal college movement and a strength shared by many elders and students alike. As you will read within this issue of Tribal College Journal, storytelling is built into the core of tribal colleges.

In her feature story, Barbara Ellen Sorensen writes of the different ways tribal colleges incorporate storytelling into their curricula—from the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts to the stories Kevin “Hoch” Decora tells in his classes at Sinte Gleska University. (Having attended a breakout session of Decora’s last year, I can attest firsthand to how his stories energize a class and bring out the best in students. Thanks to Decora’s sense of fun in the classroom, I know how to keep a peacock feather aloft at the tip of my finger.)

Also in this issue, College of Menominee Nation Humanities Department Chair Ryan Winn writes that in his playwriting class, tribal college students write their own characters, create their own plays, and perform theater productions for their communities. Through the experience, students hone their own storytelling skills and create connections with their communities.

The fall issue is my favorite of the year because it highlights the winners of our student writing and cover art competition. My thanks go out to Mariana Kiona Harvey (Yakama) who, for the second year in a row, worked on the student edition. Mariana started working at Tribal College Journal in 2008 while attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in American Indian Studies. She periodically returns to TCJ to work on special projects. Mariana’s hard work is an inspiration, and her grace is a gift to anyone who knows her. As always, I’m grateful to all of the students who submitted their writing and their artwork. More and more often lately, we have been hearing from tribal college students eager to share their words with readers.

In March my email Inbox was flooded with submissions from students at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College (LCOOCC). English instructor Patrick Shields had asked students to write about the topic of storytelling and submit their essays to TCJ. The assignment came on the heels of a storytelling series at the tribal college.

Through its storytelling series, LCOOCC connected students to elders, helped people share knowledge, and reminded students that they belong in their communities. Shelia Butler writes of waiting with some of her non-Native classmates for one of the speakers to arrive: “I was so excited for this speaker. This time it was different because he was an Ojibwe just like me.” As the students, Native and non-Native, left the auditorium, they retold the stories, highlighting which parts they liked best. “Having long dark braids myself, everyone knew I was an Ojibwe so I was being asked a million questions,” she adds. “I was so happy to fill everyone in and tell them about my grandparents who had told me what it was like growing up so close to the land and as one with nature.”

The essays, thoughtful and provocative, show how tribal college students are influenced by the power of stories—and how they are crafting narratives of their own. Their essays also remind me of how valuable the tribal college movement is to those Native students who may not have grown up hearing traditional stories. Consider the words of Jen McFaggan:

I am a Lakota Sioux Indian, but had a very nontraditional upbringing. Having a Sioux mother and a very Scotch-Irish father, I didn’t know what side I was supposed to be on.

It’s tough now when I think back on the times growing up, I didn’t have any kind of traditional values set forth for me. My Sioux grandmother didn’t really take the time to sit with my sister and I and tell us very many stories. She had bad spirit stories to tell, but none that would give us any life lessons or morals. I can remember my uncle telling a few stories, but it was such a long time ago, I don’t remember the actual meaning of them. I wish he were still alive so he could tell me again.

One thing I am sad about is the fact that I have nothing to tell my daughter. She asked me a while ago, “Mom, are we Indians?” I told her, “Yes, we’re Sioux, and be proud of it.” We don’t look Native, but it’s still in our blood. It would be nice to pass on any Lakota stories, but I don’t know any.

The LCOOCC students also write about how technology is affecting storytelling—for better and for worse—and reflect upon stories they heard from their own grandparents. You can read the essays online at Please share your own stories with us, as well. You can comment online or email us at

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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