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Community classrooms: Tribal colleges are mainstay of reservation life

FORT TOTTEN, N.D.—A 3D printer quietly churned in a lab at Cankdeska Cikana Community College, spinning a plastic model using instructions provided by pre-engineering student Dane Allapowa.

Allapowa is one of about 220 total enrolled students at the tribal college in Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation near the town of Devils Lake. He's planning to transfer soon to North Dakota State University to pursue his degree in civil engineering, but, on a slow Friday in late spring, he found himself alone in the makers room.

He took the time to print up a logo for a musical group he likes. But when he's not thinking hip-hop, the printers can spin out American Indian art in cutting-edge fashion.

"We always add our culture in there," Allapowa said, holding up a printed kachina doll, a traditional figure common to art from the southwestern Zuni nation, a Pueblo group from which he hails.

At tribal colleges like Candeska, that Native American culture is ever-present.

The school in Spirit Lake is prominently decorated with Dakota imagery. Traditional artifacts and attire are on display throughout the campus, patterned quilts hang in hallways next to photos of prominent indigenous alumni and posters outlining Dakota and indigenous cultural values are found in nearly every classroom. You can even see the influence in the campus trades shop.

In the large room that would be otherwise familiar to any community college, cabinets of tools are each marked with a large image of the implement in question, paired underneath with the Dakota word for that item.

"At all (tribal colleges and universities) our core mission is the teaching and learning of our respective customs and languages," said Candeska President Cindy Lindquist.

Educational network

The U.S. Department of Education lists these institutions, known as TCUs for short, as 32 total across the country—with the first chartered 50 years ago in Arizona by the Navajo nation—serving a total enrollment of about 30,000 students.

North Dakota alone is home to five TCU campuses, each connected to the others through the North Dakota Association of Tribal Colleges. The association operates as a liaison between the colleges and the state and is somewhat similar to the North Dakota University System, though it works on a less formalized structure. Nationally, tribal colleges are grouped under the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Of the five TCUs in North Dakota, the two largest campuses are the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt. While most TCUs are individually chartered by their tribal nations, UTTC is notable for being founded through a joint effort of state indigenous groups.

TCUs in North Dakota and beyond are public institutions, funded federally by Congress, though Lindquist says they also receive some dollars from the state Legislature, much like their nontribal counterparts.

"The federal government has been chaotic but we've survived pretty well," she says. One notable hiccup for TCUs is that federal dollars are pegged only for Native American students who attend the schools—a problem, Lindquist says, because about 15-20 percent of TCU attendees are not recognized by Congress as being American Indians.

Tribal colleges in North Dakota can and do receive state funding through a program run through the NDUS, Lindquist said, a pool of state money that hit $1 million nearly a decade ago but now, after widespread budget reductions, sits at about $600,000.

Lindquist attributes the decline in part to backlash from the Standing Rock pipeline protests, which she says hurt relations between the tribal college association and the state.

While those connections might have been strained, Lindquist said the North Dakota TCUs remain well-linked to the NDUS schools, mostly through interpersonal relationships between campus leaders. Candeska has tight bonds to Lake Region State College—from which it was spun off in the early 1970s—as well as Mayville State University and Bismarck State College.

Community-centered

While many institutions of higher education are inextricably linked to their surrounding communities, Candeska shares a closer connection than most.

The college library is the most prominent facility of its kind on the nearly 500-square-mile reservation. In the summer, the place is filled with children working through reading programs, some getting their meals there. While the children read, community members use other library resources, such as computers or printers. Some just come in to use the landline phone.

For some on the reservation, the library is the sole source of internet access. It's not uncommon for tribal members to park in the lot just outside and access the library WiFi network on their cell phones.

Back in the campus creation lab, that community bent is visible in the 3D prints on display. Among the bison, kachinas and thunderbirds are prints of the Batman superhero logo and other pop-culture designs. Allapowa said those are usually popular with the visiting kids.

Strictly looking at enrollments, Candeska itself is tiny by NDUS standards. Lindquist says it's smaller yet than where it should be, a situation she attributes in part to enrollment troubles now affecting higher education systems of all stripes. She says the count of about 220 students is a reliable semesterly average right now, but that only a few years ago the school had as many as 260 enrolled students.

Based on the demographics of Spirit Lake, she estimates she could have as many as 400 students per semester, though she cites 300 as a more reachable goal.

Getting students to enroll is only part of the battle, however.

Lindquist said Candeska "has a bad overall graduation rate" ranging from 15-30 percent of its student body. The college, like other tribal colleges, is accredited through the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission and submits all the usual data to gauge success in public institutions of education.

For TCUs, Lindquist thinks the broadly collected metrics are lacking in depth.

"We mostly hate them," she said of the numbers, "as they're standardized measurements that don't account for context."

Challenges

And with the tribal system, context is everything. Lindquist says her students are typically nontraditional, meaning they're of the ages outside the usual range of 18-22 years.

That means the trappings of adulthood all apply—many have families to take care of and jobs to sustain while they're getting an education. What's more, the student body typically consists of individuals who are the first in their families to pursue higher education, many of whom are of low-income or impoverished backgrounds.

Lindquist says many of her students come to college with the goal of making change in their communities and improving conditions on their lands. However, she said they're also coming in largely unprepared for a college-level education given the conditions that affect K-12 students in reservation school systems.

Finally, if that weren't enough, Lindquist also notes a "lingering suspicion about education" present in Native American society.

"For a long time, it was used as a coercive tool to force assimilation," she said. Many adults in indigenous communities remember the era when children were, as a rule, sent to boarding schools run by the federal government. Lindquist summarized those schools curtly.

"Cut your hair, don't speak your language, break up the family," she said. "And so that suspicion, that fear of education, is still there."

Given the historical mire of federal involvement with Native American groups, Lindquist considers her role in part as breaking down that stigma, a task she feels is being accomplished bit by bit. Now, each graduation is a victory unto itself.

"If this college was not here, we wouldn't have 30-40 grads each year," Lindquist said. "Even if it's just one or two, a handful of students in each graduating class, we're breaking the cycles of dependency, and what helps us is the teaching, the relearning, the revalidation of the core values of being Dakota."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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