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Jan 30 2018
by Katherine Smith

Tribal Colleges and the Students Who Attend Them

By Katherine Smith - Jan 30 2018

The towering grey stone building of Hiawatha Hall is the oldest structure on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University. Haskell, originally founded in 1884 as a residential school designed to assimilate Native children and strip them of their tribal identity, has been reclaimed and transformed into a institution rooted in Native values.

"I have chosen Haskell to feel close to my tribal heritage," says Troy Watterson, a Paiute sophomore who will also be graduating with his associates this spring.

There are 32 fully accredited tribal colleges and universities in the U.S. serving approximately 30,000 full- and part-time students, many of whom chose to attend for the cultural and place-based instruction Watterson describes.

Wyatt Betony, a junior studying health occupation at Diné College, attributes his decision to attend a tribal college to a desire to feel closer to his heritage. "I grew up knowing [I was] not so traditional and knew [only] the basic[s] of my culture," he said, "I have a daughter I want to teach our tradition [to]."

Although Betony may not fit the "traditional" image of a college student, he is considered to be representative of the average tribal college student. Anton Truer, director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, which serves a large Native population, told NPR that "a lot of our students are coming trying to maintain jobs and families sometimes, you know, 10, 20, 30, 40 miles from a campus."

At Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota, grants cover more than just tuition. Students have access to free child care during group study sessions, and a Monday drum and potluck and staff who are willing to help out students struggling to purchase necessities such as gas or diapers. Leech Lake's small size and observance of the Seven Grandfather Teachings in accordance with the Anishinaabe worldview create an institution uniquely tailored to meet the needs of Native students.

Caterina Yellowhorse, a student at Ogala Lakota College from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, explains that she decided to attend a tribal college because "it was close to home, it helped me to be with my family and get [an] education."

For Native students who plan on obtaining their B.A. at a four-year institution, starting out at a two-year tribal college drastically increases the likelihood of success.David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, reports that only 15 percent of students from his reservation who start out at four-year college ever graduate. But students who start at a two-year tribal college before continuing on to a four-year program have an 85 percent graduation rate. 

Unfortunately, the Western standards used to assess the effectives of colleges and universities do not measure many of the outcomes that are central to the tribal college experience, resulting in inaccurate assessments which provoke misguided attacks on their institutional value. However, tribal colleges can provide important resources for Native students that are not available anywhere else.

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Katherine Smith - Barnard College

Katie is a freshman at Barnard and plans on majoring in political science. She was (and still is) an avid debater and never backs down from an argument, much to her parents dismay. One of the first things she did after getting her college email address was access all of the databases through Columbia since JSTOR is her form of Netflix. You can find somewhat sporadically posted content on her Instagram @katiesnappy or follow her scholarly pursuits through her nonprofit, Open Access Debate.

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