Volunteerism at Tribal Colleges: A Conversation with Rick Williams

Volume 28, No. 1 - Fall 2016
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One of the many distinguishing features of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) is that their students, faculty, and staff have deep connections to the local community. Many enter into college with the intention of improving themselves so they can improve their tribe. Such an ethos is central to tribalism and American Indian cultures. Hence, it is no surprise that those who are a part of the tribal college community volunteer and give back because it’s what comes naturally, not because it’s required. As Cynthia Lindquist, chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium has stated, “It’s just who we are.”

This spirit of volunteerism is manifested in a variety of programs, initiatives, and campaigns. Rick Williams, the longtime president and current board member of the American Indian College Fund, knows as well as anyone the good work and undergirding force of reciprocity, good will, and generosity at tribal colleges. He shared his thoughts on the subject in a recent interview with TCJ.

In your experience, what have been some of the most powerful and poignant examples of volunteerism at tribal colleges?

Well, there’s a recent example from Aaniiih Nakoda College where the students started a food program for the needy, like a foodbank. They went out and got food. We’re not talking about a small amount of food, but enough food to feed a family of four for a week. And they were doing this for 20 families every week. It’s all student-run.

It’s not just a good business experience, but a way to give back. They also presented this project at the AIBL [American Indian Business Leaders] conference and won second place in the competition. That’s a classic example of volunteerism.

The other one, and it’s pretty much standard, is that you see a lot of tribal college students volunteering to tutor—just helping out their fellow students.

Many have stated that generosity and giving back are integral to American Indian cultures. Would you agree? Specifically, why (or why not) do you think this is the case?

I think that’s absolutely true, and this is universal pretty much across all tribes. Volunteering manifests itself differently in Indian country. At a sweat lodge, for example, everyone helps out—cutting wood, getting rock, making sure the water’s there, and taking care of the sweat lodge. In Pine Ridge, there’s a group of young men who are just automatically there to take care of this. Same with a funeral, people come out and contribute. When you think about a funeral, you don’t realize how much goes on. There’s the wake and the meals that are associated with that. The community makes it happen.

It’s true for so many ceremonies people come together and make it happen. It’s especially true in the tribal college movement where there’s a great deal of volunteering going on. In the dominant society it’s different, church members take on those roles.

Through volunteer efforts, how can tribal colleges affect greater change in the world?

Well, I think that supporting things like food banks and organizing cleanups of their communities. [Tribal college students] can go into grade schools and read and help the students. And I think those things happen, but they often go under noticed because they are most common place.       

Any last words of wisdom or advice for tribal college volunteers?

Well, I think that one of the things that tribal colleges need to be paying more attention to is the elderly in the communities. When you get older, simple tasks like shoveling snow and taking care of your house become much more challenging. Tribal colleges could do a lot to help the elders out.

Every Christmas, the American Indian College Fund puts on a dinner for the elders in the Denver community. We fed them really well. They didn’t want turkey or ham; we fed them traditional food so we always got them buffalo. It’s become an annual thing. That’s the way an organization can support an activity in the community. We got a lot a press out of that. I believe in reciprocity and helping wherever you can. We were not involved in the traditional community per se—we did not have a program to volunteer locally, so that’s what we did locally.

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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