Warriors in Education: Persistence among American Indian doctoral recipients

Volume 11, No. 3 - Spring 2000
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Until recently the typical student in higher education was urban, white, financially secure, and often a third or fourth generation college student. Today, however, there may be no typical college student, and in fact, many students fit quite a different profile. “More students from varied backgrounds, that is low-income, student parents, first-generation, adult learners, immigrants, and students with disabilities are choosing to attend college” (Peralez, 1997, p. 1). American Indians are included in this profile and have proven that they are as capable of completing advanced degrees as other ethnic/racial groups.

This study focused upon Montana where they graduate in fewer numbers than other groups and are not as likely to be hired as teachers, faculty, or administrators in public institutions. While there are academic role models in Montana, there remain a low number of American Indian teachers in many Montana schools and an even lower representation of American Indian faculty and administrators in the Montana University System.

Research documents the minority under-representation in education. Data by Astin (1982) and Lintner (1996) attest to the lack of American Indians at every level. According to these studies, there are many possible reasons why American Indians might not complete terminal degrees. Lack of funding is an obvious reason. Unwillingness to leave home, family, and culture is another. It is common knowledge that American Indian students “stop out” of the educational pipeline, leaving school and then returning later. It is not so commonly known that some American Indian students are also “left out” of the educational system.

Being “left out” is a concept referring to American Indians who do not receive information, awards, tenure, opportunities, funding or jobs that could improve their lives. They are left out, not considered, or omitted. Such sins of omission are committed on college campuses when minority faculty and women are not hired (Moody, 1997).

The American Indian value system, while placing a high value on education, does not value as highly the monetary ideals associated with completion of a doctoral degree. Traditional American Indian values equate power with dominance, wealth with greed, and winning with losing (Brendtro & Brokenleg, 1993). This values conflict has resulted in some American Indians with a doctorate choosing to live in rural or reservation areas where they are not a part of the daily hectic routine of an urban area with shopping malls, traffic, and restaurants. They choose to live among their people, helping their people. The process for completing a doctoral degree conflicts with many Indian values, such as time, patience, respect, family, harmony with nature, and circular thinking. This conflict of values creates an internal struggle that could overshadow the external challenges associated with completing a terminal degree.

Despite generalizations commonly made about Americans Indians, they are extremely diverse. Different tribes live different cultures. Some Native Americans speak their own language, but many do not. Some are full-bloods; most are mixed bloods. Some live on the reservation; about half live in urban areas. Some are enrolled in a tribe and own land; some do not own land. Some live mainstream lifestyles; others practice and live traditional Indian ways or parts of their tradition and culture.


A qualitative study was done to gain insight into the factors that help American Indians successfully complete their doctorate degrees. This sample of 12 was taken from a population of about 35 American Indians with a doctoral degree in the state of Montana. Four were female; eight were male; and the average age was 46. Every participant was a member of a federally recognized tribe, including: two Assiniboine, one Blackfeet, one Chippewa, one Chippewa-Cree, two Crow, one Gros Ventre, one Northern Cheyenne, two Salish-Kootenai, and one Sioux. For the purposes of this study, the participants were identified with pseudonyms. The researcher conducted one and a half hour interviews in person with each, followed by telephone interviews.

The journeys of these 12 warriors in education toward their doctorate degrees took an average of 20 years after high school and included stopping out for a variety of reasons, such as employment and family commitments. None of them initially chose to begin a doctoral program; their parents didn’t have doctoral degrees. These men and women envisioned completing something that would help their people.


The study found the participants shared three characteristics that helped them navigate the academic pipeline: 1) an ability to function biculturally, 2) spirituality, and 3) a traditional understanding of reciprocity.

Biculturalism: “Walking Two Paths”

Having a bicultural identity was a common indicator of academic success among the participants. The ability to function well in two cultures was a skill learned early in their lives, and it served them well in their educational journey. The participants often experienced cultural dissonance and struggled through difficult emotional decisions in their journeys.

The predominantly Anglo-American, mainstream society and the diversely complex Native American society differ greatly in their perspectives on money, time, fame, and community. In the history of American education, Native Americans were not willing to totally assimilate, but they did learn to acculturate. They learned to transfer back and forth between two cultures and acquired the ability to live effectively in both. The participants agreed that having an Indian identity was a major advantage in their pursuit of a degree. The ability to see things from several dimensions was an asset.

