I recall how we started out in 1972 and 1973 in disparate and humble beginnings as the first six tribally controlled colleges in the United States. We served fewer than 1,500 students in 1974, but we knew these new American Indian students represented a first entry among U.S.-based, postsecondary education students. It was a population rapidly growing within the balance of homeland territories still held on the continent. We knew that we were creating access and opportunity out of centuries of American colonial neglect.
We put our first numbers together as we created the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in the early 1970s. It would be on December 13, 1978, after years of persisting and striving for a law which historically included American Indians in U.S. higher education policy, that President Jimmy Carter signed the Tribally Controlled Community College Act (later amended into the Higher Education Act). Some members of Congress were reluctant to let First Americans enter into this arena, saying the fruits of opportunity and education were already available. “Be an American and join the rest of us” was a retort at congressional hearings. “You don’t have the qualified faculty or staff” to teach in isolated communities” was another. To be sure, it took support from both sides of the political aisle to make the proposal a law.
In 1975, AIHEC carried out the first feasibility study of tribally controlled colleges. Conducted from the Mississippi River to the West Coast, and from there to Alaska, it was a survey of Native communities and their desire for tribally controlled, postsecondary education. The tribal postsecondary heartland began in the Navajo Nation with the founding of Navajo Community College in 1968, and spread rapidly to the Northern Plains by 1972. The growth continued with Montana-based Indian tribes in 1974, while tribal nations in the Northwest, Alaska, and the Woodlands would soon follow. Today, we have grown from the six founding tribal colleges to 38 institutions (and more coming), including a member in Canada.
The Student and the Tribal College and University Movement
We must take pause to reflect on why the tribal college movement began. Yes, it was in part due to the neglect and ignorance of mainstream higher and technical education institutions. And the historic and geographic isolation, along with the lack of any recognition of tribal nations’ vision of local control—which was unheard of at the time—was also a factor. Most of all, American Indians were often neither recruited nor included at mainstream postsecondary schools in states where there were significant Native populations. Treaties and Indian law were at best given lip service. The debate over whether “Indian Education” was the United States’ trust or treaty obligation was ongoing. Vine Deloria Jr. for one asserted that education was indeed a trust and treaty right of Indian tribes.
Those who went off for some form of postsecondary education often returned without a degree or certificate. The experience was sour and unsuccessful. Even today, most mainstream colleges or universities are fortunate to graduate 3 to 4% of Native students who begin at such schools.
Out of failure came success, as tribal communities created their own vision, goals, objectives, and tasks on their own terms and conditions. Tribal sovereignty was being exercised via tribal charters or endorsements. New curricula were put in place. Friends and allies from non-Native schools came to the fore to aid these tribal communities and the fledging tribal colleges. Some of these non-Native neighbors extended initial recognition and accreditation to the TCUs until they achieved their own status. The inclusion of tribal or Indigenous histories, culture, language, and spiritual practices are at the heart of many of the TCUs’ offerings.
Most of all, students graduate from these homeland institutions. Those who go on to four year and graduate programs at mainstream schools are significantly better prepared and more successful than those who do not.
All of these developments represent the creation of policy and tools that have led to student success. There were too many individual tribal citizens left by the wayside, as a result of paternalistic American education policy. Today the landscape is more representative of a “confederated tribal postsecondary education system.”
Preparing First Americans for the Workforce
Significant to past lack of access and opportunity is the workforce itself. For First Americans TCUs address: 1.) a growing, younger population; 2.) the unmet needs and lack of educational attainment of young students who, in many cases, are not graduating from high schools; 3.) the growing and changing economies of tribal communities; 4.) growth, excellence, creativity, and results as beacons of great light.
A task at hand is to significantly prepare students across the land who will spend nearly all of their lives working in career technical fields of employment. Although the colleges will continue to prepare students in academic fields, the demand for career technical preparation for lifelong occupations is growing. Now, and in the future, it is likely that 75 to 90% of the new Native workforce will be employed in career technical fields, as opposed to 70 or 75% of the mainstream population.
In North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, and other regions, TCUs are addressing the workforce needs of tribal citizenry. Major federal grants have been awarded to colleges that are addressing these needs and those of the regional economies. President Barack Obama has emphasized that America’s community colleges are the backbone to helping rebuild the national economy through training and education.
In Indian Country, United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) led the way with a tribal college consortium as one of the president’s “Champions for Change” initiative. Included are Aaniiih Nakoda College, Fort Peck Community College, and Cankdeska Cikana Community College. These institutions are training students who can be effectively employed locally and in the Bakken oil and gas boom, which is projected to continue for the next 40 years.
Electricians, CDL drivers, welders, oil rig workers, heating and cooling technicians, medical coders, and small business entrepreneurs are among the career paths offered. Through the Department of Education and Labor, other TCUs recently funded by the president’s Champions for Change initiative include Sitting Bull College, Turtle Mountain Community College, Fort Berthold Community College, Sinte Gleska University, and Oglala Lakota College.
Navajo Technical University (NTU) leads the way, along with Diné College, in addressing the new oil and gas boom technologies in the Four Corners region.
TCUs have negotiated with unions and major and local companies to assure employment and a place at the table. This will ensure that tribal systems and First Americans will continue to be a part of economic development. This is quite opposite of what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries when the first settlers came west under federal government policies and support. Those policies left Indian tribal nations out of the picture and often times came to the detriment of the people.
Leading the Way
TCUs provide a new infrastructure and backstop for all the economic development hitting Indian Country since the coming of the U.S. military and settlers. This time TCUs represent an ability to address both the challenges and opportunities with quality and quantity in the new economies which have come to the homeland communities.
Most of all, we will see TCU students in new jobs, creating new entities and businesses—and becoming new, enlightened tribal leaders to lead, protect, and sustain tribal values.
David M. Gipp was the first permanent executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (1973 – 1977). He has served as director, president, and chancellor of United Tribes Technical College for over 37 years. Gipp is “president emeritus” and a Hunkpapa Lakota/Dakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.