Survey of Tribal Colleges Reveals Research’s Benefits, Obstacles

Volume 13, No. 3 - Winter 2001
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Tribal colleges’ potential for growth and development is both limitless and challenging. While enjoying increasing financial sources to support their programs, they face growing needs for facilities, programs, and competitive faculty salaries.

Research is one area that has not received the attention it deserves. When tribal colleges became land grant institutions in 1994, they gained equal status with a select set of colleges and universities created by the Morrill Act. The original act in 1862 provided “donations of public land or script for the endowment and maintenance of colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts” (The National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, 1995).

Since 1862, the original land grant colleges have had a statewide responsibility to reach out to rural residents. At the heart of their many programs and services is research, particularly in agriculture, economics, and related arenas. Research has been the driving force for bettering the lives of the citizens in their states. Today, over 130 years since the first Morrill Act, a typical land grant university houses agricultural and bio-systems engineering, agricultural and resource economics, agricultural education, an experiment station (with centers located across the state), international programs, educational communications and technologies, and county cooperative extension offices in each county and on some reservations in some states. These land grant university enterprises are large and experienced, influential with county and state legislatures, successful in attracting additional research dollars, and effective at delivering useful research findings to the public.

The 1994 tribal college land grant institutions have the same potential. To realize this potential requires welcoming and developing research activities. Past studies reveal an ongoing effort to conduct research at tribal colleges. A 1997 report prepared for this journal by Marjane Ambler and Cheryl Crazy Bull indicates that several tribal colleges are actively engaged in the research process “[d]espite the chronic lack of resources and time” (Ambler & Crazy Bull, 1997, p. 12). Much of this research is directed toward infusing curriculum development and educational methods with tribal histories, culture, religion, and spiritual knowledge.

We argue in this article, however, that the tribal colleges could unlock greater potential by institutionalizing research as a priority.  Researchers at tribal colleges see many benefits from research for the colleges, communities, faculty, and students. The colleges could nurture, develop, and reward research by faculty, staff, and students even more than they currently do.

The purpose of this article is to (1) summarize current perceptions of tribal college faculty about the research enterprise. What kind of research is being done? Are students a part of the research enterprise? If there are barriers to doing research, what are they? and (2) highlight a model program’s specific research projects.

Our survey methodology included an internet search of tribal college research and interviews during 1999-2000 with 25 college faculty from 19 tribal colleges. We identified which researchers to interview through the world-wide web and recommendations from college administrators and American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) staff. Interviews were conducted via email or telephone. The study collected qualitative information, which was analyzed for frequencies of the types of research as well as perceptions related to our research questions. Names and affiliated institutions and locations have been kept confidential with the exception of materials from websites.

Types of research

Tribal college faculty reported that most research currently focuses on culture, environment, education, and social issues. Fourteen of the faculty mentioned culturally related research, including music/dance, sacred sites, perceptions of the land, family/kinship, sacred societies, history, astronomy, and oral history.

Tribal college web pages provide examples of cultural research, such as the Navajo Place Names Project at Diné Community College and the Woodlands Wisdom project at the College of Menominee Nation and five other tribal colleges, which focuses upon traditional foods and health <> and <>. (If websites mentioned in this paper cannot be accessed, a directory of tribal college phone numbers is located elsewhere in this issue, and readers may link to the college home pages via the Tribal College Journal website <>.)

Environmental research, the second most common focus, included water quality (five responses), etymology (two responses), physiology (one response), geology (one response), and genetics (one response). The Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development Institute at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of the Menominee Nation, and the Navajo Dryland Environments Laboratory at Diné Community College, presented on the web, illustrate the commitment to environmental research (<> ; <>; <>).

Other examples are the Northern Plains Bison Education Network (which includes 10 tribal colleges) and the National Indian Center for Marine, Fisheries, and Environmental Research at Northwest Indian College (<> ; <> ).

