What does Indian Education mean to you? There are many aspects of it for me. To concisely name a few: learning through action with family, critical observation and patience, boarding schools and trauma, independent learning—forced independence, routine and stagnation, reservation economies and the ‘brain drain’, and finally decolonizing. The most common aspects that come up in conversation, lie mainly in generational differences, generational trauma even. Learning is a cycle, and we must recognize those generational differences for what they are. Are they very different? Critically examining Indian education, means a good hard look into the traditional past, the mirror in front of us, and penetrating the back of that mirror into the future. Stewards of education, as the colonial mind would have us call them (we refer to them in many languages, all translate to elder) have gone through this process and within their lifetime made lasting impacts for native students today. Change that is not just evident in their own communities but as examples for other nitsitapi who are struggling.
We must honor that process! By honoring their dedication, we honor all of the elders in our lives who have taught formally in society’s box and within the circle. Here at Salish Kootenai College, we have founder’s week. Started a couple years back we take a week during the time when other schools participate in homecoming, similarly founder’s week has designated “spirit days” (Dress for success, Flash back to the 70’s, Fashion Disaster, Native Bling & Rock Your Mocs, and Bison day). Through-out the week administration and student organizations host events that celebrate students, faculty, and the founders who had a hand in our opportunities; all of this creates comradery welcoming students to the new year.
The community atmosphere is what I love most about my tribal college. I liked being at the university but I yearned for a close knit community so I joined a sorority. The university experience, was enriched, but even so I was much more active in my Native American Student Association Kyiyo Club than I was within my sorority. There are numerous studies about how attitude effects outcome and finding commonality within your peers is important as well. I attribute my own successes to my ability to seek out positive people, individuals who are making a difference and the compliment duality of my weaknesses, so that I can learn from them. In my experience, these friendship opportunities happen most when there is diversity of ages, like at my tribal college. The potential energy held back at tribal colleges and the knowledge systems where within is enough. By enough I mean that it matters where you get your start. Positive attitude matters in terms of student success. Positive community matters for students where our Native communities are still struggling. It matters where you get your start, because everything runs in a cycle. College is challenging and to be surrounded by a culture that grounds me and a community that supports me has made all the difference. I can only hope that other students feel the same and I hope that if they don’t, those students don’t disregard the impact a tribal college might have on their educational aspirations.
Celina Gray is Little Shell Chippewa/Blackfeet, studying wildlife and fisheries as a Udall Scholar and Native Fellow at Salish Kootenai College. Celina is also a mother of three-year-old twins.