Takin’ It to the Hill

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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essay-takin-it-to-the-hill“My God, Mr. Chairman, you don’t mean to tell me that you Navajos think you can run a college,” exclaimed a BIA official after hearing plans to establish a tribally controlled institution of higher education. It was 1967 and no tribe anywhere had its own college or university.

“We’re not asking for your permission but rather telling you what we are going to do,” replied Raymond Nakai, chairman of the Navajo Nation. Two years later, with little support and a shoestring budget, Navajo Community College (NCC) began offering classes.

The founding of NCC was a historic stride towards greater sovereignty and self-determination for Indian nations. It opened the door for tribes all over North America to follow suit and develop their own institutions of higher learning to meet their own needs. But keeping those doors open has been an ongoing struggle.

Indeed, the work of the tribal college movement has never been easy. Although federal treaties contain provisions that the United States fund Indian education, this translated historically into boarding, missionary, or government-operated schools that gave little curricular control to the tribal communities they served. Moreover, such schooling was restricted to K-12, leaving educational attainment stifled at the collegiate level. The creation of NCC marked a new chapter in Indian education and helped forge higher learning opportunities for communities that theretofore had been left out.

That was the first step, and in some ways the easier one. An even greater challenge than founding NCC was sustaining it. With no campus, or even a single building, Nakai and the college’s founders searched for a location where they could hold classes. Eventually they worked out an agreement with a BIA school in Many Farms, a remote community in the middle of the Navajo reservation, which enabled the new college to use the school’s facilities, including its dormitories and cafeteria. Of course the educational experience of the first 301 students who enrolled at NCC in the spring of 1969 was not exactly outstanding. In many ways it was like being sentenced to two years at a boarding school. Funding was even trickier. Although NCC had facilities and the faculty, staff, and administrators were willing to work for minimal salaries, the college had overhead expenses that needed to be met. Bob Roessel, NCC’s first president, and Guy Gorman, chair of the board of regents, managed to cobble together donations from a variety of sources—$450,000 from the Office of Economic Opportunity, $250,000 from the Navajo Nation, and $60,000 from the Donner Foundation—but the financial situation was far from ideal. As Roessel observed, matters would be much less stress-inducing “if the Indian people can somehow get . . . fastened into the pipeline so that they have the resources available to them . . . so they don’t have to beg all the time.”

Roessel and Gorman therefore began working feverishly to secure a campus for the college and a steady, reliable source of funding. And the most reliable source, they determined, was the federal government. They talked with members of Congress, explained the college’s importance and the government’s treaty obligations, and eventually gained support for a bill that would provide annual funding for NCC. They met with key staffers from the Department of the Interior and secured President Richard Nixon’s backing. They worked with congressional allies to shepherd the bill through the appropriate committees. Finally, on December 15, 1971, their efforts paid off when the Navajo Community College Assistance Act was signed into law.

Like the founding of NCC just three years earlier, the act was a milestone in the history of the tribal college movement and it set the stage for the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978—the main source of funding for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) today. Certainly these achievements are worth celebrating, but they in no way mark an end to the struggle. TCUs continue to face great inequities in funding, and their work to build on their successes never ends.

To better realize their goals and overcome the many hurdles they encounter, tribal college leaders established the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) to serve as the “collective voice and unifying spirit” of the tribal college movement. For over four decades, AIHEC has taken the dreams and aspirations of the tribal colleges to Capitol Hill, tirelessly advocating on their behalf. This special issue of Tribal College Journal is devoted to that great errand.

In this issue’s main feature, “Advancing Tribal Students and Sovereign Nations,” AIHEC president Carrie Billy and vice-president of advocacy Meg Goetz discuss the organization’s priorities and how they’re working to realize them. It’s complicated and difficult work; these days the federal government is crippled by partisan gridlock. But where other organizations have failed, AIHEC navigates Washington’s choppy waters by working on both sides of the political aisle. “American Indian issues, including TCU issues, are not consigned to either the Republicans or the Democrats,” Billy and Goetz state. “Support of American Indians and Alaska Natives is a national responsibility.”

And it’s a big responsibility. Because so much is at stake, AIHEC consults with one of the best government affairs and public relations firms in the nation’s capital. In her article, “Washington Partners,” senior legislative associate Kuna Tavalin elaborates on the advocacy process and how her firm interfaces with AIHEC and assesses today’s polarized political landscape. “The firm’s guiding principle is to partner with our clients to help them leverage their knowledge and resources into effective advocacy efforts,” Tavalin explains. “It is hard to predict what the future holds with Congress, but it is an absolute certainty that nothing will come from relationships that do not exist.”

In working together, one of AIHEC and Washington Partners’ most effective strategies is to introduce lawmakers to tribal college students and let them tell how TCUs have transformed their lives. Such stories underscore the importance of tribally controlled higher education and illuminate that statistics can only teach us so much—what really matters is people. In “Storytelling on Capitol Hill,” Robin Máxkii, a graduate of Diné College, current student at Salish Kootenai College, and veteran of AIHEC’s annual Capitol Hill visits, tells of her experiences in Washington, DC and offers advice on how TCU students can best prepare for future visits. “Don’t fall into the self-defeating trap of questioning whether you look or sound the part, wondering what you have to offer, or worrying about measuring up to others,” she counsels. “Remember, your story is important. You matter.”

It’s been 45 years since NCC’s founders succeeded in gaining passage of the landmark Navajo Community College Assistance Act, and longtime tribal college leader Jim Shanley has witnessed the sea change in Washington that has taken shape since then. “There’s a substantial difference in the political times now than in the 1970s,” he observes in this issue’s web-exclusive column, Current Reflections. “We were able to write and influence legislation then.” Everyone can agree that task is much more difficult today, making AIHEC’s efforts on behalf of tribal colleges all the more critical. In many ways, the sovereignty, self-determination, and cultural revitalization of Indian nations hinge on the success of the tribal college movement—which is why AIHEC is takin’ it to the Hill.

 Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.


Connell-Szasz, M. (1999). Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination since 1928 (3rd ed.). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Iverson, P. (2002). Diné: A History of the Navajos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Szasz, M. (Interviewer) & Roessel, R.A. (Interviewee). (1970, October 5). American Indian Historical Research Project [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from University of New Mexico American Indian Oral History Collection: http://econtent. unm.edu/cdm/ref/collection/navtrans/id/276.

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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