Research in the area of education was the third most common focus cited by respondents. This type of research included curriculum development and educational assessments by the colleges. For example, the Learning Lodge Institute web site of seven tribal colleges in Montana presents curriculum development centered on Native languages and cultures (<> ). Some colleges, such as Turtle Mountain Community College, have a Graduate Assessment Survey to ask the graduates if their experiences match the institution’s goals <>.

Dull Knife Memorial College, Tohono O’odham Community College, and other colleges are involved in research on social issues such as healthy families, welfare reform, food insecurity, and traditional foods (<> ).

Researchers approach their studies with both qualitative and quantitative methods. One researcher commented, “[I]t seems to me that the battles we’re fighting now will be determined by the number crunching that goes with statistics as well as the voices heard through qualitative methods.”

Institutionalizing support for research

Mission statements on websites of at least 11 tribal colleges explicitly include research (College of the Menominee Nation, Diné Community College, Salish Kootenai College, Stone Child College, Oglala Lakota College, Turtle Mountain Community College, Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, D-Q University, Fort Berthold Community College, Fort Belknap College, and Fort Peck Community College). For example, the College of the Menominee Nation’s mission statement says, “expand information through research.” Stone Child College includes goals “[t]o develop the Chippewa-Cree culture as an area of study in itself” and “’[t]o research and study the Chippewa-Cree culture, language, and philosophy.” D-Q’s statement of philosophy includes to “preserve and build Native American cultural heritage as a valid area of scholarship and academic inquiry.” Fort Peck Community College’s Department of Community Services “conducts periodic surveys and questionnaires to various target groups throughout the community to assess needs for specialized training for employee skills upgrading and retaining.”

Student research involvement

Students are considered “integral” to the research process at tribal colleges, according to all but four survey respondents. One respondent remarked that “[students are] the central cog in research at tribal colleges.” Students were described as “partners,” “aides,” “translators,” and “research assistants,” doing work such as gathering data in the field, entering information on the computer, and presenting results at formal meetings. One researcher stated, “[w]e treat them like graduate students, and they often rise to the occasion.” These interviews portrayed how research experiences open new opportunities for a student’s future; how research is incorporated as a classroom activity; how the particular research project is enriched by student involvement; and how student involvement ultimately works toward the greater good of the entire community and the future of tribal colleges.

Some faculty researchers explained that research provides opportunities to spark interest in different career opportunities or further schooling while also providing immediate job opportunities for students. Furthermore, skills learned from research may be applied to other work settings. Research can provide learning experiences for students, and later the results can be incorporated into classroom curriculum, making it accessible to all students. For example, one instructor assigns inquiry into Native language terms or cultural activities. Another instructor teaches appropriate procedures for preparing, approaching, and interviewing elders as a necessary research component.

Students provide their insights into each level of the research process at tribal colleges. One faculty-researcher, who was not a member of the community, explained, “[w]hen doing social science oriented research, students help us perceive the problem the way the community does.” In these situations, the faculty-researcher learns from the students.

Emphasizing the importance of students in research, a few instructors linked them with the future of American Indian communities and the work of tribal colleges. Another faculty-researcher explained, “[m]y vision is that our students master both Indian and non-Indian knowledge. We can use Western knowledge to fortify and strengthen our own.” Another researcher from the same tribal college said, “[s]tudents primarily need to be skilled in research so that they can carry on what the faculty is doing.”

Obstacles to research

While research is an integral function of universities, it is much less common at two-year colleges. Universities rely on advanced undergraduate or graduate students to assist in research. Nevertheless, the lack of advanced undergraduate or graduate students to assist in research activities was not cited by tribal colleges as a significant barrier to research; only two respondents mentioned it. Some spoke of the difficulties of having to constantly train a new group of students because of the two-year system, however.

The obstacles mentioned most often by faculty/researchers fit under the categories of scheduling, infrastructure needs, partnership problems, funding constraints, faculty and administrative politics, isolation, and mistrust. Because tribal colleges are teaching-intensive institutions, faculty researchers/instructors teach multiple classes and perform administrative and community outreach work. Tribal college protocols often do not provide work release agreements. Researchers often squeeze research into summers and weekends on their own time.

