Tribal colleges filling growing need
PAWNEE, Okla. (AP) - With two small children to support, Cedric Sunray
doesn't have much time to pursue a college degree.
But a desire to learn how to teach American Indian languages and
determination to build a better life drove Sunray to be one of 90 people
enrolled at Pawnee Nation College when it started classes last fall.
"I wouldn't do it anywhere else," said Sunray, who speaks Cherokee,
Choctaw and Pawnee. "Tribal colleges offer classes that are historically
not offered anywhere and tribal colleges depend on workforce students."
Tribal colleges - schools owned and run by Indian tribes that are often
located on reservations - are growing, stemming in part from economic
clout spurred in some cases by Indian gaming and a desire by tribes to
validate their sovereign status.
There were no tribal colleges in the U.S. before 1968, but today there
are more than three dozen and one in Canada.
"It's been a slow process, but we are happy to be where we are," said
Gerald Gipp, executive director of the American Indian Higher Education
Consortium. "We're going through a real learning process of operating
our schools and reversing decades of neglect."
Tribal colleges developed along with an increase in American Indians
seeking higher education. American Indian enrollment in universities has
more than doubled in the past 25 years, according to the National Center
for Education Statistics. That included a 62% increase in enrollment at
tribal colleges in the past decade, according to the higher education
Todd Fuller, president of Pawnee Nation College, said those numbers
should continue to grow. He said he expected enrollment at his college
to increase at least 40% this fall.
Tribal colleges may be the last chance to save some native languages,
said Quinton Roman Nose, education director of the Cheyenne-Arapaho
Tribes of Oklahoma. He is helping develop a tribal college on the campus
of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.
"Some tribes have their own syllabary. Others have languages that aren't
written. This is a really complicated area to try and preserve and teach
a language," Roman Nose said. "There's a great need and this is one way
of meeting it."
Course offerings reflect tribal goals. In Oklahoma, the College of the
Muscogee (Creek) Nation offers Creek classes, while Wind River Tribal
College in Wyoming teaches Arapaho.
Nebraska Indian Community College offers an associate's degree in tribal
business management. In South Dakota, Sinte Gleska University's Lakota
Studies Department has been integrating Lakota values into academics
since 1973, for example, adjusting class times to allow for tribal
The institutions, however, sometimes face an uncertain future.
Characterized by rural isolation, limited property tax bases, and
neglect from state governments, growth of tribal colleges has been
uneven. At least seven have failed in the past 25 years.
But during that time, another 17 tribal colleges opened. They keep
appearing because there is a need, said Roman Nose, whose
great-grandfather, Henry, attended Carlisle Indian School in
"Even our own tribal members ask 'Why do we need to do this?'" Roman
Nose said. "We have needs that can't be met any other way."
Sunray, who is learning how to teach languages to students in
kindergarten through 12th grade and how to administer an accredited
language program, said tribal colleges offer a unique challenge.
"There are no excuses at a tribal college," Sunray said. "You can't look
at a teacher and say he doesn't like me because of so-and-so."
Instead of having a white instructor, students likely will have a tribal
member as a teacher, he said. They're not there to get rich, but to make
a difference, Sunray said.
"They are going to make you work," he said.
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Posted 6/20/2006 11:20 AM ET
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