Contributions of Tribal – Higher Ed

On-screen: [Center for MSIs. The Penn Graduate School of Education. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions: Elevate MSIs, Increase Scholarship, Connect Leadership, Inform Practices, Advance Policies, Enhance Capacity.]


Speaker: Cheryl Crazy Bull, American Indian College Fund

Speaker: Cheryl Crazy Bull - Thank you. [Speaker greets audience in Lakota language.] Friends and relatives, my name is “They depend on her.” My English name is Cheryl Crazy Bull. I’m a Chitrangada Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I greet you with a good heart and a handshake.

I’m going to talk about the visibility of tribal colleges. While that conversation was going on a few minutes ago, I got real nervous because I thought, “My God, there’s just so much I want to say.” I controlled myself and wrote down a few very important things about the tribal colleges that I want to share. Then I’m going to share the story of some of the tribal college students and how the tribal college students are representative of the ways that the tribal colleges respond to communities and to tribal needs. I think it fits really well with the research that we just heard. I can really appreciate the challenges that our researchers shared with us, because having worked for almost 35 years in the tribally controlled education movement, I’ve seen firsthand the many difficulties that we’ve encountered having to constantly respond to external standards.

I have this PowerPoint that’s a bunch of pictures, and it doesn’t really coincide at all with what I’m going to talk about, but I wanted you to see us and to see that tribal people are here. We are a small percentage of the population because of colonization and the oppression that we experienced after our first encounter with people from Europe. There are 37 tribal colleges, as was noted. We operate about 76 campuses in 16 states. Our institutions cover about 80% of what is called Indian country. We cover a very significant part of Indian territory, and we cover a significant part of rural America. If you look at the concentration of tribal colleges in the southwest and in the northern plains, you’ll see that much of rural America is also served by our institutions. Our open enrollment means that there are going to be non-native students who attend our institutions from these rural communities.

We are, as was noted, less than 1% of the colleges in this country, but depending on the census data that you use, we educate between 11% and 18% of every American Indian or Alaskan Native student that is going to school. That’s a very significant number of students that we have influence over.

We are in extremely impoverished environments, but I wanted to show you that tribal colleges in the last 25 years have significantly invested in their infrastructure and created facilities that are really responsive to the place that we are. Tribal colleges are very much place-based institutions. They are what I call community-responsive and community-engaged. They translate our traditional knowledge into a contemporary environment. They’re very rich institutions in their academic programs, their community outreach, all the culture and language and different things that they do.

Our students, of course, get a very high quality education. As I’m talking about these four students who are my examples of the kinds of students who attend tribal colleges, and why tribal colleges matter, and why it’s important that they be visible and included in any discussion about the education of people in this country, you’ll see that we get a good quality, what we call a western, education.

The founders of the tribal colleges, they were individuals who I think—I’ve decided that they were actually quite subversive, because what they did was they looked out and they saw that American Indian and Alaskan Native people were not participating in the American higher education system. We often talked about how visionary they were, but when I think back to knowing the founders of many of the tribal colleges, they had very subversive behaviors, in that they kind of snuck into the American higher education system. They performed that act that I think has created these really wonderful institutions.

The tribal colleges are—it’s almost difficult to explain the kinds of things that the tribal colleges do, because the richness of the cultural experience is so important, but I would urge you, as people were talking, to look at the issue of relationality. Relationality is really the practice of understanding that you are of the place that you’re in, and as you’re in that place, so goes your experience with your culture, with your kinship, and your relationships. When I was growing up, our elders often said to me, if you are Lakota, then being Lakota is all about kinship. If you are a tribal college student, that faculty member that you walk in the door to see could very well be your aunt or uncle. They could very well be you relative. I’m going to talk about the different ways that the tribal colleges have been tribally responsive and share some stories.

