`Invisible' Indian colleges. Buildings aren't fancy, money is a problem, but reservation schools offer the only possibility of higher education for many American Indians

AT 6 a.m., Julie Chekpa rises and rolls up the sleeping mat from the living room floor of her mother's apartment in Parmalee, a dusty town in the northwest corner of the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She slips into the bathroom to dress, then calls to her mother and daughter, who sleep in the next room. At 7, Ms. Chekpa catches a ride to school, 25 miles away. Often she doesn't return until midnight, when the rickety school van brings her home again. Though it's a long day, with sometimes only a cup of coffee for lunch, Chekpa doesn't complain. Sinte Gleska College is the best thing that ever happened to her.

Set in the reservation town of Mission, on the rolling Midwestern prairie, Sinte Gleska is one of 23 community colleges owned and operated by American Indian tribes. Though heavily subsidized by Congress, the colleges represent a break with the past by advocating a self-help approach to reservation problems of poverty, unemployment, and despair. For many reservation people, they offer the only real possibility of higher education.

``Other colleges - I couldn't pull through, with [the cost of] living on campus and transportation,'' Chekpa says.

The colleges, scattered across reservations in seven Western states and Canada, were founded in the past 20 years as a bridge between reservation schooling and off-reservation colleges. Before they opened, more than 90 percent of native American college students dropped out by the end of their freshman year. The Indian colleges have turned that number around. The schools' current enrollment is about 4,200; they have graduated about 7,000 in the past five years. A 1982 study in North Dakota showed that almost 90 percent of students who transferred to four-year schools from Indian colleges completed their degrees. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which is conducting a formal study of the colleges for publication later this year, found similar results.

``These are colleges that are quite invisible,'' says Dr. Vito Perrone, vice-president of the foundation and an expert on American Indian education. ``But there is no question that as a result of those institutions and the kind of values they promote, a larger number of young men and women have entered college and ... returned to their communities to make significant contributions.''

Sinte Gleska College is a small jumble of scavenged buildings and houses. It is named for Chief Spotted Tail, a Sioux leader who believed that Indians should learn to function in white society without sacrificing their own heritage. Classes are held in renovated trailers; the administration works in a condemned building. ``These buildings don't look like much from the outside,'' says Lionel Bordeaux, the college's president of 15 years. ``But step inside and you can feel the pulse.''

Like other Indian colleges, Sinte Gleska concentrates on subjects that promise employment: teaching, business administration, human services, criminal justice. They have shown rapid success: In 1972, when Sinte Gleska's education department was established, only four Indians taught in Rosebud's school system. Today nearly 40, or 1 in 10, are Indian. On a reservation with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, the college boasts an alumni employment rate of 85 percent.

Though it began as a two-year institution, Sinte Gleska received accreditation in 1982 to award the bachelor's degree. Last summer, it was accredited to give a master's degree in education, the first Indian college to achieve that distinction. More than 200 students have graduated from Sinte Gleska since it opened.

Sherman Marshall is in his late 30s. Each week he hears about 75 cases as chief judge of Rosebud's tribal court. Though he was a bright student in school, he never dreamed of law school until a teacher at Sinte Gleska suggested it.

``There weren't any role models around here while I was growing up,'' Judge Marshall says. But he found them at Sinte Gleska, where about one-third of the faculty is native American. ``You saw there were Indian people in those positions and that it was possible to get an education that was beyond high school and beyond a BA.''

Mr. Marshall was Sinte Gleska's first baccalaureate graduate. He is also the first Indian judge to hold a law degree. In the two years he has served as chief judge, Marshall has begun to establish an alternative court system for minor crimes which is tailored more to traditional Indian conflict resolution.

Many Indian colleges are reshaping reservation life in other ways. Public debates were unheard of on many reservations until schools like Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, N.D., began to sponsor them. ``In the past, nobody challenged [tribal] decisions, because of repercussions,'' says college president Gerald Monette. ``There's definitely an openness to discuss things that was not there before.''

Despite their success, money is a constant problem. Congress supports about 50 percent of the colleges' budgets through the Indian college bill (the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act), which must be reauthorized every four years.

``We're still in the survival stage,'' Mr. Bordeaux says.

In an attempt to lesson their dependence on the fluctuating whims of Congress, the Indian colleges began an endowment fund last fall. The American Indian College Fund is managed by the Phelps Stokes Fund, the same organization that oversees the United Negro College Fund.

Critics say the lack of staff and support weakens the ability of the colleges to truly serve their populations. Bruce Duthu, a Houma Indian who heads Dartmouth College's Native American program, says Indian colleges cannot provide the kind of education students find at a school like Dartmouth. Yet Mr. Duthu agrees that off-reservation schools usually fail to provide the cultural support Indian students need. ``The impediment in non-Indian schools is that people will groom [Indians] intellectually - the side that they recognize - to the detriment of their spiritual, traditional side,'' he says.

Getting ready for another day of school, Julie Chekpa isn't worried about such matters. She has her eyes on the future - and an eventual bachelor's degree.

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