The participants became competent in different cultures and recognized that maintaining their cultural identity in mainstream America is a complex process. Because they did not want to give up their culture, their choice was to be multi-cultural.  Several participants were already multi-cultural since they were members of more than one tribe.  As one progresses through the educational pipeline, the number of brown-skinned faces becomes fewer and fewer.  There may be no other Indians in the classes or programs at the doctoral level on many campuses. Completing a doctoral degree can be a lonely process for students who then experience learning in a cultural vacuum. Shane explained:

My doctoral degree is a green card. It lets you in the door. It’s very important to have self-confidence, to be able to communicate on an equal level with people. You have to meet the standards others have set. If you are not prepared, there is a level of a condescending attitude.

Experiencing a new world led participants to value and appreciate their own world more. Robert reflected: “It makes your cultural identity stronger by forcing you to address the differences in cultures. You have to develop your personality to be successful in both worlds.”

Participants commented that this pride gave them a real sense of who they were, which contributed to a positive self-concept and gave them confidence in their abilities. Elisabeth described how proud she felt about being Indian even as a young girl. “I was proud to be Indian. When I got my Indian name, I was able to emerge as a child who felt very special about being Indian.” James explained, “I am proud of my culture. My parents said, ‘When they ask you who you are, you tell them you’re Indian and proud of it’!”

Their mission was to carry on their culture, no matter where they lived. The participants’ pride in their heritage was apparent in their manners and environment. For example, all participants displayed American Indian artwork in their offices or homes. American Indian clothing, pictures, furnishings, food, music, and literature made a statement about their identity.

Spirituality: “On the Right Path”

Spirituality was a value intrinsic to the Native Americans in this study. Spirituality is giving credit and honor to the Great Spirit, the Creator, the Grandfather of all Indian people. Spirituality means living the life that the Great Spirit has blessed the people with. It means being respectful of all things, especially the elders and the children. It means taking care of Mother Earth and not abusing the gifts that She has provided. It means acknowledging the Creator in every aspect of one’s life. Spirituality is sometimes demonstrated through prayer.

The first Indian medical doctor, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), reflected on his early Sioux teachings and the ultimate importance of prayer and recognition of the Creator. “In the life of the Indian there was only one inevitable duty–the duty of prayer, the daily recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His daily devotions were more necessary to him than daily food” (Eastman, 1910, p. 45-46). Spirituality means being grateful and humble. The tradition of prayer and spirituality is still carried on today. Shane described how he learned to pray in his culture.

You are directed to pray, and we pray in concentric circles. The first thing you pray for is wisdom and strength and courage. Then pray for your immediate family, extended family, and your people. Then all the other things you are related to.

No matter how bicultural or assimilated they became, the participants continued to speak about spirituality. The experience of living in a foreign world gave them the desire to further explore their culture. “Going away to college has made me start looking for my spirituality, traditions, and culture. I didn’t sacrifice my heritage; it (college) brought me back to search for it,” was one comment. Having to experience a foreign lifestyle reinforced their value of spirituality.

Elisabeth stated, “It was difficult being away. (But) you are on the right path when everything comes together for you spiritually.” Others experienced changes. Robert practiced a Christian way of life as a youth; now he continues his spiritual belief in the Native American way. Marilyn acknowledged spirituality as a reason for her success.

Spirituality is a big focus in my life from birth. I have a good sense of being here for a short time. I was taught to use the gifts that the world gives us. That was instrumental in my success.

Joe worked on his dissertation while becoming educated about his Cheyenne culture. As he interviewed the elders for his study, the elders in his tribe became his traditional teachers and mentors. The Cheyenne tradition and culture were his curriculum. His “grade” is measured every day in how he lives his life. Joe spoke about his dissertation with intensity and feeling from his heart.

The Cheyenne educational philosophy is just as viable and has profound ways that are not even acknowledged. It is gentle, based on love.  Knowledge takes sacrifice and time, such as a vision quest. It is not a body of facts. If one succumbs to the world with sincerity and dedication, the world will teach you. All living things have profound knowledge. Knowledge is a spiritual thing. The first part of education is in books, then it must be from the heart and mind, spiritually.

Spirituality is central to their lives. It is the reason they were able to live their culture in a modern mainstream American world. They continued to feel, think, and be spiritual in their daily lives.

