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College Provides Cultural Education and Hope to American Indians - 2002-09-14

Since the first tribal college opened its doors in 1968, thousands of American Indian students have earned degrees without leaving their reservations… in surroundings rich in their cultural heritage. Now, one of the 33 tribal institutions is moving beyond its own borders in an attempt to educate other Indigenous people around the world. Jim Kent has the story of the Indigenous People's World University and the tribal leaders from the South Dakota Lakota Sioux and the New Zealand Maori who are working together to make this global educational network a reality.

When Lionel Bourdeaux was first asked to be president of then Sinte Gleska College, in 1972, he was given specific instructions by tribal elders regarding its future.

"In addition to the cultural preservation, in terms of talking about economic development and land use, they also talked about those who were less fortunate. That other parts of the world also had tribal people and as we went about our development and our business, and as we gained strength and visibility to always look toward the Four be of some assistance," Mr. Bourdeaux said.

Like most tribal colleges, Sinte Gleksa has had a steadying effect on the surrounding community, offering educational opportunities and hands-on cultural instruction for Indian students who might otherwise choose not to leave the reservation for a mainstream college. It provides much-needed employment opportunities in an area where jobs are scarce, and serves as a beacon of hope for those who see life on the reservation as a dead-end street. And it accomplishes all these things within an environment immersed in the traditions and culture of the Great Sioux Nation. Addressing this year's graduates, Mr. Bourdeaux said that is the school's continuing mission.

"...Our calling is cultural preservation. And that's a big, big tough challenge. How do we get our culture into each family? How do we get our culture into each classroom? A hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, a thousand years from now...will we still be distinguishable as a Lakota?" Mr. Bourdeaux said.

Lionel Bourdeaux said he feels the best way to keep the Lakota distinguishable as a people, is to become part of a higher education network that is independent of the current non-Indian system. Over the past 30 years, Sinte Gleska has gone from college to University status and has graduated more than 1,000 students. But Mr. Bourdeaux notes that even with that success, his school must still be accredited by educators who are not part of the American Indian culture.

"Education has been something that has really been removed from our authority. As a phase of self determination, we must validate who we are as a tribal people rather than have somebody who is not familiar with you, or of your race, come to your campus and tell you whether you're doing something...that's culturally relevant, or what have you. That is our responsibility. Only we can examine and only we know the truth about ourselves and we need to be able to develop textbooks that tell the truth as to who we are and not somebody else telling our people who they think we are," Mr. Bourdeaux said.

Like the Lakota, the Maori people have had their schools controlled by a non-Indigenous government. Rongo Watere, president of Maori University of New Zealand, points out that like the U.S. government's policies the system set up in Wellington has a history of leaving Indigenous students far behind the mainstream. In fact, it took a 1999 lawsuit against the New Zealand government to help Maori University get where it is today - with a student population of 40,000 and funding equal to that of the nation's other colleges.

Maori and Lakota educators first met three years ago, at an Indigenous People's Education Conference in Hawaii. Earlier this year in March, Mr. Bourdeaux visited New Zealand with a plan to establish a global network of native schools. Rongo Watere wholly supports the idea.

"This is an exciting concept that's been around for a while. We have high hopes for this organization and its ability to work with Indigenous people in higher education around the world to share ideas, to support each other, to make progress somewhat faster than we have done over the last one hundred and fifty years," he said.

Maori University board member Manaoterangi Forbes says the idea of a World University grew out of the strength and defiance of Indigenous peoples around the world.

"We're starting to take control of ourselves and teach our own peoples - whomever they may be, who we really are, and it's amazing when you actually find out who you are...but also within your culture and what your culture is, and also to maintain the cultural and family part of the culture. And uplift those values and share those values and teach those values to the people...who are part of their family who are part of their culture so that you can have the culture and the family and the language which is the foundation of it all together. And once you've got that, basically you can do anything," he said.

In an effort to reach that level of independence, Mr. Bourdeaux and other American Indian tribal college leaders met with the Maori once again last month at this year's Indigenous People's Education Conference in Alberta, Canada. By the end of the session, the World's Indigenous Higher Education Consortium had been formed… and so far, 150 institutions from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and Australia have signed on to the project.

With the largest enrollment of any college in New Zealand, Maori University has been at the forefront of the movement to retain the culture and language of the Maori people as well as provide them an education in familiar surroundings. University President Rongo Watere says that, like Lionel Bourdeaux, he wants to help other Indigenous people achieve the same results from establishing their own tribal colleges.

"I think a lot of the ideals that we have as Indigenous higher-tercery education providers, let us say, the retention of culture, the development of languages, the ability to provide degrees that lead to gainful employment, and there's so many difficulties in terms of establishing Indigenous colleges and Universities that it's important that we work together and share ideas," he said.

But Kiowa tribal member Jerry Bread, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma, cautions that the idea of an Indigenous World University may not be right for all tribal people. He says that Indian people today have such diverse opinions on what he calls "Indianism" that no one person, tribe or college can speak for the whole.

With 39 tribes and no tribal college in Oklahoma, Professor Bread says the preservation of tribal cultures and languages in his state must be the responsibility of teachers in non-tribal institutions and tribal governments.

"World? I'm still here in Oklahoma thinking about a Native American Oklahoma tribal college, and it hasn't happened yet. A lot of our tribal governments in our state want to do it at a local level. I think they would support but I don't know that they would be actively involved in the development of this concept of a World University. I don't oppose it by any means as an educator, but I'm more focused, like many of us are, right here on our home front," he said.

But as his school begins its fourth decade of educating Indian students, Lionel Bourdeaux says he is convinced that it's time for Indigenous people across the world to come together, as the Lakota Sioux and the Maori have, to create an atmosphere of hope for the future.

"Those who are doing anything in the area of Indigenous recognition and development, they are welcome to come aboard as well and bring their skills and talents and their vision to the centerpiece so that we can all share and we can all rejoice and celebrate life that we know in that circle of tribalism," Mr. Bourdeaux said.

Establishing their own institutions of higher learning, he says, will allow Indigenous people across the globe to preserve their languages, cultures and traditions as they teach their youth how to succeed in a non-Indigenous world on their own terms.