There are leaders who have a vision of how to make things better, but who do not have the ability to carry out that vision, and so they must leave their ideas in the hands of others. There are leaders who are good at organizing things, but whose vision for the future is limited. There are leaders who become frustrated at any lack of progress, keeping them from moving forward. And then there are the rarest of leaders—those who have a vision for the future, who fight through their frustrations, who overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable, and who have the ability to see their vision through to reality. Dr. David M. Gipp is that kind of leader, someone I call a “visionary extraordinaire.”
As legal counsel for United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), I had the privilege of working with and alongside Gipp for over 38 years. I worked with him from the day he was named executive director of the United Tribes Educational Technical Center (now UTTC) in May of 1977, until he left as chancellor in 2015. There were just a few gaps in my representation of UTTC in those years, but nevertheless I witnessed, or was a part of, some of the most amazing accomplishments that simply could not have been achieved without Gipp’s extraordinary leadership abilities.
David Gipp, now 70, is a Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He was instilled from his earliest days with a love of education, and with a sense of purpose. His mother, Margaret Teachout, was a librarian and was fluent in the Lakota language. Of course, to be fluent in Lakota also means having an understanding of the Lakota culture. She helped her children be aware of that culture as long as she lived, and, not coincidentally, helped make everyone who knew her appreciate that culture as well.
As David was growing up, the Gipp family lived in a number of places off the reservation. He learned quickly that he was part of two worlds—the Lakota and the non-Indian worlds—and that to be successful, you had to learn the skills of both. After graduation from high school, Gipp attended the University of North Dakota (UND), graduating in 1969.
But Gipp was no ordinary student. He was an activist in college, and a successful one. He was one of the founders of the American Indian Student Association at UND. He and other Native leaders at the university lobbied and protested successfully for the removal of the caricature “Sammy Sioux,” used as one of the university’s mascots. His campaign against the use of Indian-themed mascots for sports teams began with this UND experience.
He felt the sting of racism and prejudice because of his activism. He has struggled with that sting ever since. But instead of becoming bitter or frustrated, he has consistently and powerfully fought back by forging alliances, speaking out in public, and inspiring many others to resist the politically powerful forces that fail to see the damage a caricature of a particular race of people can do and the racism it can engender. For those efforts, he received an award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violence in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as a Champion of Justice Award from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gipp’s leadership abilities did not go unnoticed after he graduated from UND. He served for two years in the National Guard and was selected to be the only Native American at the North Dakota Constitutional Convention in 1971. This gave him a solid understanding of the legislative process in the state, which served him well as executive director and later president of UTTC. After his National Guard tenure, he was selected as a tribal planner for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
While a tribal planner, Gipp’s abilities were again noticed, this time by the fledgling American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), the unifying body of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States. From 1973 to 1977, Gipp was the first executive director of AIHEC. One of his primary goals was to acquire federal funding for the tribal colleges, and he continued those efforts even after he became executive director at United Tribes. His efforts, and those of others, including his longtime friend and fellow TCU president Lionel Bordeaux of Sinte Gleska University, helped assure passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. From an initial group of six tribal colleges, the base funding provided by this legislation has helped AIHEC’s membership grow to 37 TCUs today.
Despite this great achievement, Gipp was just getting started. In 1977, when he arrived at UTTC as executive director, the institution was in disarray. Funding was in jeopardy. Department heads were feuding. UTTC was not accredited. So Gipp did something no one expected he could do: he sought accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for North Dakota and the surrounding region.
