Takin’ It to the Hill:  A Conversation with Jim Shanley

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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JAMES SHANLEYFirst chartered in 1973, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) has worked relentlessly to advocate for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Much of this advocacy has centered on the organization’s Capitol Hill campaigns, where AIHEC staffers and TCU leaders and students meet with congressional representatives and senators to press the many issues which confront the collective tribal college community.

Jim Shanley (Assiniboine) served as president of Standing Rock Community College (now Sitting Bull College) and later Fort Peck Community College, where he remained for 28 years. He was also one of AIHEC’s early leaders. At the age of 29, he was appointed as AIHEC’s executive committee president and made regular visits to Capitol Hill in an effort to gain federal funding for TCUs. After much toil, Shanley and his colleagues in AIHEC succeeded in their campaign as Congress passed the historic Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act in 1978. Although this landmark legislation has secured funding for TCUs, they still face great inequities, making AIHEC’s continued efforts as vital as ever.

Today, Dr. Shanley is retired, but continues to offer his expertise whenever called upon. Splitting his time between his home on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and Arizona, he shared with TCJ some of his insights and experiences “takin’ it to the Hill.”

As an AIHEC founder, what were your primary goals in the 1970s?

I came in, oh, about two or three years after the consortium was formed. I went to Standing Rock [Community College] in 1975. The primary goals for AIHEC were to get legislation that would provide permanent funding for the tribal colleges and to try and broaden the participation of tribal colleges in federal programs aimed at other colleges and universities. If there was a third goal, it was to build the infrastructure of the local institutions. Some tribal colleges were in trailers and old boiler plants. They had little in the way of land. The tribes were willing participants, but they didn’t have any resources either.

At the time there were just a few tribal colleges. Funding came through Title III grants and so you didn’t know if it was going to be there from year to year. For example, in 1982 the Title III grant was cut off to the central organization [AIHEC], which led us to shut down the central office in Denver.

The tribal colleges had to contribute more money. It was difficult to get the tribal colleges to do that. We hired a half-time lobbyist in Washington—we didn’t have a central office—that lobbyist was John Forkenbrach. We then hired Georgiana Tiger. Eventually we were able to raise more money with the help of the College Fund and others, enabling us to open an office in Washignton, DC.

In the 1990s we bought the building in Alexandria [Virginia]. We had some substantial foundation grants that helped out, and then about 15 of the individual colleges bought shares in the building.  At the time, we probably paid $500,000 or $600,000. The building now is probably worth $3 million. It was difficult then to start up the consortium, but it would be next to impossible today.

Did you have trouble getting all the TCUs on board with AIHEC’s agenda? How did you navigate this?

They set the agenda in terms of legislation. In the early days, the members did the writing and lobbying themselves, so the agenda wasn’t always agreed upon. There were a number of people—Joe McDonald, Lionel Bordeaux, Janine Pease Pretty On Top—who believed that “if we don’t pay for this, it doesn’t belong to us.” The granting agency was our boss. The correct assumption was that the more ownership the colleges had in the organization, the more they got involved, the more they contributed. That was the big sticking point: how do we fund a central organization?

A second point was that there were some tribal colleges that had their own agendas that conflicted with the whole. They wanted, for example, sometimes to keep grants for themselves and not share. For example, we got a $3 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation, but they only wanted to fund four or five colleges. But Lionel [Bordeaux] said simply, “You either fund us all or none of us.” That really shocked the Kellogg board. They were used to individuals, not collectives. But they ended up funding us all. We had similar issues with the Ford Foundation. They wanted to fund just larger colleges and they had romantic ideas about what tribal colleges were—they wanted Sioux’s and Navajos, not Assiniboines.

What was the political landscape like in Washington in the 1970s?  How about in the 1980s and 90s—how did that landscape change?

Well, I think there’s a substantial difference in the political times now than in the 1970s. We were just coming out of the Vietnam War. The public had been tenderized. There was AIM [the American Indian Movement] and people were more aware of issues facing American Indians. 

We wrote the Tribal College Act and the Land Grant Act. We were able to write and influence legislation then. We couldn’t do that now. The parties are so polarized. The bureaucracies have survived, but the government itself has become more regulatory. The political situation is so much about opposition, it’s impossible to get anyone to work on anything anymore.

