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In Our Own Best Interest: A (Brief) History of Tribal Colleges in America

Les Ridingin, Native American and Tribal Colleges Interest Group Chair
Robert Longwell-Grice, Native American and Tribal Colleges Interest Group Member
Adrienne Thunder, Native American and Tribal Colleges Interest Group Member


Native Americans have attended college in the United States since colonial times. Unfortunately, the experience of most Native students at predominantly White institutions has not been entirely positive (Boyer, 1997). Although images of uneducated, needy Indians were used by educators to increase giving to colleges, only a small percentage of the funds collected actually went toward the education of Native Americans (Huff, 1997, Wright, 1995). Instead, these funds often were used to further the schools’ economic and political interests, which often included adding to the endowment.


As westward expansion threatened Native land, colleges became acculturation agents, using education of Native Americans for assimilation into the predominant culture. Indians were not, understandably, eager to accept these offers of education. The Seneca Chief Red Jacket, commenting upon these efforts, said, “Instead of producing that happy effect which you so long promised us, its introduction so far has rendered us uncomforted and miserable. You have taken a number of our young men to your schools. You have educated them and taught them your religion. They have returned to their kindred and color neither white men nor Indians. The arts they have learned are incompatible with the chase and ill adapted to our customs. They have been taught that which is useless to us” (Velie, 1979).


Although times have clearly changed over the past two hundred plus years Native Americans have attended U.S. colleges and universities, the latest data (2002) shows that American Indians represent “less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in college,” and they earned “0.7 percent of all associates, bachelors, and advanced degrees conferred that year” (U.S. Department of Education, as cited by Guillory and Wolverton, 2008). Two major barriers still remain for Native Americans: the struggle to get into college and, if admitted, the struggle to successfully complete a degree. The desire to remove these barriers was behind the start of the Tribal College movement.

Bennett and Okinaka (1990) connect an “inhospitable climate” on most predominantly White campuses to the low matriculation and high dropout rate of Native Americans on these same campuses. Furthermore, the diversity of heritage and customs within the Native population is often ignored and rarely acknowledged (Longwell-Grice and Longwell-Grice, 2003). Inaccurate, exaggerated and homogenized representations of the history and culture of American Indians continue to be written by scholars who never visited Indian country (Mihesuah, 2004). When combined with the developmental issues that typical students encounter during their initial college years, it is understandable why American Indians sought other ways to obtain a college degree.

According to Crum (1989), the idea for Indian colleges has been around since 1911, but Crum (2007) argues that three major developments of the 1960s lead to the development of the Tribal College consortium. These developments were the:

  • rise of Indian activism in the 1960s,
  • socioeconomic reforms of the Great Society, and
  • notion of Indian self-determination, which surfaced in the 1960s and became policy in the 1970s.

Crum (2007) noted that tribal people of the 1960s were fully aware that the dominant society had never encouraged higher education for the vast majority of Native Americans. In order to carry out self-determination, Native Americans sought to create Native run colleges. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC, 2008) asserts that Tribal Colleges were created “in response to the higher education needs of American Indians and generally serve geographically isolated populations that have no other means of accessing education beyond the high school level” (¶ 2).

The Navajo Community College, renamed Dine College in 1997, was established in July 1968, and was the first Indian-controlled Tribal College built on an Indian reservation (Crum, 2007). Through steady growth, the number of Tribal Colleges has increased to 39, and the number of students served now numbers over 17,000 (AIHEC, 2008). As dramatic as this success appears, however, Tribal Colleges continue to struggle due to their limited funding, poor facilities, and geographical isolation.

Shanley (2003) pointed out that, unlike traditional community colleges, Tribal Colleges cannot rely on taxation revenue from the community due to the largely impoverished areas they serve. Initially, Tribal Colleges were funded under the Tribally Controlled College or University Act. However, to qualify for federal funding, the Tribal College must have satisfied an eligibility study that many Tribal College leaders believed to be purposely difficult to limit funding (Shanley, 2003). Colleges that did receive funding were still under the auspices of the federal government, reinforcing hegemonic relationships. Tribal College leaders began to search for alternate funding strategies.

