American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges are unique institutions of higher education that cater specifically to the needs of Native American students to facilitate their educational achievement. Tribal colleges haves existed for more than thirty years and have grown in number to more than thirty individual institutions. They are governed by Native American nations and tribes, but they remain separate from the reservation governments. They stress Native values and service to Native communities, while providing the essentials of a typical educational experience beyond secondary level. A traditional liberal arts curriculum is taught from a Native perspective, with an emphasis on preparing students for success in either their tribal community or beyond.


Since first contact with Europeans, American Indians have been stripped of large parts of their homelands, their means of subsistence, and, in some cases, almost every facet of their cultures, including language, religion, and even family ties. Wherever Native American peoples have managed to hold together the remaining fragments of their culture it has been a community effort. When these communities have had disagreements, they have generally resolved them by consensus, procedures still used today. Now, many of these communities have been able to reconstruct their fragmented cultures, as best they can, in a new venue: tribally controlled community colleges (TCCCs).

During the second half of the twentieth century, American Indians began to assert their entitlement to national sovereignty, legally, economically, and culturally. This assertiveness led to empowerment, which in turn led to the acts signed into U.S. law allowing for Indian self-determination. One of these acts is the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978.


During the 1960s, the civil rights movement was affecting change across the nation. Newly active minority groups were embroidering their specific ideas for justice into the social fabric of the United States, often by force. The Nixon administration responded to this outcry by acting on the ideals set in place during the Kennedy administration. The Indian Empowerment Assistance Program was manifested in signing into law several acts to encourage and assist Native American nations and tribes to create a new future for themselves (Boxberger, 1989, 130–132). A series of new federal laws resulted from this program, including the Indian Financing Act of 1974, the Indian Education Acts of 1972 and 1974, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (Boyer, 1989, 24).

Possibly the most important and most empowering act to have come out of this era is the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 (Boyer, 1989, 24). This act provides the basis for a system of institutions of higher education that would operate in accordance with a unique set of principles and guidelines based on Native values and traditions. The Act makes it possible to acquire an education that shares, rather than stifles, the worldview of its Native American students.

Each TCCC is chartered by a specific tribe or tribes. Most are governed by boards made up of tribal community members, which operate with autonomy from the tribal government (Boyer, 1989, 32).

Generally, the presidents of these colleges and their administrative staffs are Native Americans, and often the positions are held by women; roughly one-third of the presidents were women at the time of Boyer's study (Boyer, 1989, 32).


These centers of Native American education offer an opportunity to reconstruct the missing elements of tribal cultures and to reverse the economic decay that afflicts Native peoples. These schools can provide a way of regaining self-esteem and a sense of autonomy, viable options for the control of common resources and local prosperity, without compromising traditional tribal values.

Tribal colleges seek not to transport students to a life in the past, but to understand the past as the origin of traditional Native values that can offer a sound coping mechanism for contemporary life and the basis for a future in which Native peoples can find self-realization and continued self-determination. At the same time, tribal colleges can prepare students to manage their own affairs and those of their communities, thus breaking the cycle of dependency (Boyer, 1989, 51–52).

Both individual students and communities in which they live can profit from the reconstruction and revitalization of tribal culture that occurs in the reservation community colleges. In an effort to reestablish the knowledge and pride in tribal heritage, the tribally controlled institutions create what can be described as a cultural renaissance in the communities they serve (Boyer, 1989, 52–53).

The important distinction to be made about the Native American experience in a tribal college, compared to that of a non-Indian institution, is that value is placed on tribal knowledge, beliefs, and lifeways; in other words, the tribal college builds self-esteem and pride in the Native heritage. In addition, students in Native community colleges are also provided a viable education in mainstream areas of study, so that they are prepared for careers in the world inside or outside the tribal realm (Boyer, 1989, 54).

When a core group of tribal college graduates achieves academic success and becomes educational and community leaders, their accomplishments serve entire communities. For example, a growing number of Indian graduates are entering the ranks of tribal teaching staffs. Graduates who remain on their reservations after graduation offer the seeds of social stability, economic growth, and future leadership (Boyer, 1989, 60).

An important aspect of Indians teaching Indians is the creation of an environment that emphasizes traditional cultures. An ability to transcend the shortcomings of European language, for example, is necessary to comprehend such ideas as the "numinous" aspects of Native American culture, such as the infusion of divinity into the natural world (Boxberger, 1989, 133).


Many faculty positions at tribal colleges are filled by non-Indians. However, Native Americans fill most administrative positions and account for most of the student body. Tribal colleges are working to produce more Native American teachers. Due to failed policies of the past, however, Indian instructors are scarce. Fortunately, many of the available non-Indian instructors understand the individual and common needs and are aware of community values. Often they come to Native communities planning to stay for a short time. Still other non-Indian instructors make their homes in Native communities and are accepted by the members of tribes with whom they work (Boyer, 1989, 32–33).

Short-time faculty often keep programs going, only to be replaced. Such turnover changes the character of programs and upsets their continuity, affecting the perceptions of students. A high turnover rate of faculty and staff can be attributed to a combination of factors such as isolation, low pay, and heavy teaching loads compared to their colleagues' at non-Indian community colleges (Boyer, 1989, 33).

However, many institutions forge strong, lasting administrations, and manage the frequent changes well. This relative lack of turmoil is one of the goals of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium: to promote the kind of professional relationships in the administration that will reduce pressure and create a stable environment and working relations for tribal and college administrators (Boyer, 1989, 33).


At the heart of any discussion about education are the students. Without them, all other facets of education are irrelevant. No matter what their ethnicity or cultural background, all students enter education with some learned behaviors, outlooks on life, and patterns of learning and understanding, or lifeways, already in place. Many students share attributes of the dominant or mainstream society, and their life-ways are similar. Learning within the mainstream methodology is relatively easy for them. However, many members of minorities—American Indians among them—have their own unique lifeways. These lifeways may be fragmented, but they are still ingrained and still different from those of mainstream students. Thus, learning and understanding in a mainstream environment may prove to be extremely difficult for them. This, coupled with many forms of ethnic bias, can cause an individual of any minority group—in this case, an American Indian—to have a negative self-image and low self-esteem. When one of the fundamental differences in lifeways is the method of learning or understanding, then persons in a minority may believe that they are intellectually incapable of academic success.

Jim Cummins has written that most Western indigenous groups "have been conquered, subjugated, segregated, and regarded as inherently inferior by the dominant group. Educational failure is regarded by the dominant group as the natural consequence of the minority group's inherent inferiority" (Cummins, 1988, 3). This idea not only becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but part of the generational, stereotypical baggage that the members of this group have to bear.

Students at Native-controlled colleges are typically older than most college students (about twenty-nine to thirty-three years of age). Most are women, and most (as high as 68 percent in some colleges) have children. In the Native-controlled colleges that Boyer cited, more than half of the students were unemployed the year before attending school; up to 98 percent below Census Bureau poverty guidelines. Most students attending tribal colleges are residents of the reservation. Many Indian students see the tribal college as a place to transition from high school to a non-Indian college (Boyer, 1989, 31).

Daniel R. Gibbs

Further Reading
Boyer, P. 1989. Tribal Colleges: Shaping the Future of Native America. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Web site of the Foundation; Cummins, Jim. 1988. "The Empowerment of Indian Students." In Teaching American Indian Students. Edited by Jon Reyhner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Reyhner, Jon. 1988. Teaching American Indian Students. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Szasz, Margaret Connell. 1977. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination Since 1928. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; "Tribal Colleges: An Introduction." No date. Prepared by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, The Institute for Higher Education Policy. Available at: Accessed January 20, 2007.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer