Tribal Colleges Deserve Funding

BECAUSE I am the first American Indian elected to the United States Senate in more than half a century, it may come as no surprise that I applaud the increased diversity of the 103rd Congress. Although it falls far short of fully reflecting American society, Congress will include more women and more minorities than ever before.

Diversity makes our government more responsive to the needs and aspirations of all Americans. It brings to issues confronting our nation the abilities of people who often have been ignored.

As I have often told young American Indians, my success in public life is rooted in the values and traditions passed down to us by our forebears. Throughout our long and, in more recent times, difficult history, our leaders constantly taught us to love the land, honor the old, teach the young, respect nature, and care for each other, family and community. These lessons, which have been with us for hundreds of generations, speak to all Americans.

But as America rediscovers the traditions of the first people of this land, Indians themselves are struggling to reclaim the right to determine their own destiny. For 100 years, their lands were confiscated, their economies uprooted, their language and religion suppressed. That is why they now are far more likely than other Americans to be poor and jobless.

The great dream of most of the 2 million Indians in the United States is to walk in both worlds, to participate in mainstream society and yet preserve their traditional tribal cultures. Education and economic self-sufficiency offer the best hope of making that dream come true.

Central to that hope are 27 tribal colleges situated on or near reservations. Created by and for Indians during the past two decades, these colleges are all fully accredited or earning accreditation. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching calls them "crucial to the future of Native Americans and to the future of our nation."

The colleges teach math and science, English, history and business management, as well as American Indian philosophy, traditions, and languages. Like the predominantly black and women's colleges, these schools meet the special needs of their students. They have reversed an appalling statistic: 9 out of 10 Indian students who go directly from high school to a mainstream college fail; 9 out of 10 who go to a tribal college succeed. They get jobs or continue their education.

Moreover, many tribal-college graduates return to their reservations to serve as doctors, nurses, teachers, artists, engineers, counselors and as role models for the next generation.

Tribal colleges serve the poorest students in the poorest communities in America. They hold classes in trailers and dilapidated buildings. Except in Minnesota and Nebraska, they receive no state funds. In 1978, Congress authorized $5,820 for each full-time student in the tribal colleges, but it appropriates only about half that. No government funding is provided for the non-Indian students who make up more than 15 percent of the attendees.

Like too many American Indians, I dropped out of high school. Like too few American Indians, I eventually graduated from college. Like most American Indians, I had to struggle with becoming a part of the larger American society without sacrificing the traditions and ways of my people. The tribal colleges are helping thousands of young American Indians face that challenge.

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