New, innovative funding strategies combined with limited, often painful, funding decisions became the new funding formula (Benham, 2003). Fortunately, as Tribal Colleges gain the trust of the communities they serve, the benefits to these communities emerge. For example, as more American Indians graduate from Tribal Colleges, the number of American Indian businesses that directly impact the tribal community has increased. Clement (2006) explained that from 1997 to 2002, in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, the growth of Indian-owned businesses was notably higher than growth for firms in general. Specifically, Clement (2006) cited statistics showing that in South Dakota Indian-owned businesses jumped 37 percent during that time compared to six percent for other businesses.

While communities are benefiting, Tribal Colleges still answer their original mission to graduate American Indians whose needs would not have been met at predominantly white institutions. Boyer (1997), in a survey of Tribal College students, found that students who enroll in Tribal Colleges bring with them a long list of needs – academic, personal and financial – that place a heavy load on Tribal Colleges. According to Boyer, while Tribal College students were critical of the services and facilities these Tribal Colleges offered, they were unanimous in their praise for the warmth and encouragement members of the campus community provided. Boyer described Tribal College faculty as “heroic figures” who made extra efforts to understand student needs, help them succeed, build their confidence, and become trusted advisors and true friends.

Thanks to a combination of Indian activism, federal support, and the desire for self-determination, Tribal Colleges have flourished. Today, Tribal Colleges are recognized as unique institutions making broad economic, social, and cultural impacts on the students and communities they serve. This impact has come despite severe under funding, high rates of poverty in the communities they serve, and poor facilities. Despite these challenges, Tribal Colleges continue to flourish and make their mark on American higher education.

Les Ridingin
University of Texas at Arlington
[email protected]

Robert Longwell-Grice
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
[email protected]

Adrienne Thunder
University of Wisconsin-Madison
[email protected]


AIHEC (2008). Tribal Colleges: An introduction. Retrieved September 16, 2008 fromwww.aihec.org

Benham, A. N. and Stein, W. J. (2003). The renaissance of American Indian higher education: Capturing the dream. Eric Document Reproduction Service No. 469366.

Bennett, C. and Okinaka, A. (1990). Factors relating to persistence among Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White undergraduates at a predominantly White university: Comparison between first and fourth year cohorts. Urban Review, 22, 33-60.

Boyer, P. (1997). First survey of Tribal College students reveals attitudes. Tribal College Journal, Fall, 36-41.

Clement, D. (2006). Growth by degrees. Fedgazette. Retrieved July 6, 2008 fromwww.minneapolisfed.org/pubs/fedgaz/06-03/degrees.cfm.

Crum, S. (1989). The idea of an Indian college or university in twentieth century America before the foundation of the Navajo community college in 1968. Tribal College Journal,Summer, 20-23.

Crum, S. (2007). Indian activism, the Great Society, Indian self-determination, and the drive for an Indian college or university, 1964-1971. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 31, 1-20.

Guillory, R. and Wolverton, M. (2008). It’s about family: Native American student persistence in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 79, 58-87.

Huff, P. S. (1976). Educational colonialism: The American Indian experience. Harvard Graduate School of Education Association Bulletin, 20, 2-6.

Longwell-Grice, R., and Longwell-Grice, H. (2003). Chiefs, braves, and tomahawks: The use of American Indians as university mascots. NASPA Journal, 40, 1-12.

Mihesuah, Devon (2004). Academic Gatekeepers. In D.A. Mihesuah & A.C. Wilson (Eds.),Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities (p. 90). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Shanley, J. (2003). Limitations and alternatives to developing a Tribally-controlled College. In M. Bernham and W. Stein (Eds.), The Renaissance of American Indian Higher Education: Capturing the Dream (pp 61-72). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Velie, A. R. (1979 ). American Indian literature: An anthology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wright, B. (1995). The broken covenant: American Indian missions in the colonial colleges.Tribal College Journal, Summer, 28-33.

Cite this article using APA style as: Ridingin, L., Longwell-Grice, R., & Thunder, A. (2008, December). In our own best interest: A (brief) history of tribal colleges in American. Academic Advising Today, 31(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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