Colleges and Cultural Authority

Why tribal colleges matter.

January 12, 2015

Last winter, I entered the local community college for the first time. I always knew of its existence, but never had occasion to enter until my son attended a tournament on its premises. My operative stereotype of a dingy over-glorified high school faded fast. The college reflects the prosperity of the suburbs that surround it. Last summer, my older son took an engineering course under its auspices. The students built robots and visited local businesses that employ engineers. They met kids from other area high schools and learned something about the local economy. In short, they immersed themselves in community culture.

I spent the summer after my freshman year of college living in the northeast corner of Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. Over those weeks, I gained some familiarity with both campuses of Navajo Community College, then derogatorily nicknamed NCC or No Credit College, now known as Diné College. The Tsaile campus was something to behold. The buildings were all shaped like traditional hogans. A graduate student from my alma mater and her husband had the good fortune to live in a faculty hogan. As at the suburban community college, local culture seeped through the very walls.

I had two purposes to my presence on the “Rez:” to develop youth programming at a rural chapter house (community center) and to interview Navajo college students about their collegiate experiences.  I never published my study, and the sports equipment I purchased likely languished.  However, the content of what the students and alumni I interviewed told me remains ingrained in my memory.  Navajo students struggled to reconcile the primacy of individuals and individual data points in their university curricula with the clan-based interconnectedness cultivated on the Rez.

People crave pedagogy in accordance with their cultures. Lutheran reformers wanted their own schools to teach their own theology. A theological schism sent Oxford dons scurrying to build new colleges along the River Cam.  Massachusetts Puritans hatched Harvard; Connecticut Congregationalists spawned Yale; Princeton emerged as a bastion of the Scottish Enlightenment on American Soil; and Mr. Jefferson dreamt the University of Virginia in his own conflicted, classical image. A famous historian reputedly thought the American Revolution owed its success to the early development of American universities. Had Ireland or India laid earlier claim to their own academic training, they might have freed themselves earlier of the English yoke. The Scot's sense of independence owes more than a little to their ancient universities including the oldest, St. Andrew’s, which rather ironically introduced and educated the current Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Scan any guide to US colleges, and you walk through the history of our changing national demography. Every ethnic group and geographic region laid claim to legitimacy with colleges. Moravian College proudly announces it’s 1742 origins in a girl’s school founded by a teenage Bohemian countess, while adherents of the Church of England took until 1754  to create their own King’s College (now Columbia University). The “Fighting Irish” erected Notre Dame and the Dutch Calvinists of Hope Michigan developed their “Pioneer School” into Hope College. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has Norwegian St. Olaf’s and Swedish Gustavus Adolphus; Missouri Synod Lutherans have Valparaiso University.  In Chicago, the Jesuits built Loyola while the Vincentians built DePaul. Over the nineteenth century, “land grant” and “Wesleyan” universities sprung up in nearly equal numbers. Reconstruction saw construction of the historically black colleges and universities that birthed an African-American professional class.

I first learned that The Hechinger Report had labeled the tribal colleges a bad investment from Mary Beth Gasman’s rebuttal in the Huffington Post. Professor Gasman tackled the fallacious calculations. I beg leave to place the discussion in historical perspective. The people who have lived in North America longest, have had their own institutions of higher learning for less than a blip on the timeline of history. Diné College began the move with it’s establishment in 1968 a century after midwestern immigrant farmers and recently freed slaves started to build institutions of higher learning able to take students from the meagre offerings of a rural one-room school house to the halls of power.

I celebrated in 2010 when President Obama gave some of his Nobel Prize money to the American Indian College Fund, last month when he assembled the White House Tribal Nations Conference, and again last week when he pledged funding for students at community colleges. Our first African-American President seems to grasp what remains at stake for our first peoples.The tribal colleges got a late start, but they deserve a fighting chance to raise the bar on what is “normal” for “Generation Indigenous” near their homes and on their terms.




Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top