Tribal colleges often lack space, equipment, and literature needed for research. Partnering institutions often don’t have the knowledge they need about tribal communities and colleges. Funding constraints were mentioned often; long-term and stable funding is difficult for researchers to access. Some of the respondents said tribal college politics interfered with their work and undermined researchers’ morale. Tribal colleges are often located in remote areas, making it difficult for researchers to get equipment or to partner with other institutions.

Tribal college researchers must deal with mistrust from the community and from the outside. Some communities hesitate to get involved with research due to historical forces: Research results often have been taken out of context in the past, making their credibility questionable. Tribal college researchers often described unaffiliated academics conducting and publishing flawed research. Another researcher implied that such flawed work needs to be replaced. “The knowledge base remains biased, in spite of work which has been occurring by indigenous scholars during the past several decades.”

While tribal college researchers might understand the community and the context better, they might not have the advanced degrees that would be necessary in the four-year university system. They also might rely upon community expert collaborators who are not Western educated. Consequently, sometimes their findings are questioned.

Benefits to research

The faculty researchers we interviewed clearly have strategies to meet these obstacles and make the benefits from research accrue to their communities and classrooms. Many partner with other land grant colleges or research institutions. In some cases, these partnerships facilitated transitions for student researchers from the tribal college to the four-year university system.

When asked about benefits, the researchers focused on student and faculty development. Faculty and students develop professionally through research opportunities, such as conferences, collaborations, and presentations. Research projects help alleviate faculty burnout by providing an activity that differs from teaching. The information they gather can enhance and revise their courses.

Faculty reported the greatest benefit from research is introducing new information not otherwise available to the classroom. Personal benefits for faculty were also stressed, including “self-satisfaction,” recognition, morale boost, change of pace, and new career opportunities. The documentation that comes from research helps get further funding for the community. One faculty person said research helps him personally as a member of that community. “The more I learn…the stronger my identity grows,” he said, and he saw the same growth in his students.

Tribal colleges are ideal locations for research that is based upon the local environment, community, or culture. One environmental sciences faculty member said he perceived the tribal college setting as “a huge natural laboratory” for environmental research, and another emphasized that the setting provides “unlimited opportunities for research.” Many researchers stressed that tribal college research is more culturally sensitive and community-grounded, both in the methods and in the results. For example, a tribal college researcher who did not grow up on the reservation said, “I read everything on [this community’s] culture, but when I got involved, I found those writings did not capture the real feeling of community. With tribal college research, that feeling gets put into the writings.”

A model collaborative program

The 1994 tribal college land grant institutions and the 1862 land grant institutions (state universities) sometimes collaborate in research endeavors. The University of Arizona American Indian Studies Small Grants Research Program exemplifies a model for facilitating research at tribal colleges. Each spring since 1998, the American Indian Studies Programs has been awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service to facilitate research on the impact of food assistance programs on American Indian reservations.

In this university program, we select the projects and provide technical and research assistance, thus allowing tribal college faculty the opportunity to participate and gain experience in the academic research endeavor. The program encourages ethnographic studies and research on the special challenges of delivering effective food assistance and nutrition programs on reservations. This small grant program provides a unique opportunity for faculty development, institutional capacity building, and tribal college student participation in research.

Over the past four years, seven diverse research proposals were selected, representing tribal colleges nation-wide. These colleges’ projects include:

