At each tribal college there exist unsung heroes of the tribal college movement—grassroots advocates operating out of the limelight and mostly unknown to the national tribal college movement. At Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC) some of these unsung heroes are members of the college’s governing boards. Without their leadership and determination, the college would not have been able to operate as smoothly as it has for 43 years.
TMCC and a half dozen other tribal colleges were functioning as tribally controlled institutions long before the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975. The early tribal colleges were enabled specifically by the tribe they served, not by the federal government, not by the state government, and not by religious authority. The tribes and their colleges were moving into uncharted territory. The colleges were governed and administered under tribal law and policy that predated federally authorized self-determination and tribal self-governance. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, such changes in federal Indian policy were still to come.
TMCC’s Governing Boards
Since its inception in 1972, Turtle Mountain Community College has maintained a two-tiered governing board structure. The concept stems from the work of a small group of tribal members led by Carol Davis, one of TMCC’s founders. They recognized that if the college were to survive, it needed a governing structure that isolated the institution from tribal politics while staying true to tribal ways of governing. The unique two-board system remains intact today. It has allowed the college to be responsive to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s traditional ways of governing while concurrently satisfying the expectations and demands of accrediting agencies and other external non-tribal entities.
The first tier is a 10-member board of trustees. Two members serve a two-year term and represent the tribal council; two members are students who serve a one-year term; six members are tribal elders respected and accepted for their knowledge and wisdom. An elder trustee can choose to serve a lifelong appointment. The trustees do not make policy for the college. They cannot be removed for political reasons. The trustees serve as a buffer between the college and the elected tribal government. Their primary charge is to make sure the college is free from tribal politics and does not stray from its mission.
On a few occasions during my 32 years of service at TMCC, it became necessary for the trustees to step forward in their role as a buffer between the college and the tribal council. One such instance occurred in the early 1990s, when the newly elected tribal chair and a few council members initiated a politically motivated attempt to take over the college’s fiscal and human resources. The result would have been a loss of autonomy for the college and great uncertainty among the staff, students, and tribal community. The college’s accreditation could have also been jeopardized. College administrators made a good effort to convince the elected officials to leave the college alone. Tensions were increasing and it seemed the effort to save the college might fail. At that point the elders on the college’s board of trustees stepped up to challenge the elected officials and, with the support of many tribal members, were able to defuse the politically hot situation.
The trustees at TMCC have a few additional responsibilities. They inform the tribal council of the selection of a new member to the second-tier board—the five-member board of directors. These directors are the policymakers for the college and the college president reports to them. Any interested enrolled tribal member can petition to serve as a director. Terms are staggered, with one member appointed each year to serve a five-year renewable term. Both the board of trustees and board of directors participate in the hiring or firing of the college president.
TMCC operates as an autonomous entity free of tribal politics while adhering to the laws of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In turn, the board of directors hands over the day-to-day management of the college to the president, who is charged with its administration as a whole and for all of its parts.
Around 2002, my role as president was threatened when a few members of the newly elected tribal council and a few appointed tribal administrators launched an effort to remove board members, accusing them of being a “rubber stamp” for the president. The small group wanted to remove the boards, appoint new members, and then fire the president. The trustees again stepped forward and, with the backing of the directors and many community supporters, the attempted coup was squashed. In a rare statement clarifying the college’s governance structure, the tribal chair and supportive council members issued a public statement admonishing the tribal administrators responsible for the coup and reaffirming the autonomy of the college boards and of the president.
TMCC’s two-tiered governing board structure has served the college well. However, reflecting on the early years we can only imagine the predicament this innovative approach created for the elected tribal governors, for tribal members accustomed to living under traditional ways of governing, and for the newly established college boards.
The Quiet Leaders
To my recollection, there was never a serious disagreement between the boards and I during my tenure as president. Many tribal members have served, some as a director and fewer as a trustee. Although I have high regard of each who has served, I want to mention a few here.
Jack Fiddler was a founding member of the board of trustees and served for 35 years until his passing in 2008. Jack would come to the college almost daily and as president I visited with him nearly each time. He was a mentor to whom I turned for guidance and inspiration. Jack had a high school education. He once said, “I’ve always been committed to the idea that the only way out of poverty is through education. I’ve always thought that if the opportunity presented itself, I would do what I can to make that happen.” That is what this great man did during his 35 years of dedicated service to TMCC.
Teresa Davis resides at her home at Turtle Mountain, and although her health is slowly failing she continues to attend board meetings. Teresa is also a founding member of the college’s board of trustees and is the last living founding member of the board.
Lance Azure served as the chair for the college’s board of directors for almost four decades before leaving the board around 2010. Both Teresa and Lance have traveled to meetings representing TMCC and are known to some of their tribal college peers.
These leaders, along with several other individuals who are serving or have served as board members, are some of the unsung heroes of the tribal college movement. Their work is fundamental to the continuing success of Turtle Mountain Community College and to tribal colleges in general. They go about their work without much recognition and never expect it.
Gerald Carty Monette served as president of TMCC for over 30 years.