The Unquantifiable Value of Tribal Colleges

Volume 27, No. 1 - Fall 2015
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Waiting Women by R.C. Gorman (Diné). Courtesy of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico

In November of last year, Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report penned an article entitled, “Tribal colleges give poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money,” in which she argues that tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have “abysmal success rates.” Butrymowicz based her assertions on a particular dataset which The Hechinger Report selectively analyzed using specific measures. In classic journalistic form, she brought in a chosen cadre of pundits to back up her claims. Tom Burnett, for example, a former Montana state senator, claimed that TCUs were of little value and described them as “safe harbors that lead you nowhere.”

The Hechinger Report’s article found a mass readership when The Atlantic, a publication that bills itself as “the country’s most iconic and influential magazine” providing “uniquely insightful analysis,” picked up the piece and posted it on its website under the title, “The Failure of Tribal Schools.” There, it undoubtedly reached hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people, as The Atlantic reports that it receives up to 20 million page visits per month. In our age of soundbites and news flashes, millions more probably read the title alone. Of course, anyone familiar with TCUs and American Indian higher education who read the article recognized it as disingenuous and irresponsible. Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, published a response entitled “Why Tribal Colleges Matter,” pointing out that Butrymowicz presented an incomplete analysis and that the students at TCUs differ greatly from those who attend mainstream institutions. Likewise, Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, wrote a piece with Ginger Stull for The Huffington Post, asserting that The Hechinger Report article should have been entitled, “Tribal colleges give remarkable return on a meager $100 million a year in federal funding.” The authors noted that TCUs receive a fraction of the money that other colleges or universities get and are by far the most underfunded institutions of higher education in the United States. Ryan Winn, a professor at College of Menominee Nation and a TCJ columnist, further underscored this point and added that the $100 million in question is divided among 34 TCUs—a paltry sum when compared to the $646 million that Columbia University (Butrymowicz’s alma mater) receives per year.

However, the greatest shortcoming of The Hechinger Report’s article isn’t its reliance on a flawed dataset or handpicked talking heads to corroborate the author’s claims, but its failure to recognize that success and value and importance are often unquantifiable. Tribal colleges and universities are about much more than statistics or conferring degrees—they are about people. They are about cultural preservation, self-determination, community, and an unrelenting desire to uplift nations that continue to reel from centuries of colonialism. Crazy Bull, Gasman and Stull, and Winn all made this simple, yet salient point in their respective articles, something which the magazine that offers “uniquely insightful analysis” completely overlooked.

As Sarah Butrymowicz toured the Pine Ridge reservation, she took note of the poverty and unemployment. She remarked on the suicide prevention posters that “hang outside every room” at Oglala Lakota College and the hand-painted, anti-drug and alcohol signs that “flank the main road into Kyle.” But the Columbia-educated journalist couldn’t make the connection and recognize that maybe tribal colleges are successful, in immeasurable ways, in the communities they serve.

In this issue of Tribal College Journal we seek to illustrate how TCUs are more than just institutions of higher education. They also serve as community centers where local people can participate in various programs, engage in ceremonial life, and utilize libraries and other facilities. Cheryl Crazy Bull knows this as well as anyone. Growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, she would go on to serve her tribal community at Sinte Gleska University in a variety of capacities. A talented administrator with a gift for leadership, Crazy Bull was later appointed president of Northwest Indian College before taking her current post at the American Indian College Fund. In this edition’s feature article, she offers an overview of the vital role that TCUs play in tribal communities across Indian Country.

Sherrole Benton’s article, “Lighting the Way,” examines communitarian efforts at one TCU, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC), in upper peninsular Michigan. Situated on the shores of Lake Superior, KBOCC provides the only public programming for miles, hosting a variety of speakers and community events like maple syrup-making. Erin Hollingsworth offers another level of analysis in her article “Barrow’s Living Room.” As the public services librarian at Ilisagvik College, Hollingsworth underscores how the college’s consortium libraries are community hubs in Barrow and other remote villages on Alaska’s North Slope. Not just students, but all community members, from toddlers to elders, are welcome to utilize their resources and participate in their programming.

Unlike the vast majority of mainstream institutions of higher education, TCUs make concerted efforts to reach everyone in the communities they serve. One such endeavor is Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College’s Oshki Bimaadiziiwin (New Day) restorative justice program, which seeks to reach the most marginalized members of the community— those who are incarcerated. In their article, program coordinators Patricia Hemming and Patrick Shields discuss how Native people in Wisconsin are plagued with high incarceration rates. Rather than embrace Western concepts of crime and punishment, their New Day project employs traditional Ojibwe values of harmony and redemption, showing how higher education can serve as a means of reform.

At the fall 2014 meeting of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, little more than a month before the publication of The Hechinger Report’s article, Cankdeska Cikana Community College president Cynthia Lindquist (Dakota) stated, “Only at a tribal college do you find a college president ironing table cloths before a banquet. Only at a tribal college do you find faculty members picking up students for a class. Only at a tribal college do you find an academic dean hanging star quilts before a funeral or wake. Tribal colleges are truly unique institutions.” Unique they are—immeasurably unique. A single issue of Tribal College Journal can in no way do justice to the many ways TCUs serve their respective communities. It is our hope that the stories and articles you will find here offer a sampling of how tribal colleges truly are community colleges.

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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