Why Tribal Colleges Matter

TCUs-matterLooking back at the beginning of my academic path, I have no regrets. During my last two years at Holbrook High School, I was debating on what higher education institution would be best for my future.

At the time, I was considering Eastern Arizona College, and some universities, but all I could think about was whether I could even afford it. My older sister was attending Diné College at the time and she suggested that I should start there. I had no complaints about it, it was minutes from my home, affordable, and I knew that I would benefit and learn. So DC became my college foundation.

I’m glad to have graduated from DC in 2011. I miss the campus and I miss my instructors. I was able to learn so much culture and history and participate in projects/programs that enabled me to travel and explore. Yes, maybe I would have gotten the same opportunities at other popular institutions, but going to school at DC taught me much more.

What intrigued me most about the institution was the history. Navajo Community College (now Diné College) began in 1968 and is the first tribally controlled institution of higher education. Before the campus moved to Tsaile, Arizona, a groundbreaking ceremony was held by the founders. The campus landscape is circular, shaped like a Navajo basket and the educational philosophy of Sa’ah Naaghái Bik’eh Hozhoo resembles a journey that is circular also. The founders of DC ensured that the land, institution, and its students would be protected by the prayers and songs they’ve made. That story astonished me.

Tribally controlled institutions became the ground work of self-determination for tribes and the founders were committed to supporting higher education in their communities.

In his article, “Origin Story: The Genesis of Tribal College Journal,” TCJ founding editor Paul Boyer states, “Tribal colleges have grown a great deal over the past 40 years. They have accumulated the trappings of maturity and respectability, including accreditation and land grant status…This is evidence of progress and offers hope for the stability and growth of the movement into the future.”

Boyer understands the major sacrifices and commitment it took to establish tribal colleges, and he dedicated his work to document the movement. In 1989, he started Tribal College Journal when he was 24 years-old. Reading his words, “Being young, inexperienced, and even naïve can actually be an asset,” opened my eyes as a 25 year-old writer, still inexperienced, but passionate above all.

During the movement, the founders fought and worked hard for tribal colleges, and now as alumni, it is our duty to support and appreciate the opportunity our education affords. This is why tribal colleges matter. As Janine Pease, founder of Little Big Horn College, stated, “[they] are like a religious order. You take a vow of poverty and stay for life.”

Shaina Nez (Diné) is a graduate of Diné College and author of the TCJ Student blog, Red Storyteller.

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