October 14, 1998
|Tom Bearden reports on colleges on Indian reservations and how they fare against other colleges.|
JIM LEHRER: Tom Bearden has the Indian college story.
TOM BEARDEN: In many ways graduation day at Sinte Gleske University is like graduation at any other college. Friends and family turn out for the celebration. There's a commencement speaker and talk of hope for the future.
SPEAKER: I believe that our future is our past and how we interpret it and how we preserve our practices and traditions.
TOM BEARDEN: And then, one by one, the graduates are called onto a stage to receive their diplomas. But there are some real differences as well. The graduates each receive an Eagle feather in their hair; their diplomas are printed in the Lakota language on calfskin leather. And the ceremony is capped off with an entire weekend of activities, including a rodeo, and a powwow. Although these rituals may not be commonplace at most state and private schools, they are at the 30 tribal colleges which have been established on Indian reservations over the last 30 years. The schools are located primarily in the upper Midwest and Southwestern parts of the country. Enrollment has doubled over the past 10 years to about 25,000 students, representing 250 different tribes. Sinte Gleske was founded in 1971 and was named for a Lakota warrior chief. It's located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in remote South Central South Dakota in a county that has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Sinte, as it's known for short, offers two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees.
ANN VALANDRA, Class of 1998: I would just like to extend the deep appreciation to my family that has helped me reach this goal, and to the Sinte Gleske University day care and the administration and staff. They have allowed me opportunities that I would not otherwise have received at any other college. Thank you.
TOM BEARDEN: Ann Valandra graduated this year from Sinte Gleske with a degree in business administration. Before coming here, she had attended the University of South Dakota, but ultimately dropped out because she felt alone and isolated so far away from her family.
ANN VALANDRA: My Grandpa Tom has always stressed that heritage and your roots are very important and to, you know, always surround yourself with a good, stable family system. And so that's pretty much why I came home, because I was so much involved in my family that I, you know, I just didn't think I could be that far away from them.
TOM BEARDEN: A single mother, Valandra is a typical graduate of the University. 70 percent of the students are women, the average age is 30, and most have several children. The University helps students stay in college by providing day care and allow women to bring their children to class. Tuition is just over $2,000 a year. About half of the students receive some form of financial aid. Class size is small, sometimes as few as four, so students receive a great deal of personal attention. A wide range of courses are offered and are designed to help students get jobs after graduation, including accounting, education, computer science, even silversmithing. But the core of the curriculum and the only required courses are those in the Lakota Studies Program. Even though about 85 percent of the students at Sinte are from the Lakota Tribe, most know little of tribal history and even less about Lakota language and customs.
ALBERT WHITE HAT, Teacher, Lakota Studies: All native American philosophy and traditions were outlawed.
TOM BEARDEN: Albert White Hat teaches Lakota language and philosophy classes. He says too often students have only negative images of their heritage.
ALBERT WHITE HAT: We're not to be trusted. We're savages. And recently we're drunks; we're lazy. I mean, that's the image they always portray of us. We grew up seeing that, so when we get into public place, without thinking, we become that image.
TOM BEARDEN: White Hat says studying Lakota traditions gives students self-respect.
ALBERT WHITE HAT: We notice that these students - boy, their minds open up - they challenge what's out there. A lot of them sober up, you know, and change their lives. It's wonderful to dream again. It's wonderful to have visions again, and it's wonderful to have ways of addressing those visions, those dreams, and making them into reality.
TOM BEARDEN: Tribal colleges were the dreams of Indian leaders more than 40 years ago. They were established to provide a nurturing atmosphere on the reservation that Indian students weren't receiving when they left go to state and private schools. The physical plants at most of the tribal colleges are more like a nightmare, a rag tag assortment of decrepit buildings and old trailers. Dorm rooms are scarce or non-existent. Athletic facilities are often nothing more than a basketball hoop. The faculty, who have mainly been educated at non-tribal colleges, are paid far less than their colleagues at other schools. The average teacher's salary at a tribal school is just over $24,000. The federal government provides all of the tribal colleges with a core amount of about $30 million a year. That averages out to about $3,000 per full-time student. Additional money comes from special government grants and from private organizations like the Kellogg and Lannan Foundations, both of which are major contributors to Sinte. Lionel Bordeaux is the president of Sinte Gleska. He says money is their biggest challenge.
LIONEL BORDEAUX, President, Sinte Gleska: We need to keep the funding stream going. We're able to serve student needs. We provide student needs academically and culturally, but we're very meager on resources. We've been able to stretch a dollar a long way, as you see from this building here. These are OSHA-condemned buildings that these institutions started in, and, yet, this is a way of life with tribal colleges.
TOM BEARDEN: Many applaud tribal colleges for their mere survival but some say it's time for them to focus on what they are and what they want to be in the future. William Tierney is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and the author of a book about tribal colleges. He notes that tribal colleges have been around for 30 years and need to assess what's successful and what isn't.
WILLIAM TIERNEY, University of Southern California: Are they as rigorous as they can be? Probably not. They - like so many other higher education institutions - don't have extremely clear indicators of what a quality education or quality curriculum is. If you think of academic rigor, in some ways tied to the faculty, do the faculty at tribal colleges have as good training as - or sufficient training as other faculty at other institutions? I think tribal colleges, themselves, would say probably not, and in large part that is a response to - they just don't have enough resources to survive.
TOM BEARDEN: Tierney says the colleges also suffer from trying to do too many things for too many people, and as a result, teaching becomes more about maintenance than excellence.
WILLIAM TIERNEY: They need to decide on a case by case basis which kind of education and training they want to do, because they can't be all things to all people. If they want to focus primarily on jobs and employment and in that sense a certificate or an AA degree is a terminal degree, or do they want to be a transition to a four-year institution or become four-year institutions, themselves? And you can't do all of those. There's finite resources right now.
TOM BEARDEN: One of the aims of the tribal colleges is to improve living conditions on the reservations. The hope is that college educated Indians will stay on the reservation to start businesses and spur economic development. Although most graduates do remain and 90 percent of them are employed, real improvements have been slow in coming. Unemployment on the Rosebud Reservation, for example, is still nearly 80 percent. 30 percent of the children never complete high school, and alcoholism is still a very real problem. Nevertheless, residents say Sinte Gleske has had a profound effect on their community. A major one has been providing many more Indian teachers for elementary and secondary schools.
TOM BEARDEN: Shirley Gunhammer graduated from Sinte with both an undergraduate and a master's degree in education. She's been teaching at the elementary school in Rosebud since 1982 and has won several state and national awards for her work. Gunhammer says Sinte has affected even the first and second graders she's taught over the years. She says they have an appreciation for education that kids 30 and 40 years ago didn't have.
SHIRLEY GUNHAMMER, Class of 1982: The major important thing that I see within the students that I teach is the fact that they are proud of their education because they have their parents or grandparents or aunts or brothers or sisters going to Sinte, and they participate in activities at Sinte with them, and they're just really excited about higher education.
TOM BEARDEN: Sinte Gleske and the other tribal colleges hope to build on that excitement to use the unique cultures of their tribes to foster a new tradition of higher education among native Americans. They believe that would go a long way toward solving the seemingly intractable social and economic problems that have long plagued America's Indian Reservations.