Tribal Colleges: Changing Lives, Changing Reservations
If you are looking for an espresso in Pine Ridge, you can go across the street from the Piya Wiconi Center of the Oglala Lakota College, near Kyle, South Dakota. From spurring economic development to serving as a center for free lectures, events and celebrations, tribal colleges are not just strengthening their students but are improving their communities in many other ways as well.
Tom Short Bull, the Oglala OLC president, agrees that the college has had an effect on the entire reservation. “We employ 340 people, and we recently took over the Head Start program, which is a major asset to the reservation. We also got a $125,000 award for Civic Engagement, and we built safe houses for suicide prevention, offer support for athletic initiatives like getting soccer on the reservation for the kids and supporting parents who take their kids to tournaments by giving them travel money.”
“We are the fabric of reservation life,” Short Bull said. “Now that we have the early childhood Head Start, and we have people in their 70s taking classes, college life here is from the womb to the tomb.”
From the youngest, bright-eyed students who are just beginning their educational journey to the older students who are juggling classes, jobs and child rearing, tribal colleges benefit entire communities.
“I am so proud of my school,” gushed Waniya Locke, 22, the granddaughter of Patricia Locke, who established 17 colleges in Lakota country and more in other areas. Like her grandmother, it is Waniya’s culture, history and language that inspires her the most.
“The thought process, that is what’s endangered,” Waniya, Standing Rock Lakota, said about the importance of retaining the language. “We don’t want it to be English and Dakota; it has to be Dakota. It is phenomenal to be a part of this movement, to think my grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren are going to be affected by what I am doing now, it’s so monumental!”
Waniya makes a point of volunteering each week in the college’s immersion school for children as a way of maintaining and strengthening her own language skills, and she is looking forward to participating in archiving the language through the college.
If education makes dreams come true, Dominic Clichee, 25, Navajo, enthusiastically explained how his time at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, worked for him. “Growing up, I wanted to be a basketball player, so the most amazing thing for me was getting to work at Nike headquarters. I am only five-foot-seven and people always asked what I wanted to be, and I always said in the NBA. I even had my mom shave the Nike swish into my hair,” he laughed.
Clichee played basketball at a mainstream college, but he was cut from the team by an incoming coach. He left the East Coast and, Clichee said, “Following my basketball dreams led me to Haskell, and even though I didn’t become an NBA player, it led me to working with Nike.”
While Clichee ultimately chose to go into the medical field, his internship with the Nike N7 Program enabled him to meet several professional basketball players and athletes, including Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams, Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox, and Alvina Begay, a marathon runner in the U.S. Olympic trials.
“Without going to the tribal college I never would have had those opportunities. It opened so many doors for me.” Clichee has now completed his Masters in Public Health, and writes community health needs assessments for his hometown. Crediting the American Indian College Fund, he said, “They are such a great organization and without them my dreams wouldn’t have been possible.”
For Ruby Herrera, 31, her dream came true when she took a leap of faith and left Phoenix, where she had spent much of her life. After visiting an aunt in North Dakota, she decided to give Sitting Bull College a try.
As a single parent, Herrera, Standing Rock Lakota and Mexican, had been working full-time, raising her three children and attending nursing school. Money was tight, and there were so many bills to pay. Herrera said, “Sometimes I would end up getting food boxes at the church, but that was okay, as long as there was food on the table.”
When her aunt suggested she look into Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, it didn’t seem to make sense. But when she realized she had advanced as far as she could in her job in Phoenix, thoughts of transferring began to creep into her mind. “I didn’t know about living on the reservation. I am a city girl,” Herrera said.
Herrera’s children were unhappy about the move. They would be leaving all of the friends they had gown up with. But Herrera told them to look at what was best for the family, and in the end, “The kids adjusted quicker than I did, and I am happy with the elementary and middle schools here,” she said.
Academically, Herrera said there were major benefits to being in the nursing program at the tribal school. “What I like about Sitting Bull College is it’s small,” she said. “I think there are only 250 students. It’s more calm, more like family, and you see the same faces everyday. I am not used to that. Another huge difference, the class sizes are smaller and I get more one-on-one with the instructor. My biology class in Phoenix had 60 to 70 students. Now, there are five, 10, maybe 15 in a class. I know my friends don’t get that individualized attention.”
The city girl seems to have adapted well to country life. “Upon graduation, I plan on staying here. I love the country. It’s peaceful, even if it’s a little irritating to go an hour to Walmart. I have to plan a trip, but overall I like it better.”
Herrera is excited to be reconnecting with her Lakota/Dakota history and culture. “It’s an important aspect of who I am. I was raised mostly with Mexican history and culture, and my grandmother was the only one who taught me to count in Lakota. Now I am learning about my Lakota side, and I feel proud to say I am Native American, too.
Her children are also learning their culture, and after Herrera took a six-week Lakota language class, she said, “When people speak, I find myself looking for words that I understand.”
All of that is just the beginning of the benefits. “My first semester here was paid by the American Indian College Fund. In Phoenix, I had to pay my own housing, electricity, gas for the car or other expenses; kids need equipment for sports, and I had to do it all on my own. Now, my tuition was funded, I got a higher education scholarship from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”
Herrera lives across from the college in the college’s family housing, which is paid out of a Pell grant, and she no longer has to drive on a daily basis. Her children are dropped off at home, and almost all of the expenses Herrera faced have disappeared. “Sometimes I look back and don’t know how I did it,” she sighed.
Herrera says her 12-year-old told her recently, “You know, Mom, I was kind of upset about moving. But I can see you are not so worried anymore,” and Herrera added, “I didn’t know they knew, but kids are so intuitive and they know that it gets so hard sometimes. She said she’s so proud of me. Who knew what kids notice!”
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