Tribal colleges honor students’ past, prepare them for future

Courtesy of Diné College
Diné College President Charles "Monty" Roessel stands with two graduates at a ceremony in Tsaile, Arizona, on May 7, 2021. "One of the things that all tribal colleges have in common is the idea of nation building," President Roessel says.

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The College of Menominee Nation is one of more than 30 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States. Jasmine Neosh, who’s studying public administration there, calls tribal colleges like hers the “greatest-kept secret in higher education.” 

The first TCU was founded in Arizona in the Navajo Nation in 1968. Primarily located in the Midwest and Southwest, TCUs serve over 30,000 students. Their foundational purpose is to provide a culturally relevant educational experience to American Indians while also meeting the needs of the community by training future workers. 

Why We Wrote This

Nation building isn’t typically part of a school’s purpose. But for tribal colleges and universities, helping to perpetuate Native American cultures and communities is foundational.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of TCU alumni are primarily employed in areas related to American Indian communities or tribal lands, according to a 2019 Gallup report. What’s harder to tell, says Ms. Neosh, is just how much of a ripple effect that has.

“TCUs prepare us to take that next step,” says Jacob McArthur, a recent graduate of White Earth Tribal and Community College in Minnesota. “Along the way, it allows us to reconnect with our culture and bring it back into the community.”

Mr. McArthur is on track to earn his master's in business administration from a state school this fall. His job now? Working in the IT department at his tribal college alma mater.

After doing well in classes at two Chicago colleges, Jasmine Neosh still felt like something was missing. Transferring a second time to the College of Menominee Nation, a tribal college in Wisconsin, she found the missing piece. 

“It wasn’t only acceptable that I show up as my whole self,” says Ms. Neosh, a member of the Menominee Nation. “It was expected.” 

The College of Menominee Nation is one of more than 30 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States, which serve over 30,000 students. At a time when discussions of Indigenous education are receiving widespread attention, Ms. Neosh calls tribal colleges like hers the “greatest-kept secret in higher education.” 

Why We Wrote This

Nation building isn’t typically part of a school’s purpose. But for tribal colleges and universities, helping to perpetuate Native American cultures and communities is foundational.

“There’s an entire model here,” she says, “that would benefit the rest of the country to see.”

What is a TCU?

Primarily located in the Midwest and Southwest, TCUs have the foundational purpose of providing a culturally relevant educational experience to American Indians while also meeting the needs of the community by training future workers. 

TCUs provide education, says Ms. Neosh, “so that people can immediately go back to work and start trying to improve things.” 

With nearly a quarter of American Indians living in poverty compared with 13.4% of the overall population, TCUs provide educational access and opportunity. 

The natural-resources associate degree program at the College of Menominee Nation squared with Ms. Neosh’s interest in the environment, something deeply rooted in the Menominee culture, which highly values forests. She is now seeking her bachelor’s degree in public administration from the college and has her sights set on law school. 

Almost three-quarters (74%) of TCU alumni are primarily employed in areas related to American Indian communities or tribal lands, according to a 2019 Gallup report. What’s harder to tell, says Ms. Neosh, is just how much of a ripple effect that has. This dual purpose of education and community building harks back to the founding of the colleges themselves. 

What is the history of TCUs?

Compared with historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, whose origins predate the Civil War, tribal colleges are relatively new institutions, with the first one founded in Arizona in the Navajo Nation in 1968. 

During the 1960s, broader societal questions about identity and “who am I?” surfaced, says Charles “Monty” Roessel, current president of Diné College, the first tribal college.

In the years prior, from 1953 to 1968, the official U.S. government policy toward Indigenous people encouraged relocation to urban areas and attempted to terminate the trustee relationship between the federal government and tribes.

“If you look at what happened and the history, [the idea for tribal colleges] doesn’t start with 1968,” says Dr. Roessel, the son of the college’s first president. “It starts back in the Termination Era, where the idea of resilience, tenacity, and humanity really starts.”

The educational institutions teaching Native history, language, and culture were vital to the tribes’ exercising their sovereignty as nations, Dr. Roessel says. “One of the things that all tribal colleges have in common is the idea of nation building,” he adds.

At Diné, what started as a community college with the first American Indian studies program developed into a four-year institution with Navajo culture infused throughout its curriculum. Later, in 1983, two tribal colleges in South Dakota, Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska College, took over the lead, becoming the first nationally accredited tribal colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. Now, over a dozen tribal colleges offer a bachelor’s degree or higher, including Diné, which bestowed its first bachelor’s degrees in 1998. 

How do TCUs prepare students for the future?

For students like Jacob McArthur, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe, his time at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Minnesota served as a bridge to a state school. 

“TCUs prepare us to take that next step,” the recent graduate says. “Along the way, it allows us to reconnect with our culture and bring it back into the community.”

Mr. McArthur is on track to earn his master’s degree in business administration from a state school this fall. His job now? Working in the IT department at his tribal college alma mater.

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