A Tribal Higher Education Commission for the 21st Century

Volume 25, No. 4 - Summer 2014
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BIG BUSINESS. Western accrediting agencies maintain non-profit status, but collectively
are a multi-million dollar industry.

I begin by asking: are the idealism and values of the Red Power movement as relevant today as they were in the late 1960s and 1970s? The answer is yes. The ideal of self-determination continues to inspire American Indians to regain control of their affairs after devastating U.S. government policies and practices, such as genocide, deicide, and ecocide (Cook-Lynn, 2007). There is no doubt that the activism of groups like the American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council, as well as that of American Indian authors, artists, and many others, have led to U.S. policy changes. We have moved from termination in the 1950s to tribal self-determination in the 1970s and beyond. Tribal self-determination has led to the creation and continued expansion of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Today, there are 37 TCUs providing access to higher education to an estimated 30,000 American Indian tribal and non-tribal members (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

Out of necessity, however, these TCUs seek accreditation from Western, non-Native agencies that accredit many higher education institutions in the United States and abroad. I argue that the American Indian higher education community must take a new direction by creating and establishing an independent, non-profit commission that accredits all TCUs in North America—a Tribal Higher Education Commission (THEC) that stands toe-to-toe with all Western accreditors.

Western accreditors operate as voluntary, non-profit entities. They seek to reassure students, taxpayers, the business community, general public, and the U.S. government, and build confidence in the quality of education. They are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) for quality assurance. Western accreditors comprise regional and national institutional accreditors. Regional accreditors provide accreditation for public and private non-profit higher education institutions, while national accreditors offer accreditation for non-profit and for-profit career-related higher education institutions. Membership dues collected from the institutions they accredit fund both regional and national institutional accreditors (Eaton, 2009; Postsecondary National Policy Institute 2012).

To become a higher education accreditor, an agency must follow some steps for legitimacy. It must adopt educational values and beliefs of accreditation, seek recognition from CHEA and USDE, and then secure funding from the institutions to be accredited. In 2007, CHEA and USDE recognized 19 higher education institutional accreditors (Eaton, 2009).

Some may ask, is it a practical or ethical move if the American Indian higher education community chooses to create a self-regulating commission? College and university presidents created CHEA in 1996 to “coordinate and work to advance self-regulation through accreditation” (Postsecondary National Policy Institute 2012). It seems non-Native college and university presidents have already gone down that road. If they can create CHEA, why can’t the American Indian higher education community do the same? The creation of a THEC is both an ethical and a pragmatic move.

The number of TCUs in existence and their combined student enrollment is one statistical, self-evident reason to support a THEC. The majority of TCUs offer associate’s degrees, nearly a dozen offer four-year bachelor’s degrees, and a handful offer master’s degrees. With an estimated student enrollment of 30,000, the 37 TCUs can come under one tribal higher education accreditor.

But just as tribal nations and politicians want TCUs to lead in nation building efforts, some TCUs are hobbled by Western accreditors’ bureaucratic and time-consuming practices, which are often in conflict with the goals and efforts of tribal nation building. Western accreditors’ “mandates” and “compliance” requirements for internally generated self-studies for the approval of degree programs can take decades. Such delays might hinder urgent efforts of tribal nation building. A THEC can change this by providing a fast-track procedure without undermining quality or self studies.

Another unique mission of TCUs is to promote Indigenous tribal epistemologies, which are often incorporated into mission statements and an institution’s overall purpose. Some TCUs go further by implementing Indigenous tribal epistemologies in curricula. But these efforts are secondary and ultimately such epistemologies will be marginalized to meet the demands of Western accreditors. A THEC can provide values and guidelines to ensure that Indigenous tribal epistemologies are not marginalized by Western epistemic privilege.

Is the Western accreditation system a big business? Yes. Although Western accreditors have non-profit status, combined they are a multi-million dollar industry, employing staff and exchanging billions of dollars each year (Eaton, 2009). The American Indian higher education community should see the creation of a THEC as an employment opportunity for qualified American Indian educators.

Having a separate THEC is the next step in the evolution of TCUs. It is a matter of sovereignty for American Indians to have their own higher education accrediting body. The American Indian higher education community need only look to tribal judicial systems as models for creating and establishing a THEC. Tribal judicial systems are independent and sovereign from their Western counterparts. For example, the Navajo Nation Bar Association, like the American Bar Association, maintains quality control for the Navajo Nation judicial systems. Self-determination, an ideal and value of the Red Power movement, can be found in the actions of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. It’s not complicated. The American Indian higher education community can learn from tribal judicial systems today and help TCUs move away from a dependence on Western accreditors.

In sum, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium can be a starting point for a THEC. The 20th century saw the creation and establishment of TCUs. The 21st century should be a time when TCUs achieve sovereignty in American Indian higher education by having their own tribal higher education accreditor. Why wait for the 22nd century?


Cook-Lynn, E. (2007). Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Eaton, J. S. (2009, May). An Overview of U.S. Accreditation. Council of Higher Education Accreditation.

Postsecondary National Policy Institute. (2012). Higher education accreditation. Retrieved from http://pnpi.newamerica.net/spotlight_issue_higher_education_accreditation

U.S. Department of Education. (2013). White House initiatives on American Indian and Alaska Native education. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/whiaiane/

Paul Willeto, Ed.D. (Diné), has served as faculty, Dean of Instruction, Chair of the Humanities Division, and Director of the Window Rock Center at Diné College.

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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