During my last years, we were not able to follow through and get important things changed. Who knows, if we elect Donald Trump maybe they’ll build a wall around the reservation.

How and why did those changes occur?

Jimmy Carter was a good president for Indians. He appointed the first secretary for Indian education—that was Gerry Gipp. After Carter, Reagan came in with his trickle-down economics so he tightened the reigns on his budget. But there was a belief during the time—the 70s, 80s, and 90s—that government could fix problems. Today, we’ve been bombarded with this notion that the government creates problems, it doesn’t fix problems.

The issues we see now—we’re having problems that we’re failing to do anything about. This country can’t work together to solve problems. We have the ability to solve problems, economically and socially, but we haven’t moved forward in the last 20 years. The last opportunity to make dramatic changes was at the end of the Clinton administration.

Today, AIHEC has a staff of over 15 people and an office in Alexandria, right next to Washington, DC.  How did AIHEC operate in its formative years? What was its infrastructure like?

To start with, we had a central office in Denver. That went away in the 80s. For four or five years, we operated by the seat of our pants. We had a half-time lobbyist. Eventually the colleges saw the wisdom of putting more money into the central organization and it stabilized. 

Currently, they do a lot of supplemental work in that they can get funding from supplemental areas. But the purpose the office has served over the past 16 years is to protect what we already achieved. The political situation has been stalemated. It’s been very difficult to get Democrats and Republicans to work together. 

Initially, we’d approach everyone, and we’d get opposition from legislators from districts without much Indian population. You can go to both Republicans and Democrats in individual states, like here in Montana, and they’ll try and help you. But at the national level, it’s difficult.

The other thing we’ve had is large turnovers in the House. So unless you’re talking about reauthorization of bills, it’s very difficult to get new legislation. There used to be a standard process: the president would submit a budget, Congress would tear it apart, but then they’d work something out. But what they do now is pass continuing resolutions. 

The resources in the U.S. are limited. We’ve had two wars that have been going on the past 14 years that have drained resources from this country—not only in terms of men and women, but in terms of economic resources. We’ve poured trillions into these wars; all of that could have gone into creating a better Untied States.

We’ve worked up a deficit. When [Bill] Clinton was in office, there was actually a surplus. We paid down the budget. Since then, they’ve cut taxes for wealthy people, started two wars, the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA [Transportation Security Administration]. All of this is to be paid for on the current budget, which hasn’t expanded.

The U.S. used to be much more flexible in how it dealt with problems. AIHEC has to work with whatever flexibility that it can find. The Obama administration has been stymied on any legislation that it seeks to pass.

For the past several years, TCU students make an annual trip to Washington to meet with congressional delegations from states that have TCUs. Their stories and testimony are effective and compelling. When and how did AIHEC initiate this effort?

Well, it originally started with tribal college presidents. We used to go out to DC for weeks. We’d work our way alphabetically through every office in the House and Senate. So it started with the presidents and shifted to the students.

Politicians like to hear from their constituents. They like to give them the impression that they’re listening and they’ll act on their desires. In some states like New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Montana, the Indian population can make up 1 to 5% of the electorate and determine whether someone will get elected.

Over the course of AIHEC’s 43-year history, how has the organization’s mission changed? How has it remained the same?

Well, the mission changes when you have improvements. Our changes have been developmental. We sought resources to help in our development, and then it shifted to stability—stability in terms of resources. Now you have elements of both development and stability. But now there’s a “man your forts, protect what you have” [mission]. 

It’s all part of the larger political process. As Congress has ground to a halt, it has deadlocked the mission of the organization [AIHEC] as well.

Any final words of advice on takin’ it to the Hill?

During the growth process, in the 1980s, 1990s, and coming into the 2000s, one of the things that AIHEC found that was a key factor, was our association with other groups—groups such as the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, the land grant organizations, the historically Black colleges and universities. We still talk to these people, but we can’t do anything because we’re all under the same constraints. We had an alliance between the Hispanics, Blacks, and Indians that was very helpful. Those relations still exist, but they’re on low heat. We can’t do anything because of Congress, but we can’t let the flame go out. If the situation opens up again, we need to be sure we have good relations with the organizations that represent other colleges and students.


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