Trustee Talk, Issue 16: Tribal Colleges Remain Unique to Preserve Indigenous Culture


How do Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) differ from mainstream colleges in the United States?


Tribal Colleges and Universities are public institutions open to both Native and non-Native students. They serve 30,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). 

Compared to America’s mainstream rural and urban colleges, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are unique in size, location, governance, funding, curriculum, and spirit. A tribal college’s enrollment can be small, ranging from 95 students to a few hundred, but larger TCUs such as Diné College in Arizona or Navajo Technical University in New Mexico each has well over a thousand students. (See enrollment chart, p. XX.)  According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), approximately 37 TCUs operate more than 75 campuses and sites in the United States, with a student/faculty ratio of 8:1. More than half of the 573 federally recognized tribes are represented at TCUs in more than 30 states. 

Tribal colleges are much like other institutions of higher education in many expected ways. However, they also differ in essential ways.

Perpetuating the culture

Tribal colleges and universities are charged with preserving tribal cultures, values, and traditions. Much of the culture is based on Native American beliefs about nature and spirituality, and TCUs focus on maintaining that culture and identity, along with preserving Native languages.

“Because of who we are, our ancestry, and our connection to all of creation, Indigenous people cannot separate our existence as human beings from our spiritual selves,” says Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College in North Dakota (Tribal College, v. 30, No. 2, Winter 2018). 

Cultural identity is the prime value at a TCU, and the most significant characteristic. To accommodate this essential characteristic of what student success means to a TCU, an additional indicator — successful completion of academic core Native American Studies — is required. 

This need to sustain heritage and identity is extremely important for TCUs and their communities. Historically, Native children were taken away from their families to be divested of their language and culture in federal boarding schools. Lindquist says that all community college leaders can expand their perspectives of inclusion, equity, and how to provide holistic mind-body-spirit support to students by collaborating with TCUs.  

Nation building and sovereignty

According to AIHEC, “TCUs provide a social and cultural foundation for engaging AI/ANs in college access and completion through community-based research, wraparound support, and social entrepreneurship for Nation building. TCUs work closely with tribes, communities, and schools to provide education and career pathways.” 

Along with native spirituality, nation building and sovereignty are critical aspects to tribal colleges, which are often the social and economic development hubs of their remote reservation communities. The emphasis on sovereignty is based on past history. At ACCT Governance Institute for Student Success (GISS) events, tribal leaders enjoy all speakers and networking opportunities, but prefer Indigenous speakers and embrace opportunities to exchange best practices with other TCUs. Opportunities to celebrate and share Native American culture and identity are pivotal whenever ACCT organizes a GISS institute or other event with AIHEC and the tribal colleges. 

Culture-based curriculum

In mainstream U.S. colleges and regional accrediting agencies, there is a premium on quantitative assessment, measuring how well a college is doing based on its enrollment, retention, and completion numbers. Such indicators also are important to TCUs, but they argue that the quantitative assessments alone cannot accurately reflect how well their students perform or how well the colleges are addressing institutional goals. Given that cultural competency is a critical measure of student success for TCUs, assessing cultural identity presents a conundrum for the colleges, requiring qualitative strategies. 

“Programs placed in a cultural context are perceived by students to be more comfortable and welcoming,” says Pearl Brower, president of Iḷisaġvik College in Alaska. To address cultural relevance as a component of student success, TCUs like Iḷisaġvik incorporate culture into the curriculum. According to Brower, TCUs use place-based and culture-based curricula to help students apply concepts to their own experience. Brower describes the student preparation for college similar to family preparations for camping, a traditional Iñupiaq activity. As part of contextualized learning, math courses use the context of traditional activities and objects. “Calculating how much wood is needed to construct an Iñupiaq drum is more engaging than calculating the circumference and area of a circle,” Brower explains. 

Federally funded, tribally controlled

TCUs are funded in part by the United States federal government, and yet are tribally controlled by tribal governing authorities. College presidents, for example, are most often selected by the respective Tribal Councils. 

Located in seven of the 10 poorest U.S. counties, TCUs are place-based institutions, typically situated on a reservation or lands reserved for Native Americans. According to AIHEC, nearly 80 percent of TCU students receive federal financial aid, and while the TCUs operate in some of the most impoverished areas of the country, the colleges “plant resilient seeds of hope and help rebuild tribal economies.”

Vast Service Areas

TCU service areas often are geographically remote and vast. In Tsaile, Arizona, for example, Diné College serves the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation. Established by the Lummi Nation, Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington, serves the tri-state reservation communities of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The 1,938-square-mile Flathead Indian Reservation is served by Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, Montana, and SKC also has three satellite locations in eastern Washington State.  One of seven tribal community colleges in Montana, Fort Peck Community College is located on the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Reservation in the state’s northeast corner, which encompasses over 2 million acres or 3,200 square miles. Comparatively, less than 50 miles separates seven community colleges along the Interstate 5 corridor in Washington State (Everett, Edmonds, Shoreline, North Seattle, Seattle Central, South Seattle, and Highline).

Serving the underserved

When it comes to the issue of equity, the TCUs are prime examples of colleges that foster development and growth for underserved students. While 2018 Fast Facts from the American Association of Community Colleges reports that only 1 percent of all undergraduates are Native American students, TCUs suffer all the ills and issues traditional two-year colleges around the county do, with many challenges exacerbated by geography and poverty. Alcoholism and suicide are widespread concerns. At a 2016 Governance Institute for Student Success hosted by ACCT for TCUs, primary concerns for the colleges and their students included pride, poverty, weakness, ignorance, and politics, but participants also identified the ways forward: hope, pride, inclusiveness, unity, culture, perseverance, collaboration, and resiliency. And in spite of hardship, resiliency epitomizes the strength of the TCUs over the past 50-plus years.

Looking ahead

Despite institutional designs and goals that differ from other community and technical colleges in some fundamental ways, TCUs are equally invested in improving student outcomes and are taking strides to do so in a number of ways. Thirty-three of the 37 TCUs have, at one time or another, participated in ACCT’s Governance Institute for Student Success in an effort to advance institutional outcomes.  

While great progress has been made, more needs to be done to continue equitable outcomes for AI/AN youth. Most importantly, TCUs are now looking ahead. Both elders and young people now comprise the colleges’ governing boards, and greater engagement has been obvious. TCUs are adding new programs, and new avenues for workforce and economic development are now being explored, particularly relating to the environment and sustainable development. Today there is an urgency to support higher education to develop a Native American workforce that can grow and prosper in today’s changing world yet still maintain their distinctive cultural ways of life. 

In most cases, TCUs now are on a new track. They are applying best practices and data-informed governance to address students’ needs. AIHEC’s motto, “Sovereign nations through excellence in Tribal Higher Education,” inspires the TCUs. All TCUs now offer associate degree programs, 15 offer baccalaureate degree programs, and five offer master’s programs. According to Achieving the Dream, more American Indian students who attended high schools on reservations complete college at TCUs than when they attend mainstream institutions.

TCUs provide access to quality, low-cost higher education. The average annual tuition of under $3,000 makes TCU education among the most affordable in the nation, according to AIHEC. “We see the change,” says AIHEC President and CEO Carrie Billie. “There is progress.”

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the association.

Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein