Diversity and Democracy

The Unique Role of Tribal Colleges and Universities

The American dream is that anyone can have a good life if they work hard and that there are ample opportunities for success. But if you are raised in a home with chaos and stress, with or without parents, how do you understand when an opportunity presents itself? If you are consumed by hunger and don’t have a place to live, do you dream? Do you have hope? Do you learn the joy of reading? What if you are part of a marginalized group that is blamed for its own circumstances?

Many academics study poverty and victimization and write brilliant articles and books on these issues. Their core question is: how does one help facilitate change for individuals and communities? The simplest response is that education, in a variety of forms, matters.

Unfortunately, education historically was used to punish the Dakota (Sioux) people and other Native people and force them to assimilate into white (Western) culture. In addition to the lingering suspicion of education, the Dakota people and other Native people today face endemic poverty, historical trauma, displacement, stereotypical clichés rooted in ignorance, and a lack of preparedness for college. These factors, compounded with the raging drug epidemic that has hit rural America and Indian reservations, are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to the work of tribal community colleges. Yet these colleges are beacons of hope and possibilities.

The Strengths of Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) were established more than fifty years ago to address the glaring failure of mainstream higher education institutions to serve and graduate Native students. Today there are thirty-eight TCUs with more than seventy-five campus sites in seventeen states. Most TCUs started via charters from tribal governments. TCUs are accredited, public institutions, located primarily on reservations. With an average annual tuition of $2,937, TCUs are the most affordable colleges and universities in the United States, and 85 percent of TCU students receive federal financial aid (American Indian Higher Education Consortium 2017, 2018).

The core mission for all TCUs is to teach, learn about, and perpetuate our respective cultures and languages to cultivate students’ identity and rebuild our communities. TCUs are very family oriented, as family is core to indigenous culture. TCUs are small institutions, with less bureaucracy, more flexibility, and more freedom to respond to student needs and emergencies, such as a suicide in a student’s family. Classes at TCUs are small so that faculty can get to know students on a very personal level; that aids the advising process for building students’ confidence and helping them take incremental steps toward success.

Support Systems

Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in Fort Totten, North Dakota, educates an average of 190 students per semester. The majority of CCCC students are Spirit Lake tribal members, but each semester we average between eight and ten non-Native students. Sixty-four percent of our students receive Pell Grants, and 88 percent are first-generation college students.

Our students bring challenges as well as strengths. Their enthusiasm and hope are tempered by a lack of knowledge about the college experience, which fuels a lack of confidence. Most of our students are reluctant to ask for help or are unsure of how to find their way in a college setting.

To support the needs of our current and future students, CCCC has a variety of systems in place. We begin our work with the four local high schools by providing college credit and dual-credit courses, as well as weekend and summer academies to strengthen students’ academic readiness in STEM and literacy and to support the transition to college. The summer academies serve both middle and high school students. We offer all these programs free of charge, and students receive a stipend for participating in the weekend and summer academies. CCCC also operates a Talent Search program through the US Department of Education to provide academic, career, and financial counseling to encourage students to complete high school and pursue higher education.

After students enroll at CCCC, we support the whole student, as well as students’ families, by providing low-cost services like transportation, child care, and food services to help them become successful college students and responsible adults. The Spirit Lake reservation is classified as a food desert, with little access to healthy whole foods. Our College Café works with our land grant program to provide fresh produce from the college’s gardens and greenhouses to students. We serve refreshments or meals with a cultural theme at all CCCC events to promote healthy eating. CCCC also operates an angel fund where students can bring in a bill for a car repair, utility payment, or family emergency and make a request for help, up to $400 per semester.

With the help of grants, CCCC provides tutors and training. Sessions on time management, note taking, computer skills, literacy, and life and financial planning are all relevant to student success. CCCC also offers General Equivalency Diploma (GED) courses. Like many community colleges, CCCC provides a first-year experience or student success seminar that is part of the regular academic calendar and that broadens students’ understanding of the college pathway. In addition, we design research and travel opportunities to be relevant to Native students, their families, and the community. For example, through our research program—offered in cooperation with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, where our faculty have faculty status—we train students in research protocols and careers, focusing on issues that affect the Dakota people, such as diabetes or addiction.

Finally, we create a welcoming and supportive campus climate. We train non-Native faculty not to judge students’ clothing, language, posture, or expectations, as students come from a very different background and context, and the college is located on the students’ homeland.

Reinforcing Identity

All CCCC students are required to take a Dakota Studies course, which strengthens tribal identity. It explains the history of the Dakota people, how and why we live on reservations, and where, as tribal people, we need to focus efforts toward change and improvement.

CCCC students enrich the teaching and learning process by sharing their knowledge of culture or family stories. Faculty learn more about the students and the tribe, and students place their own stories in the context of the subject matter. In some ways, this process “validates” cultural knowledge, though my Dakota grandparents would disagree, as we know what we know because it is rooted in being and needs no validation. Our resolve and our resiliency are testaments to Dakota knowledge.

Education is an individual journey, and for Native college students, it is also for the people, the community, and the betterment of the family. The more CCCC graduates we produce, the more we help to diminish the lingering suspicion among our people that education is not a good thing.

Education for All

College students who come from a background of poverty or other human trauma or from diverse cultural heritage bring important voices to the college experience—for the institution, faculty, staff, and classmates. Higher education is no longer an elite and limited (white male) experience but one that is open to all who choose that pathway. Education is about the learning process and having an open mind to discover “truths” and to more fully understand the world in which we all live. Sharing that process in a safe and open environment with others who are different from oneself is a rich, rewarding experience.

Any college student deserves the opportunity to succeed. Their success may be contingent on a variety of factors that they may or may not understand. Institutions that are truly community based (or, as TCUs call it, place based) understand the dynamics of their students and build support systems that foster student success. This is the work of TCUs. As vested community members, TCUs do amazing work with limited resources.


American Indian Higher Education Consortium. 2017. “Statement of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Prepared for the US House of Representatives—Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.” http://www.aihec.org/what-we-do/docs/FY18/AIHEC_FY2018CJSci(H)stmt_4-28-2017.pdf.

———. 2018. “Tribal Colleges and Universities.” http://www.aihec.org/who-we-serve/TCUmap.cfm.

Cynthia Lindquist (Ta’sunka Wicahpi Win, Star Horse Woman) is President of Cankdeska Cikana Community College and an Enrolled Member of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation.

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