Reciprocity: “Giving Back”

Innate in spirituality is reciprocity, giving back. American Indian cultures value generosity. Plains tribes have giveaways to recognize personal achievements. Northwestern Indians hold a ritual called a potlatch where they give goods and foods to mark significant events (Jary & Jary, 1991). An extension of the value of giving involves giving back. From birth, they are taught that what one gives, one receives in return. “It will come back to you” is a mantra the researcher remembered from her childhood, and the researcher knew that “it” could be good or bad.

In giving back, an individual increases the chances of the entire group or tribe flourishing. Giving back is an altruistic concept. When one person has been helped, it is an obligation, a responsibility, and a way of life for that person to help others. It is part of the cycle, the circle of life.

Giving back became a motivator and a reason for these doctoral candidates to persist. They felt an obligation to give back to their family, tribe, or community. It reinforced the idea that one does not achieve something alone. John said:

I want to help other Indian people. This is not just for me. It is for my family and my people and community. My people made me accomplish higher education. I did it for them. If I did it for me, I would probably be rich at some $100,000 job, prostituting my culture without respect.

Robert said, “My degree compelled me to think about what I wanted to do for my tribe. I never expected education to get me a job but to put me on an equal footing, not me personally, but my tribe. I felt compelled to do something meaningful.”

Some participants looked at their doctoral degrees as a way to implement change in their home communities. Fred commented, “I had an obligation to go back. Maybe I could help change things. I fought as hard as I could for Indian people.” He continues to fight by using his degree.

Patty’s intent in pursuing her doctorate was to cause change for American Indian students. Her desire for a doctorate was to “secure a position to implement change, such as a dean or at the administrative level in education.” Patty added, “I cannot be what I am today without them. I want to use my knowledge to make the path easier for them. My role allows them to exist. This serves to protect our ways, our ties.” Giving back allows the participants to ensure the perpetuation of their culture.

It is worth noting that all 12 participants who were interviewed are working among, with, and for American Indian tribes. They followed the practice that they had learned as part of their culture. Their obligation to give back dictates that they bring their knowledge, skills, and resources back to their people. Giving back was so important that they chose to pursue their careers on or near a reservation. While this limits their ability to secure a lucrative job or to attain a position desirable in mainstream society, they have set their priorities according to what is important to them.

Education for American Indians helps them influence their people’s future. As Shane explained:

We don’t have enough Indian teachers in Montana, which has been forever. We keep working on it. We need to continue to do so much more than we have. Also, in the last few years a large number of Indian school administrators retired. There haven’t been any young people to take their place. Although we have a public educational system, we don’t have a stake in it as a people. We can’t teach our own children if we don’t run the organizations that direct their learning.


American Indians are severely underrepresented at all levels of the educational system in this country today. A combination of factors influenced the academic success of these 12 participants, including family support, spirituality, role models and mentors, a desire to achieve, biculturalism, a belief in giving back, and pride in cultural heritage. While there has been improvement in the numbers of Indians obtaining degrees, more research is needed by American Indians themselves about educational obstacles and how to surmount them.

Florence McGeshick Garcia is an enrolled member of the Lakota-Nakota Nation of the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana. Her Indian name is Waste Henumpawe, “Good Woman Comes Out.” She received her doctorate in adult and higher education from Montana State University-Bozeman in 1999, and she currently directs the Student Opportunity Services/TRIO Program at Montana State University-Billings. Florence has a daughter, Elisabeth, and a grandson, Caleb.

(Editor’s note: The Research Review Panel referees this department of the Tribal College Journal. Scholars are invited to contact the editor about how to submit their work.)


Astin, A. (1981). Minorities in American higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Brendtro, L.K. & Brokenleg, M. (1993). Beyond the Curriculum of Control. The Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Problems,1, (4), 5-11.

Eastman, C.A. (1910). The soul of the Indian: An interpretation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Jary, D. & Jary, J. (1991). The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology. HarperCollins Publishers. Ltd.

Lintner, T. (1999). Cycle starters: American Indian doctorates as role models. Tribal College Journal X (3), 46-49.

Moody, J. (1997). Helping junior faculty, especially non-majority newcomers, thrive. Hew Haven, CT: University of New Haven Press.

Peralez, E. (1997). A theoretical model of institutional departure: Exploring the role of student services. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

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