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For Native Americans, teaching is resistance

When John Blackhawk, interim president of Little Priest Tribal College, asked the class of ’98 to ascend the stage of the community center to say a few words, all five graduates came forward. Beginning with Amy Bearskin, each spoke for a few minutes, expressing thanks to their parents and promising their professors -- four full-time and 11 adjunct -- that this day’s success would lead to more.

Not that it was much noticed beyond the sere hills of the Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa, with the Missouri River in between, but the commencement ceremony had two links with history: one making it; the other remembering.

This was the first graduating class at Little Priest, a two-year associate degree college offering 43 core courses and 24 electives to some 100 students. Two-thirds are adults, three-fourths women. The Little Priest campus, which has one building atop a hill that is a pasture and creekbed or two away from the tribe’s buffalo herd, is named after the Winnebago chief whose dying words in 1866 to his community were: “There is nothing more I can do for you. Be strong and educate my children.”

The remembrance of history goes back to the 1832 treaty between the Winnebagos and the administration of Andrew Jackson, one of the most anti-Indian presidents in U.S. history. It required that the tribe cede 7 million acres of arable land in the central Missouri Valley to the well-armed white outsiders. In exchange, the government promised piddling rewards to the straitened Winnebagos: 12 yokes of oxen, 1,500 pounds of tobacco and a school to impart “whatever knowledge the president of the United States would prescribe.”

For 166 years the Winnebagos, with 1,200 members currently on the reservation and 3,800 on the roll, has had its own views on what “useful knowledge” should be dispensed. Forced assimilation, the devaluation of traditional culture, attacks on tribal sovereignty, boarding schools and other forms of paternalism by federal officials assured that the tribe’s potential for independence went untapped.

Educationally, that changed in August 1996. The Winnebagos opened Little Priest College, with John Blackhawk telling me at the first-day ceremonies that the school is “an institution of survival.” Start-up funding of $500,000 came from the tribe’s casino income.

Little Priest Tribal College is the latest display of self-reliance and educational excellence in Indian country. The school is one of 31 Native American colleges in 11 states. Such schools as Turtle Mountain Community College, N.D., Salish Kootenai College, Mont., Oglala Lakota College, S.D., and the rest are enrolling some 20,000 students from more than 200 tribes.

In 1968, I covered the opening of the first tribal college at Tsaile, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation. The early promise of that day has been fulfilled: Some 10,000 students have graduated, and current enrollment is about 1,500. Much of the 1968 funding for the Navajo Community College came from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Sargent Shriver, who directed the office, predicted at the time that Indian educators would be both knowledgeable and motivated to teach tribal languages, culture and history, and that little of this would be available in non-Indian schools.

The prediction has proved to be true. A 125-page report, “Native American Colleges: Progress and Prospects,” issued in 1997 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching summarized the findings of a survey of 1,600 Indian students. It showed that 69 percent were “very satisfied with the teaching at their college ... 68 percent strongly agreed that their professors enjoyed teaching, and 70 percent strongly agreed that the professors encouraged students to participate actively in classroom discussions.”

More than a third of the surveyed students had previously attended a non-Indian college or university: “Of those, 88 percent agreed that tribal college faculty are friendlier, and 93 percent agreed that more individual attention is shown to students at a tribal college. Finally, 72 percent agreed that the quality of instruction was higher at their tribal college.”

Taken together, Native American colleges are a statement of resistance -- against the political, economic and cultural power of the larger society that in the 19th century systematically sought to kill off Indians and, failing that, in the 20th century tried forcefully to assimilate them. Not only have Indians not gone away, they have shown, by their colleges, that a resurgence has begun. The curriculum at Little Priest is typical. In addition to the customary liberal arts courses in math, science, computers and English, credits are given for the study of Winnebago history and the tribe’s Ho-Chunk language, federal Indian law, American Indian women and Winnebago mythology.

Every calorie of this educational energy will be needed. In recent years, political attacks against tribes have increased. In the past two Republican Congresses, efforts have been made to weaken the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Amendments were offered to the Clean Water Act to strip tribes of their authority to regulate water policies on their reservations. Proposals were made to impose federal taxes on tribal gaming revenues. Indian Legal Services took hits, as did funding for Indian Health Services facilities. Tribal sovereign immunity has been attacked. Billions of dollars in the Interior Department’s trust fund for tribes have been mismanaged.

For Susan Williams, a Native American attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., whose father is a Dakota and mother a Chippewa and who taught Indian law at Harvard Law School for five years, the anti-Indian feelings showing up in Congress reflect the negativity seen nationally: “Many people in this country,” she told me, “including so-called open-minded liberals, do not take seriously the treaties that this government entered into with Indian nations. They feel that Indians are a species relegated to museums and are not an active, live people with the right of self-government. ... People fail to recognize there are three forms of government: federal, state and tribal. We’re in the Constitution.”

This legal tie to American power twins with the efforts of tribal colleges to preserve Native American identity, despite its devaluation by white-driven commercialization, romanticism, ignorance and violence. In the current issue of Fellowship magazine (published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960), James Juhnke and Valerie Schraq write: “The American myth of redemptive violence, which requires action, adventure, bloodshed and bluster, is a lie. It is especially so in the Native American case. The great Indian leaders who mobilized violent resistance were justifiably outraged and undeniably courageous. But they did not save their people.

“The true heroes of Native American history were those who resisted nonviolently. Native American culture was rescued and sustained by Indians who strove to avoid war and who picked up the pieces after repeated rounds of death and destruction. Indian ways of living survived because of the patient, persistent and creative traditionalism of ordinary men and women. ... Throughout history, Native Americans have adhered to a peace tradition in the face of violent conquest and upheaval. This tradition, though obscured in mainstream texts, provides a vital insight into a people for whom reconciliation is a way of life. It is an insight desperately needed if American society is to overcome the myth of redemptive violence and reconcile itself with its past.”

In 1972, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium was formed. In 1989, the tribes organized another power, the Indian College Fund, which raises money for student scholarships. One of this year’s scholarship winners is a Little Priest graduate, Rona Stealer, who has been accepted by the University of Nebraska. She plans to become a physician’s assistant and return to her Winnebago community to serve.

That’s another subject taught at Little Priest: the ideal of service. The faculty and administrators live it, and the students absorb it.

Colman McCarthy was for many years a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. He is an active pacifist and teaches peace studies around the nation.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998