Indian college achievement Native Americans show excellence in their colleges

June 28, 1998|By Colman McCarthy

WINNEBAGO, Neb. -- When John Blackhawk, interim president of Little Priest Tribal College, asked the class of 1998 to ascend to the stage of the community center to say a few words, all five graduates came forward. Beginning with Amy Bearskin, each spoke for a few minutes, expressing thanks to their parents and promising their professors -- four full-time, 11 adjunct -- that this day's success would lead to many more.

Not that it was much noticed beyond the sere hills of the Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa, with the Missouri River in between, but the commencement ceremony had two links with history: one making it, the other remembering.

This was the first graduating class at Little Priest, a two-year associate degree college offering 43 core courses and 24 electives to about 100 students. Two-thirds are adults, three-fourths women. The Little Priest campus is named after the Winnebago chief whose dying words in 1866 to his community were, "There is nothing more I can do for you, be strong and educate my children."

The remembrance of history goes back to the 1832 treaty between the Winnebagos and the administration of Andrew Jackson, one of the most anti-Indian presidents in U.S. history. The treaty required that the tribe cede 7 million acres of arable land in the central Missouri Valley to well-armed white outsiders. In exchange, the government promised piddling rewards to the straitened Winnebagos: 12 yokes of oxen, 1,500 pounds of tobacco and a school to impart whatever "useful knowledge the president of the United States would prescribe."

For 166 years the Winnebago nation, with 1,200 members on the reservation and 3,800 on the roll, has had its own views on what "useful knowledge" should be dispensed. Forced assimilation, the devaluation of traditional culture, attacks on tribal sovereignty, boarding schools and other forms of paternalism by federal officials assured that the tribe's potential for independence went untapped. Educationally, that changed in August 1996. The Winnebagos opened Little Priest College, with John Blackhawk telling me at the first-day ceremonies that the school is "an institution of survival." Start- up funding of $500,000 came from the tribe's casino income.

Little Priest Tribal College is the latest display of self-reliance and educational excellence in Indian country. The school is one of 31 Native American colleges in 11 states. Such schools as Turtle Mountain Community College (North Dakota), Salish Kootenai College (Montana), Oglala Lakota College (South Dakota) and the rest are enrolling about 20,000 students from more than 200 tribes.

In 1968, I covered the opening of the first tribal college at Tsaile, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation. The early promise of that day has been fulfilled: About 10,000 students have graduated, and enrollment is about 1,500. Much of the 1968 funding for the Navajo Community College came from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Its director, Sargent Shriver, predicted at the time that Indian educators would be knowledgeable and motivated to teach tribal languages, culture and history, and that little of this would be available in non-Indian schools.

The prediction has proved out. A 1997 125-page report "Native American Colleges: Progress and Prospects" from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching surveyed 1,600 Indian students and found that 69 percent were "very satisfied with the teachings at their college ... 68 percent strongly agreed that their professors enjoyed teaching, and 70 percent strongly agreed that the profession encouraged students to participate actively in classroom discussions."

More than a third of the surveyed students had previously attended a non-Indian college or university: "Of those, 88 percent agreed that tribal college faculty are friendlier and 93 percent agreed that more individual attention is shown to students at a tribal college. Finally, 72 percent agreed that the quality of instruction was high at their tribal college."

Taken together, Native American colleges are a statement of resistance against the political, economic and cultural power of the larger society that in the 19th century systematically sought to kill off Indians and, failing that, in the 20th century tried to forcefully assimilate them. Not only have Indians not gone away, they have shown, by their colleges, that a resurgence has begun. The curriculum at Little Priest is typical. In addition to the customary liberal arts courses in math, science, computers and English, credits are given for the study of Winnebago history and the tribe's Ho-Chunk language, federal Indian law, American Indian women and Winnebago mythology.

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