  • Oglala Lakota College, Kyle, SD, Leslie Ray Henry, principal investigator. Assessment of Food Concerns, Nutrition Knowledge, and Food Security of Oglala Lakota College Students on the Pine Ridge Reservation (funded in1998). This study adapted a survey developed by the South Dakota State University Department of Nutrition and Food Science to assess food concerns, nutrition knowledge, and food insecurity on the reservation. Researchers compared their results to survey data and food insecurity there. The results allowed nutrition, health, and agriculture personnel to better design and target nutrition education programs.
  • Cheyenne River Community College (now Si Tanka/ Huron University), Eagle Butte, SD, John Phillips, principal investigator. A Dietary History and Behavior Study on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The Cheyenne River Community College collaborated with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Indian Health Service to determine prevailing attitudes towards household nutritional choices, knowledge of diabetes and its prevention, and motivations for dietary change among the Cheyenne River Sioux.
  • Dull Knife Memorial College, Lame Deer, MT, Judith Davis, principal investigator. The Impact of Food Assistance Programs on American Indian Reservations: The Northern Cheyenne Case Study (funded in 1998, 1999, and 2000). A research collaboration between Dull Knife Memorial College and Brigham Young University has documented the impact of recent food assistance changes on nutritional and socio-economic well being in the context of Northern Cheyenne cultural and political life and identified ways in which tribal, community, and other agencies might serve Cheyenne families struggling to adapt to new program requirements more effectively.
  • Fort Belknap College, Harlem, MT, Rachel Grant, principal investigator. Federal Food Programs, Traditional Foods, and the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Nations of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation (funded in 1998). Working jointly with faculty, students, and tribal elders, this project both documented and demonstrated the preparation of traditional foods and described the history and impact of federal food programs on the traditional diets of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples.
  • Diné Community College, Shiprock, NM, campus, Mark Bauer, principal investigator. Monitoring Health and Nutrition on the Navajo Nation (funded in 1998 and 1999). This project added to the 1990 Navajo Health and Nutrition Survey in ongoing monitoring of the health and nutrition status of the Navajo Nation and created a database for understanding the health and nutritional ecology of the people. Indices for nutritional status and identification of at-risk behaviors were also developed.
  • Little Priest Tribal College, Winnebago, NE, Leona Zastrow, principal investigator. The Impact of Food Assistant Programs on American Indian Reservations (funded in 1999). The Winnebago community has participated in several Indian Health Service studies concerning diabetes and obesity. These studies documented the severe health problems of the Winnebago people but seldom suggested solutions. This project is looking at two possible causes and solutions through a twofold process: standardizing reservation commodity nutrition standards and changing commodity food preparation habits of women participating in both the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition) and Head Start programs.
  • Tohono O’odham Community College, Sells, AZ, Daniel Lopez, principal investigator. The Impact of Food Assistance Programs on the Tohono O’odham Food System: An Analysis and Recommendations (funded in 2000). The Tohono O’odham Community College and Tohono O’odham Community Action started a year-long research program designed to use qualitative and quantitative outcome-based performance measures to analyze the effects of food assistance programs on the Tohono O’odham food system. They will recommend ways to change the programs to encourage the redevelopment of a sustainable community food system.


As tribal colleges engage their roles and responsibilities as 1994 land grant institutions of higher education, they will have significantly more opportunities to obtain funding to conduct research. In addition to increasing direct funding for research, the opportunities for partnerships with other land grant universities hold significant potential. The extent to which the research enterprise becomes an institutionalized part of the tribal college will directly affect the potential for growth in this arena.

For example, faculty need release time from teaching, research seed money, and tangible career and professional rewards for conducting research. A research support office with trained staff needs to be established to assist in acquiring and managing research grants and contracts.

There is growing institutional support for doing research at tribal colleges. One model for facilitating research at tribal colleges is the small grants program administered at the University of Arizona, and there are other similar multi-institutional collaborations. Foundations and funding agencies should provide support and programs to stimulate research.

Research holds exceptional potential for tribal colleges. The types of research identified in this study are extremely important for Indian nations and communities, especially when they involve students. The positive benefits for faculty, students, and the communities far outweigh obstacles to research identified in this study.

Margaret Mortensen received a M.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. Claudia E. Nelson is completing her M. A. in American Indian Studies at the university. Dr. Jay Stauss is director of the American Indian Studies Programs there.


Ambler, M. & Crazy Bull C. (1997, Summer). Survey: Tribal colleges deeply involved in research. Tribal College Journal, 9(1), 12-15.

National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. (1995, March). The land-grant tradition. Washington DC: The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges Office of Public Affairs.

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