Tribal College Writing: The Bumpy Road to Success

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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Students connect good writing skills to working in their communities —a notion unique to tribal college students.

Heading west on I-90, I am speeding away from Lame Deer and Crow Agency, but my mind races back to my last few days there. As part of my doctoral research, I conversed with first-year tribal college students, faculty, and administrators about what helps students be successful academic writers. Research on Native student writing is limited at best even though, as Paul Zolbrod (2006) notes, this skill, along with reading, affects virtually all students and influences how they navigate college. Does it hold true, as one of Zolbrod’s former pupils rationalizes, that Native students do not perceive literacy as a survival skill? I set out to explore what helps students not only acquire the skills to meet college writing expectations, but how to find their voices as writers. For over two years, I would conduct interviews at two tribal colleges and a research university to gain insights into students’ experiences. As a writing instructor, I wanted to move beyond my assumptions and just listen.

As I cross into Yellowstone County, I reflect on the challenges of one college’s mission to create a framework for success for students used to failing. Many of the entering students are writing at junior high and even elementary school levels. I ponder how, given their obvious lack of preparation, these students can succeed in college. Then I recall how my tidy definition of success, consisting of deliverables such as improving grades and passing courses, proved too limiting at the tribal colleges. While some students did envision earning a specific grade, having their writing receive a compliment was more important. As one student reflected, “I really want [to hear that] something about what I wrote grabbed a hold of [the instructor].” So, some students were embracing writing to make an impression.

I was particularly excited by tribal college students’ intention to use writing to help others, which was rare at the university. Whether aspiring to be a teacher or counselor, or simply to earn a degree, students connected good writing skills to working in their communities. A surprising twist on this discovery was that two participants expressed a reluctance to become too good at writing for fear that it would lead them into tribal politics—seemingly the destiny of all good writers on the rez. This view obviously worked against the faculty’s goal of getting students to claim writing as a valuable skill. Faculty at both colleges also commented on how local politics and the “crabs-in-the-bucket” mentality deter students from voicing their opinions in writing. Nevertheless, in the classroom writing became a collective endeavor: one student viewed herself as a successful writer if she could help her classmates. Again, this notion of writing was unique to tribal college students, and I pondered whether instructors could capitalize on it to increase student engagement.

Glimpsing the lights of Billings on the dusky horizon, I think of the tendency to fixate on students’ lack of academic preparation. Luckily, I found powerful implications for positive prior experiences with writing. For example, participants who earlier had produced a piece of writing of which they and/or others were proud were more likely to view writing favorably in college. Once enrolled, they continued to be influenced by class experiences and feedback on assignments, which included corrections of their errors (in direct contrast with university practices). The students shared that feedback they received was generally beneficial and most effective when it was specific, did not overwhelm them with too many tasks, and was reinforced through in-class examples and exercises. As a writing instructor, I was heartened that receiving encouraging feedback on an assignment had far- reaching potential, beginning with increasing students’ sense of achievement and fostering greater confidence— which proved to be particularly important. Faculty emphasized that students’ low confidence sometimes gave the false impression that they were weaker in their skills than they actually were.

Meandering along the shores of the Yellowstone River, my mind wanders to my work with first-year Native university students. Like their tribal college peers, they begrudge having to revise and had little or no experience in high school with writing multiple drafts. I also noticed in both contexts that if the students better understood the role of drafts in the writing process and options for revising, they were more likely to revise.

Since most first-year students are novice writers, they would all benefit from explicit explanations of terms and expectations in college writing. When I had them explore what they did at different stages of writing, students became aware of their own process. I too recognized patterns. For instance, many tribal college students seemed to prefer to imagine their whole story before beginning to write, which could relate to the influence of traditional thinking. Two faculty participants at different colleges confirmed that aspects of the oral tradition, such as circularity, affect students’ writing. One instructor imagined the oral tradition as a bridge for talking about such aspects as flow in speaking and writing. These findings remind me of the distinction Michael Thompson (2007) makes between the value Native communities place on the spoken word as opposed to Western society’s “text-centric” bias. Despite this inherent cultural difference, there is some evidence that orality can coexist with textuality and even contextualize and support learning academic writing.

After three hours of driving, I am almost home. I reflect back on the individual students who sat across from me in the library, sharing their journeys of becoming academic writers. Their stories tell of challenges but also of helpful guides in the form of college instructors, librarians, or former high school teachers whom they prefer to seek out for writing advice. The portraits they sketched of themselves as academic writers reveal their metacognition, or degree of awareness of where they are currently in that role. One first-semester student drew the world in a large sky with rays of the sun to illustrate being “high on writing” and to express the limitless possibilities he perceived in becoming a good writer: “[I]f I was a good writer, enough to be at the college level…I think that possibilities are endless …” Another student was more comfortable as a writer but also aware of the difficulty of successfully communicating his message: “For me the dream and the idea of what I am writing is easy to put down but to actually make it readable for somebody else is where I am lost.” He added that furthering his skills as a writer in college has fanned his passion for writing and increased his confidence.

The student’s words echo through my mind as I pull into my driveway: “This is the way I can shout my voice and write it down on paper and somebody would have to listen to it.” I want to hear his words, celebrate his voice and those of all my present and future Native students without worrying whether they will succeed as writers and graduate. I cannot be sure if tribal college students perceive writing as a survival skill, but no doubt many realize the power of the written word.

Barbara Komlos, Ph.D., works at Hopa Mountain, a non-profit organization in Bozeman, Montana, that supports programs for students and leaders in tribal and rural communities. She dedicates this article to her doctoral advisor and friend, Dr. Betsy Palmer, who passed away in an accident in Nepal.


Thompson, M. (2007). Honoring the Word: Classroom Instructors Find that Students Respond Best to Oral Tradition. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education 19(2), 12–16.

Zolbrod, P.G. (2006). Reading and Writing in a Cross-Cultural Classroom. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education 17(3), 22–23.

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