As all TCUs know, attaining accreditation can be a grueling process. Gipp hired a consulting team, consisting of Tom Katus and the late Jack Barden, to help set the five-year path for accreditation. The barriers were immense: UTTC’s funding was uncertain, and it became even more tenuous with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. President Reagan sliced more than 33% off UTTC’s funding in his first term; the college had requested funding of several million and it was cut to barely $900,000. This was in an era of skyrocketing gas prices and high inflation rates. But it was this period, in my opinion, that was Gipp’s finest hour at UTTC. He cut costs, including labor costs, but did so in a manner that inspired instructors and staff to work harder, not less. He rearranged departments and sought funding from many additional resources. He met frequently with his managers to ensure that everyone knew what was at stake and what was expected of each of them. He lobbied Congress for funding, as UTTC was not funded at that time through the tribal college act. When I came back to the college in 1982 as an hourly paid legal counsel, Gipp had accomplished a good part of his dream for UTTC, including five-year accreditation which was repeated for the next 20 years until UTTC received its first 10-year accreditation—the longest possible— in 2001.
What makes this accomplishment and all the subsequent accreditations so remarkable is the fact that UTTC started out as one of three vocational schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The other two schools failed very quickly after the initial contractor, Bendix Corporation, pulled out. Even at the beginning, from 1971 to 1973 when he served as an advisor from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s planning department to UTTC’s initial board of directors, Gipp was a part of the effort to shape United Tribes’ future.
Despite the accreditation success, UTTC’s funding continued on a year-to-year basis. Each presidential administration from Ronald Reagan forward put UTTC’s annual budget on the chopping block, zeroing out the college’s meager funding. But Gipp continued to lobby Congress every year to ensure UTTC’s existence. In 1989, he went a step further and proposed legislation, in tandem with what is now Navajo Technical University, to provide additional funding for UTTC under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act.
This collaboration succeeded and led to legislation in 1990 that has provided funding for both Navajo Tech and United Tribes to the present day.
In 2008, and again with the assistance of Navajo Technical University and UTTC’s lawyers, a new title to the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act was added as a part of the federal Higher Education Act, which provided permanent authorization for funding UTTC. As this legislation was being developed from 2006 to 2008, people thought it would be impossible to make amendments to the Higher Education Act that were favorable to tribes.
During this time, Paul Moorhead, who was chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee as it was considering amendments to the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, held a meeting with tribal college leaders and other tribal education officials in one of the Senate office buildings in Washington. Moorhead’s initial assessment was not hopeful, and the attendees at the meeting were discouraged. But then David Gipp walked into the meeting. He began asking questions and making proposals for changes to the Higher Education Act. Almost immediately the tenor of the dialogue began to change, and by the end of the meeting Gipp had helped the attendees lay out a plan to go after the changes that were needed. Gipp helped everyone see a path forward that was positive. He refused to accept the political assessments of others. The result was that changes were made in the 2008 legislation that are still very helpful for TCUs everywhere. This was Gipp at his best—determined and unwilling to accept the status quo. To state these accomplishments in a few paragraphs makes the process seem simple, but it was and still is an intense process. It required many flights to Washington, DC, all year round. Indeed, lobbying is a constant process.
Throughout these funding efforts, Gipp appreciated the consistent help received from North Dakota’s congressional delegation, without which much of his effort on behalf of UTTC would have been futile. Congressmen Mark Andrews, Byron Dorgan, Earl Pomeroy, Rick Berg, and Kevin Cramer; and Senators Quentin Burdick, Milton Young, Mark Andrews, Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, John Hoeven, and Heidi Heitkamp have all made it possible for UTTC to continue to thrive. But their efforts were grounded in the arguments that Gipp laid out, convincingly, why UTTC should be funded and what was at stake.
Throughout his career, Gipp has been dedicated to the advancement of Native people everywhere. He has understood that the future of all American Indians is in education. He has always enjoyed being with students and takes great pride in their accomplishments, both at UTTC and as they advance their careers. It has never been easy, and inevitably there have been moments when he could have given up and retired, or sought other jobs with less stress. But David M. Gipp does not give up. He continues to challenge those with whom he works, Native or non-Native, to be better advocates and to make the sacrifice needed to improve the lives of American Indians. It is my hope that his story inspires others now advocating for Indian education and other issues important to Native Americans throughout the United States to take the risks needed, and to never give up on their dreams.
Tom Disselhorst is an attorney at law who served 35 years as legal counsel for UTTC.