With two small children to support, Cedric Sunray doesn’t have much time to pursue a college degree.
But a desire to learn how to teach American Indian languages and determination to build a better life drove Sunray to be one of 90 people enrolled at Pawnee Nation College when it started classes last fall.
“I wouldn’t do it anywhere else,” said Sunray, who speaks Cherokee, Choctaw and Pawnee. “Tribal colleges offer classes that are historically not offered anywhere and tribal colleges depend on work force students.”
Tribal colleges — schools owned and run by Indian tribes that are often located on reservations — are growing, stemming in part from economic clout spurred in some cases by Indian gaming and a desire by tribes to validate their sovereign status.
There were no tribal colleges in the U.S. before 1968, but today there are more than three dozen and one in Canada.
“It’s been a slow process, but we are happy to be where we are,” said Gerald Gipp, executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “We’re going through a real learning process of operating our schools and reversing decades of neglect.”
Enrollment has doubled
Tribal colleges developed along with an increase in American Indians seeking higher education. American Indian enrollment in universities has more than doubled in the past 25 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That included a 62 percent increase in enrollment at tribal colleges in the past decade, according to the higher education consortium.
Todd Fuller, president of Pawnee Nation College, said those numbers should continue to grow. He said he expected enrollment at his college to increase at least 40 percent this fall.
Tribal colleges may be the last chance to save some native languages, said Quinton Roman Nose, education director of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He is helping develop a tribal college on the campus of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.
“Some tribes have their own syllabary. Others have languages that aren’t written. This is a really complicated area to try and preserve and teach a language,” Roman Nose said. “There’s a great need and this is one way of meeting it.”
Course offerings reflect tribal goals. In Oklahoma, the College of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation offers Creek classes, while Wind River Tribal College in Wyoming teaches Arapaho.
Nebraska Indian Community College offers an associate’s degree in tribal business management. In South Dakota, Sinte Gleska University’s Lakota Studies Department has been integrating Lakota values into academics since 1973, for example, adjusting class times to allow for tribal obligations.
Some colleges close
The institutions, however, sometimes face an uncertain future.
Characterized by rural isolation, limited property tax bases, and neglect from state governments, growth of tribal colleges has been uneven. At least seven have failed in the past 25 years.
But during that time, another 17 tribal colleges opened. They keep appearing because there is a need, said Roman Nose, whose great-grandfather, Henry, attended Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
“Even our own tribal members ask ’Why do we need to do this?”’ Roman Nose said. “We have needs that can’t be met any other way.”
Sunray, who is learning how to teach languages to students in kindergarten through 12th grade and how to administer an accredited language program, said tribal colleges offer a unique challenge.
“There are no excuses at a tribal college,” Sunray said. “You can’t look at a teacher and say he doesn’t like me because of so-and-so.”
Instead of having a white instructor, students likely will have a tribal member as a teacher, he said. They’re not there to get rich, but to make a difference, Sunray said.
“They are going to make you work,” he said.