I want to talk about the scholarship of language and culture. I would say probably about 16–17 years ago now, I was at one of tribal sun dances that I had participated in for many years. I came around the corner, and one of—a young man who is about my age, he was sitting there with a group people talking to them. I took a look at him, and I thought, “There is a teacher.” He was sharing knowledge about our traditional ways with these people. He was a bus driver for the local K-12 tribal school. I took one look at him, and I saw a teacher. I said, “You ought to come and work at the college.” He could not see himself doing that, but after a good deal of persuasion, he came to the college, took classes, speaks fluent Lakota, comes from a very traditional Lakota family. He is now one of the leading linguists around the Lakota language. He is serving as the chair of the Lakota Studies Department. Where else can you find a person with the kind of knowledge about who you are as a people except in your community? Where else can you walk around the corner of a tribal religious event and see your teacher and see your linguists? That happens at tribal colleges.

I know this story of a young woman who got pregnant at a very early age, and she had to leave high school. Any dream that she might have had for a higher education was shattered with her early pregnancy, because in those days, women did not go off to college with their children. That was a rare thing to have happened when she was a young woman, but it just so happened that there was a tribal college that has started on her reservation. She went over to that tribal college, and she got her high school equivalency. She got a GED. She was teaching in Head Start. The college got accredited for a teacher education program, and she became one of a group of students who participated in that teacher education program.

She went on to get a bachelor’s degree from that college in an environment that was culturally responsive. Getting a teacher education degree, that was about her being able to teach her own people. She went on to become a member of the first master’s class at that tribal college. They had a teacher education master’s degree. Last year, she retired after teaching for 34 years in the public school system. Parents and grandparents lined up to have children her classroom. There are literally hundreds of tribal college educated teachers out there in our tribal communities serving their own relatives, serving their students, who are their nieces and nephews and grandchildren.

The next person that I want to share a story about is a young woman who—she came from Alaska down to the Pacific Northwest. She was working in a—trying to make her way through mainstream institutions, working in corporate America. She heard about the tribal college in the Northwest. She looked it up. She went over there to visit. She enrolled in classes. She discovered that she was able to connect her upbringing, where she was raised in a Upit—she’s a Upit. She was raised in a family that provided for itself through subsistence fishing out on the Yukon River. This young woman recently graduated with her master’s degree. Her theme of her master’s thesis was to look at the impact of the environment and climate change on her family’s subsistence living. She was able to connect her experiences. That kind of environment—and she had just recently got hired by the college to be their environmental political science teacher. She’s come full circle for herself. Connecting her experiences to her education. There are literally hundreds of environmental and political scientists coming out of the tribal colleges who makes those kinds of connections that are so vital to us.

The last person that I want to talk about is a grow-your-own story. This person, he—I’m continuing these pictures just because we’re—I want you to see this. This is one of my favorites. This is Francis Cutt, who’s a Lakota language teacher at Sinte Gleska University on the Internet, looking at their transmission of their powwow. I love that picture of him. This young man that I want to share in closing—what I always tell tribal college faculty and staff and the donors that I work with, is that tribal colleges saves lives, that you cannot imagine the social and economic injustices under which my people live. Tribal colleges create an environment where lives are saved.

This young man got up in a faculty meeting. We had seen him as a potential faculty member for the college. We were paying for him to get his bachelor’s degree. He got up in a faculty meeting, and he said, “Before I came to the college I was playing around on the couch at home. I was drinking and doing drugs. The only time I got up was if I was partying or if I was playing basketball. I went to a basketball tournament, and I met the young man that was recruiting for the college at that time. He said, ‘You ought to come to the college. We’re going to start a basketball team.’ I came to the college—” and we saw him. We offered him that opportunity, and he told that story about the college saving his life, and then he couldn’t speak anymore because the emotions that he felt were just so powerful. In my 35 years of working with the tribal colleges, I have seen and heard that story so many times, so many times. That young man is now the chair of a department at that college and has just presented his dissertation topic.

There are dozens of young people like him out there that the tribal colleges are serving. They are scholars. They are researchers. They are teachers. I like to tell them that they’re visible, that they matter, and that they make a contribution not only to their community but to the rest of the world. Thank you.


End of Contributions of Tribal - Higher Ed video.

Video duration: 14:22