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Mark A Bellcourt, Native American and Tribal College Interest Group Past Chair

Native Americans have always valued education and learning, and many are accomplished science and mathematics practitioners (traditional healers, herbalists, astronomers, builders, etc). Even so, it is ironic that today approximately 50% of Native Americans will graduate from high school, and only 17% will attempt college (National Science Foundation, 2000; Pavel, Swisher, & Ward, 1994). There are many cultural and social reasons for these low rates including reservations located in remote areas, a lack of successful Native American role models, English as a second language, and the low socioeconomic status of many Native Americans (Cajete, 2000).

Suspicion of the traditional American education system is very strong among the Native American populations. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native Americans were forced into separate, but certainly not equal, educational systems. Marr (2004) states that Congress backed a policy establishing schools that promised to make the “Indian population into patriotic and productive members of society” thus supporting a policy of assimilation that called for the systematic and intentional destruction of an entire population. Marr highlights Richard Henry Pratt, a leading proponent of the 'kill the Indian and save the man' philosophy, who opened the first Indian boarding school in 1879. Pratt commissioned ‘before’ pictures, with students in their long braids and regalia, and ‘after’ pictures showing the same students with short hair and military clothing. He thought these pictures would show the country that Indians could be civilized.

Through the 1950s, school policies systematically broke up families, forbade Native languages, banned traditional and spiritual practices, and relocated children to schools far from their homes. Through these actions more than two generations of Native Americans lost their identities in the name of traditional American education (University of Washington Library, 2003). Today’s Native American students are frequently reminded by their parents, grandparents and great grandparents of these atrocities, and are covertly and overtly told not to trust the traditional education system.

The statistics are equally dismal for Native American students in our colleges and universities. Janis Swenson Taylor (Taylor, 1999) reported that “…skin color and appearance, covert and overt racial hostility, lack of respect, stereotyping, loneliness, lack of role models, and lack of institutional support…” impact Native American success in college. She also reported that the students’ reasons for attending college and level of family support are equally important to Native American persistence in college. In many tribes, the sense of community and extended families are very highly valued. Sometimes Native American students must choose to attend college far away from home or to stay on the reservation.

However, the future is looking much brighter for Native Americans. According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), casinos and other tribal enterprises have enabled a number of tribes to charter colleges in their local communities. In the last 10 years, tribally chartered colleges have increased from 15 to 34 and enrollments have risen from less than 15,000 to more than 34,000 (American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 1999). Tribal colleges have now gained “land grant status” that provides extra federal funds for research and the ground needed for agricultural and natural resource stations and for building campuses. Although many of these newly formed institutions are currently going through the accreditation process, many have completed the process and are becoming credible and legitimate members of the higher education community. A number of these colleges now offer 4-year and advanced degrees directly or through articulation agreements with nearby institutions.

Now that education has come to many of these remote locations and tribal control allows for culturally relevant curriculums, Native Americans are seeking higher education in increasing numbers. If this trend continues, and all evidence suggests that it will, an increasing number of Native American students will be entering our institutions of higher education. As academic advisors, we must be ready to accommodate these students’ needs. It is imperative that we honor their heritage, value their wisdom, and understand their histories. We need to help them transition from reservations and tribal colleges to our cities and traditional institutions. That is why we founded the Native American and Tribal College Interest Group (NATIG) in NACADA.

NATIG is intended to bring together both Native and non-Native American students, advisors, faculty and other student service personnel. The forum created by this group will not only address the needs of Native American students, but will engage the greater advising community in Native American educational issues.

Mark A. Bellcourt
University of Minnesota


American Indian Higher Education Consortium. (1999). Tribal Colleges: An Introduction.

Cajete, G. A. (2000). Native science natural laws of interdependence.

Marr, C.J. (2004). Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest. Retrieved on February 6, 2004 from http://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/marr.html

National Science Foundation. (2000). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. (Rep. No. NSF 00-327).

Pavel, M., Swisher, K., & Ward, M. (1994). Special focus: American Indian and Alaska Native demographic and educational trends. Minorities in Higher Education.

Taylor, J. S. (1999). America`s First People: Factors Which Affect Their Persistence in Higher Education.

Cite this article using APA style as: Bellcourt, M. (2004, February). Advising Native Americans in higher education. Academic Advising Today, 27(1). [insert url here]


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