When I was a young girl, I often witnessed my grandmother’s spirituality. She was prayerful in her daily life, read and wrote in her Bible, and kept journals that documented both the ordinary and sacred in her life. Recently, my uncle told me that she saw the future in her dreams. She had said that all people have that ability—but that they often close themselves off to their spiritual powers.
Through her stories, her acts of generosity, and her industriousness, she was always teaching. From her I learned the importance of naming and honoring ceremonies. She was also my first model of a woman who kept her hands busy as she tended to her daily work. She shared her artistic skills in both traditional arts and modern crafts, like leatherwork and ceramics, not only so she could keep busy and supplement her income, but also so she could generously share her talents. Her Indian name, Isna Iyewin (Stands Alone Woman), told others that she was a woman who was comfortable with herself. In her time, she epitomized Indigenous intellectual knowledge through her words and her deeds.
Recently, I witnessed many Native people of all ages and tribes sharing Native intellectual knowledge of generosity, talent, leadership, and spirituality at the gathering of the Woksape Oyate. Lakota for “Wisdom of the People,” Woksape Oyate is a project of the American Indian College Fund. Funded by a five-year grant from Lilly Endowment, it is meant to build intellectual capital at tribal colleges. Wisdom of the People is knowledge acquired through sacred experience, through sharing and hard work, and through willingness to honor ourselves and our cultures.
As tribal educators, we often find our greatest encouragement while interacting with students in our classrooms and around campus. Students tell us how going to a tribal college has taught them more about themselves and given them a sense of community.
When we gather as presidents and board members at our tribal college meetings, we are usually focused on our shared legislative and capacity-building efforts. But when the American Indian College Fund hosted the Woksape Oyate gathering in October in Denver, a different opportunity to share unfolded. The heart work of each institution— saving the lives of our students, restoring our knowledge, and building our leaders—revealed itself.
We shared the work we are doing in our institutions with our students and communities and gave generously of what we learned. Personally, I was inspired, and my hopefulness about how we will maintain our identities and sense of place as tribal people is strengthened by what others shared.
In the landmark research and theory development of the Indigenous Evaluation Framework, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and its consultants, Joan LaFrance and Richard Nichols, interpreted and named the ways that Indigenous people gain knowledge—knowledge is acquired through teachings and observation and revealed through spiritual experiences. At our gathering, tribal college
students, faculty, staff, and presidents reaffirmed that our intellectual capital as tribal peoples is gained through shared teachings, through observation, and through our spiritual life. Many of the colleges focused on furthering the restorative practices of tribal language instruction and curriculum; strengthening leadership; and growing our own faculty, staff, and administrators—all from the original vision of the founders of the tribal colleges. Our founders wanted us to use the knowledge and practices of our people along with contemporary skills to save ourselves from the debilitating experiences of poverty and oppression and their symptoms, such as alcohol and drug abuse and violence.
With spirit, generosity, and good humor, the circle of tribal college presidents shared their experiences and observations. As they spoke of their projects, I heard comments that demonstrated both the restorative experience of the initiative and the vision that presidents brought to the effort.
Some of the things I heard: We are losing our languages, but the people we are teaching are speaking right away and they are teaching others; students hear the language, and it feels good on their ears; as leaders, we bring personal wisdom and learn from the wisdom of others; we are building institutional outcomes and the outcomes of the tribal college movement; and giving ourselves and our students global experiences helps them understand our art and symbols.
Listening to the tribal college presidents and their staff reminded me of the vision of our founders. As tribal colleges, we must be focused on restoration of our tribal knowledge and practices while learning modern skills for managing our resources and practicing self-governance.
We use Woksape Oyate resources to grow our own Native faculty and administrative staff; support student leadership; develop academic programs; and most importantly build on existing language, traditional knowledge, and cultural programs.
We are also defining intellectual capacity as our collective tribal knowledge and leadership. It is our Native voice in decision making, in all aspects of academic development and student support, and in our relationships with our tribal communities. Tribal colleges are diverse institutions, varying in size, constituencies, and programs. But we share many of the same types of projects, including those focused on student assessment, retention, college readiness, and academic skills as well as on cultural education and revitalization of traditions and cultural practices.
Many tribal colleges are also using modern technologies such as videos and DVDs for instruction and outreach to post research, products, and reports online. For example, Northwest Indian College (Bellingham, WA) created a faculty homepage on its website, www.nwic.edu, featuring action research projects, a toolkit, and numerous articles and resources for teaching and learning.
Similarly, Cankdeska Cikana Community College (Fort Totten, ND) produced CD-ROMS for pilot projects instructing the Dakota language. Some institutions use their resources to expand their academic offerings, including new baccalaureate degrees. Diné College (Tsaile, AZ) developed curriculum for their Diné Studies program and for teacher education, and the Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, NM) focused on development of its Liberal Arts degree. A Student Honors Program and a Student Leadership Initiative are the highlights of Fort Berthold Community College (New Town, ND) and Little Big Horn Colleges’ (Crow Agency, MT) efforts. Our experiences through the Woksape Oyate projects take us back to the time of our grandmothers and grandfathers and fulfill our capacity to lead ourselves for the next seven generations. We are stronger as Native people as a result of Woksape Oyate, and we are better equipped to protect our homelands, restore our languages and traditions, and to honor our kinship and social systems.
Cheryl Crazy Bull, Wacinyanpi Win (They Depend on Her), is Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation and is president of Northwest Indian College. She has worked in tribal education for more than 30 years.