Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), stumbled across a great disparity while seeking appropriations for the Native American colleges. "It was appropriations time and I was frankly shocked to discover that a federally chartered college like Howard University, a school for African American students, was getting $13,000 per student while the Tribally Controlled Indian Colleges were getting only $1,700 per student. Inouye made it his goal to close that gap.
There are 37 Indian colleges scattered across Indian country. Most are located on isolated Indian reservations and for the first time in the history of this country Native Americans have the opportunity to seek higher education degrees on their homelands. I believe that the Indian colleges are one of America's best kept secrets.
Thirty-six years ago, Stanley Red Bird, a respected elder from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, made a call to a young man named Lionel Bordeaux who was completing his studies at the University of Minnesota. Red Bird told Bordeaux that he was looking for a young man who knows the Lakota language. He continued, "Your plans have changed. Your name came through in our ceremonies and we want you to come home and head up Sinte Gleska Community College, the new college we are initiating."
Sinte Gleska was named after the famous Sicangu leader Spotted Tail.
Bordeaux left school to return to Rosebud. At a spiritual ceremony he was handed the Pipe and told that if something was said that he felt he couldn't handle, he was free to put the Pipe down and walk away. He didn't walk away and 36 years later, Sinte Gleska is one of the finest of the Indian colleges.
Sinte Gleska is no longer a Community College, but is now a full-fledged University. "We aren't there yet, but the circle is getting smaller and tighter," Bordeaux said at last week at a conference in Rapid City.
How important are the Indian colleges to the Oyate (People)? Early in the efforts to get Sinte Gleska off of the ground the new chairman of the tribe fired Red Bird, Bordeaux and most of the staff. Red Bird organized the people and marched on tribal headquarter. As the discussions grew heated a Lakota woman carrying a handicapped child walked to the front of the council. "None of you seated here have had to raise a handicapped child. I have, and the one institution that has helped me was Sinte Gleska College." The council appeared to be embarrassed by her appearance and reinstated all of the people they had fired.
Bordeaux believes there are two major things that stand in the way of making the Indian colleges a total success; funding and accreditation. He believes the Indian colleges had to sacrifice much of the traditions and culture of their people in order to qualify for the accreditations that would validate their existence. "We have Lakota elders with a wealth of knowledge, elders that are traditional Lakota speakers, who would be a valuable resource for the colleges, but because of the stringent rules of accreditations, we are hard-pressed to use them because they do not have the degrees or credentials," Bordeaux said. He would like to see all of the colleges push for accreditation based on tribal law, culture and traditions. "We need to use our group and our intellect to handle our own accreditation," he said.
He also has high hopes of financial input from the successful Indian casinos. He said the wealthy gaming tribes are an untapped source of revenues for the colleges that could open doors for Indian people everywhere. It has been the dream of Bordeaux and Dr. Jim Wilson, an Oglala Lakota, to build an American Indian University in the heart of the Black Hills. They believe the university would strengthen the Indian colleges rather than weaken them. "All of the Indian colleges would be beneficiaries and contributors to the American Indian University," Sen. Inouye said and as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he thinks he can find the funds to make it a reality.
As the conference was about to close, Marie Randall, a Lakota elder from Wanbli on the Pine Ridge Reservation, stood up to speak. She said, "I am 88 years old and I just earned my degree from Oglala Lakota College so now I can teach my takojas (all young people are spoken of as "grandchildren" by the Lakota).
When anyone asks, "How important are the Indian colleges?" just think about Marie Randall. She read an editorial in the Lakota Times about a mural in the South Dakota State Capitol Building depicting white settlers standing on the neck of a prone Indian. She went to Pierre, confronted then Governor Bill Janklow demanding that the mural be torn down or covered, and she managed to do what my editorial could not do; the governor had the mural covered with a curtain.
What a teacher Marie Randall has become and what a role model for the Lakota children and it would not have happened without the Indian colleges.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)